Glycolic Acid Peel Review: I Tried a Glycolic Acid Peel for Acne
- Procedure: Glycolic acid peel
- Pros: Tighter pores, less acne, more even skin tone
- Cons: Dry, flaky skin for 5-7 days after
Credit: Women's Health
Yeah, it's burned in my brain, too. Which is why when someone suggested I try a peel—specifically, a glycolic acid peel—to help with my acne, I responded with a big "NOPE."
But given that it's one of the most popular skincare treatments out there, I figured it was worth trying—despite the risk of looking like undercooked meat.
What’s a glycolic acid peel?
A glycolic acid peel is like a super-charged version of the “brightening” peels that you can buy at Sephora. It uses glycolic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid and one of the most effective exfoliating chemicals, to weaken the bonds between cells on the top layer of your skin—effectively removing that top layer.
This sounds pretty gory, but remember: The top layer of your skin is basically just dead skin cells. Sloughing off these guys can help your skin can look brighter and tighter. Other perks include stimulating collagen production (to fight signs of aging) and evening out skin tone if you’re dealing with hyper-pigmentation. In the case of acne, removing dead skin cells can also rid your skin of pore-clogging gunk.
For peel beginners like myself, it’s best to start with a 20 percent peel. “It’s a super-mild, very gentle chemical peel for light exfoliation,” says Melissa K. Levin, M.D., a board-certified New York City dermatologist and clinical attending at New York University Langone Health and Mount Sinai Hospital. But while it’s mild by in-office-treatment standards, it’s still generally a lot stronger than anything you can buy OTC. Meaning that it can irritate sensitive skin and cause redness and dryness (creating that trademark Samantha Jones lewk).
Typically, Levin says, a glycolic acid peel costs about $200 to $400 per session (depending on where you live). Most people, she adds, get a series of three to six over the course of a few months, depending on their skin concerns. If you just want tighter pores, three is fine. If you have more intense hyperpigmentation, you’ll generally want more, she says.
There are several different glycolic peel manufacturers, but for my first-ever peel, Levin had me try NeoStrata’s 20 percent glycolic peel.
Once I arrived at Levin’s office, she asked me to remove all of my makeup and wash my face with a super-gentle cleanser. I had a few pimples on my chin, since you’re not supposed to use harsh active ingredients like retinol or acne-fighting salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide for a few days before a chemical peel.
I then put on a robe to protect my clothes and pulled my hair back with a thick headband (easier said than done when you have a pixie cut).
“It really only takes about 15 minutes,” Levin told me, so I mentally started the clock as soon as I laid back in the procedure chair. And it really went by quickly:
- Levin washed my face one more time to ensure she had a clean workspace and applied Vaseline to my nostrils and eyelids to protect the delicate skin there from the peel chemicals.
- Next, she used a brush to paint the peel all over my face, avoiding the eyelids, nostrils, and lips.
- She set a timer for seven minutes and we just...hung out while the peel did its thing. She kept an eye on my skin to make sure it wasn’t getting overly irritated or reacting badly to the chemicals.
- Once the seven minutes were up, she sprayed a neutralizing solution on top of my skin to stop the peel from working (and like, burning off all my skin).
- She wiped off the solution and then covered my face in cool, damp cloths to cool down the skin.
All in all...it really did take about 15 minutes. Damn!
I have to admit, I was ready for crazy-intense pain. But it didn’t really hurt at all. My face got warm—like, two-shots-of-tequila warm, not forgot-to-wear-sunscreen-at-the-beach warm. And at the most, my skin basically felt like how your mouth does after you eat a jalapeño—tingly, but not burning.
Recovery: Not so pretty
Levin held a mirror in front of my face once the procedure was done and....damn. My skin looked tighter and my pores already looked smaller. But the downside: my face was red AF and I was already starting to flake.
But no, I was not allowed to cover it up with makeup, Levin said. “No makeup today or tomorrow,” she told me, “but the day after that, you can.”
I also had to tweak my skincare routine a bit for the next week to accommodate my sensitive post-peel skin. “Wash your face with a super-hydrating cleanser,” Levin said. Then: “Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize.” Basic formulas only—she suggested using something with ceramides, hyaluronic acid, and/or glycerin (very moisturizing ingredients).
I was also supposed to let my skin rest and recover, which meant no harsh ingredients (retinol, salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, lactic acid, etc) allowed. Basically, anything that said “brightening” or “anti-aging” on the label was off-limits.
And most importantly, she said, I needed to be really good about wearing sunscreen and minimizing my sun exposure—since my skin was very sensitive post-peel and thus even more susceptible to burning. “Hats are your best friend,” she said.
“You’ll start to see results in five to seven days,” Levin told me. But during the first few days following the procedure... “It gets worse before it gets better,” Levin said, “but that’s totally normal.”
My face the day after the peel. Notice those cute new breakouts on my chin? It only got worse from there. Credit: JESSIE VANAMBURG
Specifically, expect your skin to flake off all over the place for like, two to three days. In my case, I basically started peeling right away. This was extremely distressing, especially because after the procedure I went straight back to work and then out to a movie with my friend—looking like a shedding snake. And not being able to cover it up with some foundation was really hard.
And the peeling KEPT GOING. There were days where I touched my face and a few flecks of dried skin came off with it…[shudders]. But rather than rub it all off, I remembered Levin’s advice and slathered on moisturizer and sunscreen.
I also had some intense breakouts on my chin in the days immediately after the peel. I’d already had a few down there, sure, but the number doubled (and then tripled) by day three post-peel. Levin assured me that was normal too. “I think you got a pretty robust reaction because your skin is more sensitive and rosacea-prone,” she said.
I felt pretty desperate by day four post-peel. My skin looked awful, and I was convinced that peels weren’t for me. I looked like a cross between a pizza and a pumice stone, and it was not cute. Who would willingly do this, I thought while layering on my foundation.
Results: Good, but not necessarily life-changing
But then Thursday morning—six days after my glycolic acid peel—I woke up to massively improved skin. Like, clear, tight, glowing, and (mostly) pimple free. FINALLY.
For the first time in at least two weeks, I could go minimalist with my foundation and concealer. My zits had dried out, and all the last vestiges of flakiness were gone. And my usually-large pores were small, tight, and barely noticeable — especially on my forehead and T-zone.
Of course, given that this was just one procedure, I admittedly don’t have the most dramatic results. You can see some difference in brightness and pimples between one picture and the other but otherwise, the untrained eye might not notice much difference. But in my day to day, I definitely saw a big improvement. And those results likely would be compounded by another peel session or two.
But, I will admit—I don’t know if I would go back for another one right now. Two hundred dollars is definitely cheap in the grand scheme of beauty treatments. But I also don’t usually have a spare $200 lying around for a peel every few months. And especially given that peels usually happen in a set of three, I’d really have to cough up more like $600 to see major results.
The bottom line: If you want to dip your toes into beauty procedures, a glycolic acid peel is a good place to start—it's quick and you bounce back quickly, too. But don't expect the results to be earth-shattering.
BY JESSIE VAN AMBURG
Jessie Van Amburg is the senior associate editor at WomensHealthMag.com, where she handles beauty, food, and lifestyle coverage.
This article first appeared in Women's Health Mag.