Expert Doctor

Glycolic Acid Peels

Posted September 13, 2018
Glycolic Acid Peels

Glycolic acid peels, also known as light chemical peels, are a non-invasive treatment that uses glycolic acid to penetrate the skin in order to make the stratum corneum less sticky and cause exfoliation. It rejuvenates the skin by removing dead skin cells and allowing newer, younger skin to come through. This type of peel provides a gentle treatment for fine lines, chronic dry skin, acne and uneven pigmentation. The chemical solution used in a light chemical peel depends on the needs of the individual patient.

There are two ways of evaluating the potency of glycolic acid: 

  1. The concentration of active acids in glycolic acid comes in concentrations from 10% to 70%. Also, the Ph of the acid is crucial. The lower the Ph, the more potent the glycolic acid is. When doctors evaluate which glycolic acid to use, and how aggressive the treatment will be, they consider the concentration and the Ph of the glycolic acid preparation. In addition, they consider the length of time the acid stays on the skin before it is neutralized.
  2. The doctor also needs to exercise caution and safety when performing chemical peels to patients with skin of color. Patients with skin of a darker complexion have a higher risk for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation which means the skin can darken temporarily from the glycolic acid peel.

Am I a Good Candidate for Glycolic Acid Peels?

GOOD CANDIDATES for glycolic acid peels include:

  • Patients looking to reduce natural signs of aging
  • Patients with acne and those who hope to unclog their pores
  • Patients with skin imperfections such as acne scars and fine lines
  • Patients who want to improve the look of skin damaged by the sun
  • A person with blotchiness, uneven skin tone and pigment abnormalities
  • A person with rosacea and mild discoloration of the skin

Those who are NOT GOOD CANDIDATES for glycolic acid peels include:

  • Any patient who is currently taking Accutane
  • Patients with facial warts or a history of cold sore outbreaks
  • Patients who are prone to keloid scars

How is Glycolic Acid Peels Performed?

When preparing the skin for a light chemical peel, the skin of the patient is gently cleansed before the peel is applied. Once the skin is ready to receive the peel, the chemical solution is applied to the targeted areas. The concentration and formulation of the glycolic acid solution depend on the specific needs of the patient.

An anesthetic is usually not necessary when patients have a light chemical peel. However, a patient can ask for a local anesthetic to help avoid any discomfort. The patient will feel a tingling or stinging sensation. After the chemical solution has been on the skin for the amount of time determined by the doctor, the peel will be removed with water and then a soothing lotion is applied to the treated area.

Cosmetic Chemical Peel Options

While glycolic chemical peels are popular, there are other chemical peel options:

  • Medium peels penetrate the skin more deeply and can cause second-degree burns. This type of peel treats mild to moderate wrinkles, pigment changes and long term sun damage. Medium peels are usually only performed on the face and use trichloroacetic acid (TCA).
  • Deep peels penetrate several layers of skin and can also cause second-degree burns. This type of peel treats lesions, pronounced pigment changes, severe wrinkles and long-term sun damage. Deep peels can only be used on the face as they contain a potent chemical called phenol.

Alternative Cosmetic Skin Rejuvenation Options

Alternative treatment options for patients who don’t want to have a chemical peel:

  • IPL (Intense Pulsed Light) – A facial treatment performed to even pigmentation and lessen sun damage via multiple wavelengths of light. It is often combined with a light chemical peel to address skin imperfections.
  • Microdermabrasion – This treatment option peels away the top layer of dead skin cells through a spray of crystals placed on the skin via a wand or hand piece. The skin is exfoliated and then a mild suction movement removes the dead skin and the crystals.
  • Ablative and non-ablative lasers – An ablative laser removes the top layer of skin in order for new skin to grow.  Non-ablative lasers deliver heat into the skin to promote collagen production as well as create smoother skin.
  • Dermabrasion – This treatment is used to treat acne, scarring and skin discoloration. The skin is stripped away, all the way down to the dermal layer, by using a wire brush or a diamond wheel with rough edges. The final result improves age spots, wrinkles and damage from the sun.

What is the Cost of Glycolic Acid Peels?

The cost of a glycolic acid peel depends on the geographic location of the treatment, any fees charged by the doctor or the facility and the amount of chemical solution used by the doctor. A light peel can cost anywhere from $100-$250.

Recovery and Downtime

The amount of RECOVERY after a glycolic acid peel is little to none for patients. Light peels are often called a “lunchtime peel” because the peel does not penetrate beneath the dermis. There will be some redness or pinkness experienced by the patient but it not bad and is very similar to sunburn. Patients can wear makeup directly after a light peel and there are no activity restrictions or DOWNTIME necessary for patients. After a light peel, patients should avoid sun exposure until any redness has subsided. Patients should also protect the new skin by using sunblock when they go outside because the skin is more susceptible to suffering a burn after a peel.


Glycolic acid peels work on the epidermis, AKA the top layer of the skin, so the patient will generally see some immediate results. The treated skin will look brighter the day after the treatment and the pores will be tighter. Patients will also see improvements in any skin discoloration as well as an improvement in fine lines and a general tightening of the skin. However, the results from glycolic acid peels only last 3-4 weeks so patients will need to have follow-up treatments to maintain the results.

Limitations of Glycolic Acid Peels

The limitations of glycolic acid peels include:

  • It will reduce sun damage and the natural signs of aging but it will not eliminate them
  • The peel only treats the top layers of skin.
  • Patients with a history of heart related conditions might be limited in having the treatment since the phenol in peels can damage the heart muscle and cause it to beat irregularly 
  • Patients with loose or sagging skin will be limited in the results they see from the peel

Risks of Glycolic Acid Peels

Some common risks of glycolic acid peels are:

  • Redness
  • Uneven skin pigmentation
  • Peeling
  • Burning
  • Swelling
  • Allergic reaction
  • An increased sensitivity to sunlight

Rejuvenated Skin is enjoyed by Patients

A patient who has some discoloration, acne scars, fine lines and large pores on the skin can benefit from glycolic acid treatments. Patients can see an immediate improvement but they should plan on undergoing a series of treatments in order to see a noticeable improvement in the brightness, skin texture and overall quality of the skin. Glycolic acid peel treatments create an improvement in pigmentation while making fine lines softer and smoother. The pores appear smaller and the skin looks more polished with improvement in the overall texture.


Written by Cosmetic Town Editorial Team- MA

Based on an exclusive interview with Tess Mauricio, MD in Glendale, CA

Article Last Updated on September 13, 2018