Your Complete Guide to Glycolic Acid Peels

Your Complete Guide to Glycolic Acid Peels

Whether you’re looking to address dull skin, dry skin, or visible signs of aging like fine lines and wrinkles, you’ve probably come across a family of ultra-effective skincare ingredients known as alpha hydroxy acids. These potent chemical exfoliants are often the key to unlocking glowing, youthful-looking skin.

“Glycolic acid peels can be a real game-changer for your skin by breathing new life into dull, tired complexions.”

  • Shani Darden, esthetician

Glycolic acid is one such member of this transformative family of ingredients, made even more effective when used as part of a glycolic acid peel. To help you better understand how chemical peels work, what glycolic acid is, and how together they can make a huge difference to your skin, I’ve put together this complete guide to glycolic acid peels.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

As I mentioned above, glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). It occurs naturally in plants, such as sugarcane, but it’s most often produced in a lab when it comes to skincare formulations. 

That said, while “acid” may sound intense, it’s important to remember a bit of high school chemistry when using that word. Acid doesn’t mean a formulation that burns through everything it touches — it refers to the pH balance of a product. Your skin has its own natural pH balance, which is important because it helps maintain your skin’s microbiome and encourages healthy skin.

Using skincare acids can help restore the skin’s natural pH, which can help support your skin’s natural defenses against breakout-causing bacteria

As an AHA, glycolic acid is what’s known as a chemical exfoliant. It works by loosening the bonds between your skin cells, allowing dead skin cells to be more easily sloughed away, revealing fresher, brighter skin. Chemical exfoliants can also help support the body’s natural collagen production.

What Is a Chemical Peel?

Chemical peels are a skincare treatment that uses a stronger formulation of chemical exfoliants to help remove layers of skin. By sloughing away old skin, chemical peels can help to address uneven skin, breakouts, dryness, and even visible signs of aging, such as fine lines and wrinkles.

There are different strengths of chemical peels available. Some are only able to be administered by a board-certified dermatologist or aesthetician. This type of deep peel is ideal if you want to see drastic results and can be necessary when it comes to addressing more serious cases of discoloration, wrinkles, age spots, or acne scars.

Less intense peels can be done at home and often contain a combination of AHAs and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Less intense peels may be better suited for sensitive skin or more minor concerns. They also can be more affordable and require less downtime after the fact.

What Can Glycolic Acid Peels Do for Your Skin?

Glycolic acid is a well-loved AHA due to its small molecule size. This can make it less irritating to your skin than other AHAs, so you can cut down on any potential downtime after a chemical peel. Glycolic acid can also be safe to use with sensitive skin, although it’s always important to speak to a dermatologist if you have concerns.

Due to their amazing ability to resurface and rejuvenate your skin, glycolic acid peels can be ideal for addressing a wide range of skincare concerns. Most importantly, glycolic acid can be useful in addressing breakouts. 

As I mentioned above, glycolic acid also has some cleansing properties that can help you cut down on blackheads, and any skin peel can be great for breakout-prone skin.

Not only that, but glycolic acid peels may also minimize the appearance of dark spots or scars related to breakouts, ingrown hairs, or other skin conditions. They can also help to address skin tones related to sun exposure and photoaging.

On that same note, glycolic acid peels are often sought out for anti-aging purposes as well. If fine lines and wrinkles are at the top of your list of skin concerns, glycolic acid peels can help. Similarly, glycolic acid peels may help with issues related to skin texture. 

Basically, if you’re looking to brighten your skin tone or smoothen your skin texture, glycolic acid peels can help.

Are There Any Side Effects?

Chemical exfoliants are amazing skincare ingredients, but they’re not without potential side effects. That said, because they’re one of the more gentle AHAs available, glycolic acid peels are generally better suited for sensitive or reactive skin than most chemical peels.

Your likelihood of experiencing side effects increases if you use chemical peels too frequently. Even more gentle options, such as at-home peel pads, may be too abrasive on your skin if you’re using them every day. This goes double if you have dry skin because AHAs can be drying. So, if you love the impact glycolic acid peels have on your skin, remember: it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Even if you don’t over-use chemical exfoliants, they may not be suitable for all skin types. Before you use a glycolic acid peel, patch test it on your skin and wait 24 hours to ensure you don’t have a negative reaction or sensitivity to AHAs. Once you’re sure they’re safe for your skin, start working them into your routine gradually — once every other week should be fine for a strong chemical peel.

If your skin tolerates them well, you can increase your usage — just make sure you don’t exceed the recommendations of your individual product. If you experience any redness, dryness, skin irritation, or swelling, it’s best to discontinue use and speak to your dermatologist.

