March 1, 2024


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What to Know Before Your Skin Treatment

Heads up: If you’ve tried all the brightening face creams and exfoliating serums and you still haven’t found an effective solution for your dark spots, uneven skin tone, or excess oil and shine, it might be time to book yourself a glycolic acid peel. They’re kinda the secret to glowy-as-hell skin—and, unlike some of the ~trendier~ skincare treatments out there right now, they’re actually safe for most skin types. But if you’re still confused by the whole exfoliation thing and you aren’t sure how a peel could fit into your routine, you’ve come to the right place.

Ahead, I got two expert dermatologists and a master aesthetician to weigh in on everything you need to know about glycolic acid peels, including which skin types they’re best for, what you can expect in the days following your treatment, and so much more.

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What do glycolic acid peels do to your skin?

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First things first: Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that works to loosen the bonds between the skin cells in the outer layers of the skin. It’s basically a super ingredient—not only does glycolic acid gently exfoliate, but it also helps lighten dark spots, even discoloration, and smooth fine lines and wrinkles. Glycolic acid is also a godsend for treating clogged pores and acne-prone skin, thanks to its ability to dive deep into the layers of the skin to dissolve excess sebum and dead skin cells, says dermatologist Tess Mauricio, MD.

TL;DR: Glycolic acid is an excellent exfoliator that helps you get softer, smoother, and brighter-looking skin without any of the irritation that comes with mechanical exfoliators (i.e., those gritty scrubs or brushes). And considering it’s gentle enough for most skin types (more on that in a sec), it makes sense why it’s become such a popular ingredient for chemical peels.

Peels, btw, are when a dermatologist or aesthetician treats your skin with a concentrated amount of acid for a deeper exfoliation. It’s a higher—and more controlled—amount than anything you can buy over the counter, which means peels are great for anyone looking to take their exfoliation routine to the next level.

What skin types are best for glycolic acid peels?

According to dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology Corey L. Hartman, MD, glycolic acid peels are best for normal, combination, and oily skin types. Remember: Glycolic acid peels help remove all the oil and wax buildup in your pores that leads to acne, discoloration, and fine lines, so they’re especially great for those with oily skin.

Because glycolic is one of the more aggressive AHAs, people with dry or highly sensitive skin might experience some irritation, says Dr. Hartman. And since a peel makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight, it’s absolutely essential—for all skin types—to wear sunscreen after your treatment.

One more thing to keep in mind: Dr. Mauricio says those with active acne or sunburns should avoid glycolic acid peels, since open lesions can become irritated, leading to stinging and inflammation. If you’re unsure, there’s no harm in booking a consultation with a pro to figure out if you’re the right candidate for a peel. You’re better safe than sorry, right?

How much does a glycolic acid peel cost?

The exact price of your glycolic acid peel will vary (it depends on where you’re located, which provider you choose, and more), but you can generally expect to spend anywhere from $100 to $400. You’ll want to get your peel with an experienced pro, so even if you find a sweet Groupon deal, it’s important to do your research and make sure you’re going to a board-certified dermatologist or licensed aesthetician (it is your face, after all).

What happens during your appointment?

The best thing about glycolic acid peels? Because you’re working with a high dose of acid that’s left on the skin for only a short amount of time, it’s a super quick treatment. According to Dr. Hartman, dermatologists typically use a 30 to 40 percent concentration of glycolic acid, and it stays on your skin for just two or three minutes.

Your practitioner will start by cleaning your skin and prepping with a little alcohol to make sure any oil or grime is wiped away (this makes sure the peel will penetrate your skin effectively). Once you’re prepped and ready to go, a thin layer of acid is smoothed over your skin and left on for the appropriate amount of time. After the removal, you’ll be slathered in SPF and sent on your way.

BTW: Despite how intense the word “peel” sounds, it’s actually quite gentle. You’ll feel some tingling during the application, but there’s very minimal (if any at all) burning, redness, or discomfort.

What’s the downtime like?

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Immediately after a glycolic acid peel, your skin will typically feel tight and look a little red. With some, by day two to three, post-peel skin can feel dry and might slough off and shed (that’s when the “peeling” comes into play). Don’t be alarmed though—that dry feeling is just the completion of the exfoliation process that glycolic acid takes your skin through.

You can expect your skin to look and feel better after five to seven days, during which you’ll want to treat your skin gently with soothing and hydrating creams (like the picks below). Dr. Mauricio tells her patients to avoid sun exposure (that means wearing SPF and a hat, ppl) for a week to prevent hyperpigmentation and to go all natural when it comes to makeup for the first 24 to 48 hours. And most important, do not use any exfoliating products or devices until your skin is fully healed.

How often should you do a glycolic acid peel?

Well, that depends on the concentration of your peel, but generally you can get a treatment once every two weeks for optimal results. Keep in mind, though, that too much of a good thing can become a bad thing. “Stronger glycolic peels with lower pH levels can only be done every six weeks,” says master aesthetician Karen Fernandez. The general rule of thumb: Don’t overdo it and work with your provider to find a frequency that works for your skin’s needs.

Can you get a glycolic acid peel at home?

Yup, and they’re a great option if you aren’t looking to shell out the money for an in-office treatment or if you want something a bit gentler. At-home peels aren’t as potent as professional ones and they tend to have a lower concentration (think: 5 to 10 percent) of active glycolic acid. Dr. Mauricio says in-office peels can be more aggressive, penetrate deeper, and may have more downtime, but they typically offer more dramatic improvement per treatment.

If you’re looking to do a peel at home, start off slow (once a week max) and then increase your frequency over time. Try not to layer acids, retinol, or benzoyl peroxide when using an at-home peel, otherwise you run the risk of irritation. These formulas are a great place to get started:

Final thoughts

Down to try a glycolic acid peel yourself? Just remember that as with any new skincare product or treatment, you’ll want to introduce them carefully and slowly—whether at home or in an office with a derm—and couple them with gentle cleansers and soothing moisturizers to offset potential dryness. I mean, IDK about you, but the thought of getting softer, brighter-looking skin after a few mins at the derm sounds pretty ideal to me.

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