Whether you’re looking to combat acne or diminish hyperpigmentation, there’s an at-home peel for every need—the key is picking the right one for you. At-home peels can work wonders when used correctly, but first, you have to identify exactly what you want the peel to achieve. Once you know which skin concerns you want to tackle, you can browse the various acid options below and find the one that’s best suited for you.
Glycolic acid is an AHA derived from sugarcane that’s often lauded for its high-performing anti-aging properties, says San Francisco dermatologist Amelia Hausauer, MD. It’s water-soluble and has the power to dissolve the “glue” that bonds dead skin cells together, which helps slough away dead skin cells to reveal the younger skin cells beneath, explains Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD. He adds that it’s a smaller molecule, which allows it to penetrate the skin deeply, resulting in improved wrinkles, dark spots, acne scarring and even melasma if used continuously.
Dr. Hausauer notes that this deep penetration also allows for collagen stimulation. “This is a great option for mature skin because of the multiple benefits. Also, drier skin, as it draws moisture in and prevents transepidermal water loss.” She notes that studies have found that glycolic acid boosts hyaluronic acid, which helps boost hydration, plumpness and structure. She warns that due to the rapid penetration, there can be some irritation among those with sensitive skin. Dr. Schlessinger recommends trying Obagi Medical Revivify Multi-Acid Facial Peel ($175) and LovelySkin LUXE Dual-Action Toner Pads ($31), which includes 5% glycolic acid.
NewBeauty Award-winner glo skin beauty GlyPro AHA Resurfacing Peel ($85) is a fantastic resurfacing option for both peel novices and pros, and includes everything you need for a professional-grade peel at home, even down to the cotton swabs and headband.
West Palm Beach, FL dermatologist Kenneth Beer, MD, says salicylic acid has been around since the Egyptians began applying it. It’s a BHA that comes from willow bark and is “both highly keratolytic (dissolves dead surface skin cells) and comedolytic (penetrates down into pores to dissolve oil and debris that forms black and whiteheads),” says Dr. Hausauer. Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, which makes it a safe call for acne-prone skin.
It removes excess oil from deep in the pores and helps exfoliate dead skin cells, helping to clear pimples, blackheads and whiteheads while decongesting the skin, says Dr. Schlessinger. “One of the great things about this is that it is basically crushed aspirin, and it’s anesthetic. Thus, when it gets into the pores, it will unclog and also decrease the discomfort from the peel,” explains Dr. Beer. Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties that can help address pigment. Dr. Schlessinger suggests trying is Clinical Active Peel System ($88).
Just like its popular counterpart, retinol, retinoic acid is a derivative of vitamin A. However, Dr. Schlessinger notes that it’s more readily absorbed by the skin, which makes it even more effective. “Retinoic acid works to improve wrinkles, pigmentation issues, severe acne and texture issues by encouraging cell turnover and increasing collagen production,” explains Dr. Schlessinger.
Lactic acid is an AHA that is generally derived from milk products or fermented foods. “It helps remove dulling, dead skin cells from the surface, helping skin appear brighter, smoother and more even,” says Dr. Schlessinger. Although it’s an exfoliant, it’s also a hydrator. Dr. Beer says he often uses these to diminish dryness and smooth the surface of arms and legs.
Dr. Schlessinger says lactic acid helps fortify the skin’s natural moisturizing factor, improving hydration. “Studies show that low and medium (12%) concentrations of lactic acid may increase epidermal and dermal firmness and thickness of skin while decreasing the appearance of lines/wrinkles,” notes Dr. Hausauer.
Additionally, lactic acid can improve the appearance of sunspots by inhibiting melanin production and turning over cells, says Dr. Hausauer. “I love this for general exfoliation while brightening and moisturizing,” she says. Dr. Hausauer also notes that since it’s a larger molecule, it doesn’t dive that deep into the skin, which leads to less irritation making it a great option for sensitive skin. Dr. Schlessinger suggests trying Olga Lorencin Skin Care Red Carpet Facial in a Box ($96).
Phytic acid is a gentle AHA that generally comes from grains, legumes and rice. “Although it provides exfoliation effects, its hallmark is its antioxidant properties that help neutralize free radicals and minimize skin damage,” says Dr. Hausauer, which is why it’s often used to brighten up pigmentation, like melasma. “It also acts as a chelator, meaning that phytic acid can bind minerals or metals in particular iron which can damage the DNA,” adds Dr. Hausauer.
This acid is a great choice for acne-prone skin, especially for those with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from pimples, says Dr. Hausauer. Since it’s gentle, it’s also a safe bet for those with sensitive skin or rosacea that have struggled to tolerate peels in the past, she adds. Dr. Schlessinger recommends trying phytic acid to beginners. One product he suggests is Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel ($95).
Mandelic acid is an excellent AHA for sensitive skin. It’s a multitasking acid that’s derived from bitter almond, and less commonly, wild cherry, says Dr. Hausauer. It targets texture, acne and discoloration—even melasma in sensitive or darker skin types, she adds. Additionally, it’s a large molecule which is great for post-inflammatory pigmentation-prone skin. “Since it has antimicrobial properties, mandelic acid can be effective against acne and has been studied in combination with salicylic acid, where it outperformed glycolic acid for treating acne with fewer side effects,” says Dr. Hausauer. She notes that early trial data suggests that it may boost skin elasticity as well.
Peels using trichloroacetic acid are on the more intense side of the spectrum. According to Dr. Beer, it’s one of the deepest and most effective peels, making a great, cost-effective way to resurface the skin. Dr. Schlessinger doesn’t recommend this acid for sensitive skin types. He says the peel helps improve scarring, sun damage and wrinkles. If endeavoring to use trichloroacetic acid, Dr. Schlessinger says PCA SKIN Micro Peel At-Home Kit ($129) is a great choice.
According to Dr. Schlessinger, “Carbolic acid, also known as a phenol peel, provides the deepest exfoliation benefits available and often provides the most dramatic improvements to sun-damaged and aging skin.” Dr. Beer says it’s designed to go deep and remove stubborn lines.
Dr. Schlessinger notes that phenol peels have significant downtime, which involves months of redness, discomfort and peeling and tend to require a sedative or topical numbing cream to be used during application. “People with a fair skin tone and no underlying heart conditions may be good candidates for a peel with carbolic acid, but always see a board-certified dermatologist to determine if it’s appropriate and safe for you,” he advises.
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