Lastly, using chemical exfoliants, particularly chemical peels, can make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s potentially damaging rays. This can ironically increase visible signs of aging and lead to dark spots. So it’s important to limit your use of glycolic acid peels to the evening and be extra careful about SPF application during the day while you’re using a chemical exfoliant.

How Can You Safely Perform a Glycolic Acid Peel?

If you’re planning on carrying out your glycolic acid peel at home, the first thing you need to do is find a glycolic acid peel product that you trust and offers proven results. My Triple Acid Signature Peel is a two-step resurfacing peel powered by a trio of acids, including glycolic acid.

To help guide you through integrating this peel into your skincare routine, I’ll walk you through all of the steps below. 

It’s also important to avoid any other exfoliating skincare products on the night you use your peel. These can include retinol, retinoids, salicylic acid, and scrubs. You may also want to save vitamin C for your morning routine. This antioxidant can help your skin look bright, but it may also affect the pH level of your skin, which can make your peel less effective.

1. Use a Gentle Cleanser To Prep Skin

Start your evening routine by washing your face with my Cleansing Serum. This cleanser works easily into a luxurious lather that will seamlessly melt away makeup, sunscreen, and other pore-clogging impurities. It does this without stripping your skin of its natural oils, leaving your skin ultra-clean, silky soft, and never feeling dry or tight.

Hyaluronic acid (a humectant that attracts and binds water to your skin) helps to hydrate your skin, while restorative oat bran rebalances your moisture levels and calming olive leaf extract soothes irritation.

If your skin barrier needs a new best friend, this cleanser is it.

2. Apply Glycolic Acid Peel

Now that your skin is clean, it’s time to apply your glycolic acid peel. Apply an even layer of my Triple Acid Signature Peel with the provided brush. Make sure to avoid your lip or eye area, as the delicate skin around these parts of your face can be a little too tender to chemical exfoliants.

The peel itself is powered by a potent combination of lactic acid, glycolic acid, and mandelic acid. Together, they help to polish away dead skin cells, deep clean your skin, refine your pores, and overall brighten your complexion and relieve you of any congestion, leaving you with all-around brighter, clearer, and more youthful-looking skin.

You might feel a slight tingling when you first apply this mask, but that just means it's working!

3. Wait for It To Work

Different chemical peels will come with different amounts of wait times, depending on the strength of their formulation, their ingredients, and your skin type. With this mask, you only need to wait about a minute at first. 

After your skin becomes accustomed to this glycolic acid peel, you can keep the peel on for up to two minutes. But don’t go beyond that — the idea is to exfoliate your skin without irritating it or drying it out with over-use.

4. Neutralize Acid 

My Triple Acid Signature Peel comes with a Kaolin Clay Neutralizing mask, and now’s the time to use it. Without rinsing the peel from your face, apply the calming mask directly over it.

Massage the mask into your skin to activate it, and leave it on for ten minutes. You may experience a tingling sensation on this step, too. If it becomes too intense, you can wipe the mask off after one minute with lukewarm water.

5. Moisturize

After you’ve waited one to ten minutes and rinsed off both the clay mask and the glycolic acid peel, it’s time for some aftercare. While glycolic acid peels shouldn’t be too intense on your skin, they may leave you feeling a little bit red and raw due to the strong effect they have on the top layers of your skin.

Soothe your skin after your home peel with my Hydration Peptide Cream. It’s a rich, oil-free moisturizer powered by moisture-drenching Hydrosella™, plumping peptides, and replenishing squalane to deliver deep hydration, all while supporting your skin barrier. 

Niacinamide helps to minimize visible pores and soothe your skin from any redness or irritation, while ceramides strengthen and protect your skin from any external aggressors that may exacerbate skin tenderness following a chemical peel. 

The Bottom Line

Navigating the realm of skincare treatments can be complicated, but armed with some additional knowledge, it can start to seem less complicated and more like an exciting journey to help you reach the smooth, youthful-looking complexion of your dreams.

Glycolic acid peels can be a real game-changer for your skin by breathing new life into dull, tired complexions. But while glycolic acid peels may work wonders for your complexion, it’s important to remember that they’re only one part of your skincare routine. Targeted treatments can be super effective, but if you’re not supporting your skin with a consistent skincare regimen, these treatments won’t be nearly as effective.

Now that you know a little bit more about glycolic acid peels, you’ll hopefully be better equipped to make an informed decision about when and how to use this helpful skin boost in your routine. To learn more about skincare and how to get glowing, radiant, and youthful-looking results at home, check out my blog!


Alpha Hydroxy Acids | Food & Drug Administration

pH-Dependent Antibacterial Activity of Glycolic Acid: Implications for Anti-Acne Formulations | Scientific Reports

Natural Skin Surface pH is on Average Below 5, Which is Beneficial for Its Resident Flora | National Library of Medicine

Chemical Peels | Cleveland Clinic


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