What Glycolic Acid Can Do for Your Skin

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on September 08, 2021
4 min read

A chemical peel sounds like something a villain does to a victim in a superhero movie. But a chemical peel is a cosmetic procedure used to treat blemishes, discoloration, wrinkles, and scars.‌

Chemical peels use acids to treat your skin. One of the most common acids used for a chemical peel is glycolic acid. 

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). You can find AHAs in most skin cosmetics. ‌

What a glycolic chemical peel does.AHAs and glycolic acid cause exfoliation of your skin. They remove the layer of surface skin, which:

  • Smooths wrinkles caused by sun damage, age, and genetics
  • Improves skin texture
  • Treats some forms of acne
  • Reduces spotting (sun spots, liver spots, and freckles, etc.) and improves skin coloring
  • Treats mild scarring

AHAs — like glycolic acid — are the primary agent for chemical peels. A chemical peel that uses AHAs is sometimes called a fruit peel.‌

What chemical peels can't do. Chemical peels don't treat deep scars, severe wrinkles, sagging skin, or skin bulges. These severe skin blemishes need surgical procedures for treatment. 

AHAs naturally occur in foods. For example, you can find glycolic acid in sugar cane. However, glycolic acid chemical peels are more concentrated than a typical sugar scrub. 

After speaking to your doctor or dermatologist about a chemical peel, they'll consider your medical history, your skin health, and the possible risks of the procedure.

Additionally, your doctor will determine the strength of the chemical peel needed. More severe blemishes will need more concentrated glycolic acid. ‌

How to prepare. Your doctor will then determine if you need to do any preparation before the chemical peel, such as:

  • Take medication to prevent an infection.   
  • Apply a retinoid cream to help your skin heal.
  • Apply a bleaching agent to lower the chance of side effects.
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure.
  • Avoid other cosmetic treatments.

How the chemical peel works. After cleaning your face, your doctor will protect your eyes and hair using goggles, gauze, or tape. You may get a painkiller or sedative if you're getting a deeper chemical peel.

Your doctor will apply the glycolic acid using a cotton ball, sponge, or brush. The chemical peel may get warm, get hotter, and then sting after a few minutes.

The procedure lasts longer for a deep chemical peel, and your doctor may use a higher concentration of glycolic acid to reach deeper layers of skin.  ‌

As the chemical peel sits on your skin, it loosens the dead skin that's sticking to your healthy skin. Eventually, your doctor will neutralize the acid and wash the dead skin right off.‌

Lighter chemical peels last for several minutes. A deeper chemical peel using glycolic acid will take up to 20 minutes. ‌

After a glycolic acid chemical peel. A light chemical peel may take up to a week to heal fully. 

  • Your skin will likely be red and scaly during that time. 
  • You can wear makeup right away.
  • You must apply lotion as directed to help your skin heal.

For light chemical peels, you'll likely need more sessions for a significant change in your skin. You'll typically need at least three peels with glycolic acid for success.‌

For a deeper chemical peel with glycolic acid, the healing period is around two weeks. During that time:

  • Your skin will be red, swollen, and flakey. 
  • You may develop blisters. 
  • You'll need to soak your skin daily and apply an ointment, cream, or lotion.
  • You'll need to limit sunlight exposure. 
  • You may need to take antiviral medication.
  • You can use makeup after about two weeks.

You should avoid things that may be rough on your skin. Some of these include:

  • Facial scrubs
  • Anything that exfoliates
  • Loofahs and other scrubbers
  • Picking and scratching at your skin

Aside from the common side effects during the healing process, a chemical peel has the following risks:

  • Your skin may become darker (hyperpigmentation) or lighter (hypopigmentation). Hyperpigmentation is more common with a superficial glycolic acid peel. People with darker skin are more at risk for changes in skin tone. 
  • In rare circumstances, your skin may scar.
  • If you don't take an antiviral medication, you may get an infection or a flare-up of conditions like the herpes virus. 

Many cosmetics contain glycolic acid and other AHAs. There are at-home chemical peels with glycolic acid, but use them cautiously. 

Start with the smallest concentration for the shortest amount of time. You should also be mindful of your skin and stop the treatment at any sign of pain. When in doubt, check with your doctor. 

You can combine glycolic acid chemical peels with other skin treatments, including microneedling, microdermabrasion, and light therapy. You can seek combination therapies for more severe acne, scars, and other skin blemishes.