Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 2/23/2021
From whiteheads and blackheads to inflamed and painful pimples, acne can range from a mild annoyance to a serious issue that affects your appearance and self-confidence.
If you’re prone to acne breakouts, you may have looked into chemical peeling as an option for getting rid of acne and clearing your skin of blemishes.
Chemical peeling is a skin resurfacing procedure that involves the use of exfoliating chemicals such as salicylic acid, glycolic acid and others to strip away the dead skin cells that can cause acne breakouts.
In addition to treating acne, chemical peeling offers other benefits, such as the ability to get rid of certain types of scarring and even reverse some signs of aging.
Wondering how chemical peeling works? Below, we’ve explained the science behind chemical peeling as a treatment for acne and acne scarring. We’ve also looked at how chemical peeling procedures can differ in depth and severity, from light peels to deep peeling procedures.
Finally, we’ve talked about how you can use in-clinic and at-home chemical peels to keep your skin free of acne, scars, wrinkles and other common blemishes.
Chemical peeling involves stripping away the outer layers of your skin using a chemical solution. This can remove acne, scarring, wrinkles and other common imperfections.
After a chemical peel, the outer layer of your skin will grow back with a smoother texture and improved appearance.
Most chemical peeling procedures are performed by dermatologists or plastic surgeons using chemicals such as salicylic acid or glycolic acid.
Chemical peels can be performed to various depths. The deeper the peel, the better the results, but the longer the recovery time.
Although clinical chemical peeling procedures typically provide the best results, you can perform a mild peel at home using over-the-counter products.
Chemical peeling, or chemexfoliation, is a procedure in which chemicals are used to strip away certain parts of the epidermis, or outermost layer of your skin.
While the idea of removing a layer of your skin might sound slightly terrifying, chemical peeling is backed up by sound science.
Your skin is constantly renewing and replacing itself through a process that’s referred to as skin cell turnover, or epidermal turnover.
As part of this process, new skin cells created in the basal layer of your skin make their way to the outermost layer, or epidermis. These cells replace old skin cells that have been exposed to UV radiation and other sources of damage.
This process repeats every 40 to 56 days, allowing your skin to repair damage and keep itself healthy.
As new skin cells replace old ones, the dead cells that are left behind by this process can build up on the surface of your skin.
Over time, these dead skin cells can mix with sebum, a natural oil that’s produced by your skin to keep it moisturized, protected and healthy.
When this combination of sebum and dead skin cells becomes stuck inside the hair follicles in your skin, it can cause acne to develop. We’ve talked about this process more in our guide to the causes of acne in adults.
Most chemical peeling procedures are designed to strip away these dead skin cells, reducing your risk of experiencing acne breakouts.
Beyond treating acne, chemical peels also offer other benefits. By removing the outer layer of your skin, chemical peeling may make rosacea, melasma, age spots and other common skin blemishes less visible.
Deep chemical peels are also used to treat acne scars, wrinkles and other skin issues that can develop as you age.
Simply put, yes. Research shows that light chemical peels are an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne breakouts. In fact, chemical peels have been used to treat acne and other skin disorders for several decades.
In a scientific review published in 2018, researchers looked at the results of 12 different trials of chemical peeling procedures for acne.
They concluded that chemical peels are well tolerated and effective at treating mild-to-moderate acne.
Other studies have found that light chemical peels can treat papules, pustules and comedones — all common forms of acne.
Research also shows that chemical peels can improve the appearance of some types of acne scarring.
Acne scars and dark spots can develop after severe acne breakouts. You may notice scars on your face if you’re prone to inflamed, infected cystic or nodular acne.
Scarring from acne can vary in depth. Some scars, such as icepick or deep boxcar scars, form when the collagen in the middle layers of your skin is destroyed.
While chemical peeling procedures can’t always improve deep scarring, they’re often effective at treating small, depressed acne scars.
If you’ve ever browsed the aisles of your local drugstore, you’ve likely seen chemical face peels for sale alongside moisturizers, cleansers and other products.
There are several major differences between the at-home chemical peels sold in drugstores and online and the chemical peeling procedures provided by dermatologists and plastic surgeons.
Most at-home chemical peels, cleansers and other exfoliating products contain a small amount of peeling ingredients.
For example, many over-the-counter peeling products contain one to two percent salicylic acid — a popular beta-hydroxy acid exfoliant.
Because these products only contain a tiny amount of exfoliant ingredients, they aren’t able to deeply penetrate into your skin like in-clinic procedures.
In-clinic chemical peels, on the other hand, typically use stronger chemicals to rejuvenate your skin. For example, many clinical chemical peels use 30% to 50% salicylic acid, 70% glycolic acid or other powerful chemicals such as trichloroacetic acid, pyruvic acid or phenol.
Since these procedures use more powerful peeling agents, they’re more effective at removing dead skin cells and rejuvenating your skin.
Most dermatologists and plastic surgeons will offer in-clinic chemical peels in several different depths. Options include:
Light (superficial) chemical peels. Light chemical peels are designed to treat acne, uneven pigmentation and mild signs of aging such as fine wrinkles. These peels only remove the outermost layer of your skin (the epidermis).
Light chemical peels can be repeated on a regular basis to treat acne, fine wrinkling or other skin issues.
Medium chemical peels. Medium chemical peels are used to remove acne scars and deeper wrinkles. This type of chemical peel strips away skin cells from the outer layers of your skin and from the middle layer (the dermis).
Deep chemical peels. Deep chemical peels are used to remove deep wrinkles, severe discoloration and pre-cancerous growths. This type of peel isn’t typically used for acne or acne scarring.
All chemical peels, whether light or deep, can cause certain side effects. In general, the deeper the chemical peeling procedure is, the more severe its side effects and the longer it will typically take for you to fully recover from the procedure.
After a light chemical peel, you may experience redness, skin flaking, stinging and irritation that affects the treated skin.
After a deep chemical peel, you’ll typically experience redness, peeling, crusting and discomfort that can last for several weeks.
Chemical peeling may be a good treatment option if you often get breakouts of mild to moderate acne.
There are several ways to use chemical peeling to treat acne breakouts, lighten acne scars and improve your skin.
For the most effective results, it’s best to have a chemical peel performed in-clinic by a plastic surgeon or dermatologist.
As we mentioned above, in-clinic peels use stronger chemicals than over-the-counter products designed for home use. This means that you’ll usually notice a larger improvement in your skin from the procedure.
If you’re interested in chemical peeling, it’s best to schedule an appointment with a local plastic surgeon or dermatologist. They’ll be able to recommend the most appropriate type of chemical peel for your aesthetic goals, skin and needs.
Chemical peeling procedures can vary in price, with deeper, more intense peels typically priced at a higher rate than light peels. The amount you’ll need to pay may vary based on your choice of healthcare provider, your location and other factors.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the average price of a chemical peel can be hundreds of dollars.
Many of the active ingredients used for clinical chemical peels are also available at much lower concentrations in over-the-counter masks, peeling gels and other skin care products.
For example, you can find salicylic acid in countless over-the-counter cleansers, serums, facial peels and other products. Other peeling agents used in at-home products include glycolic acid, lactic acid and other alpha hydroxy acids (AHA).
While these products obviously aren’t as effective as the high-strength chemical peels available from dermatologists and plastic surgeons, they’re a good option if you only have mild acne that you’d like to treat on your own.
If you decide to peel at home, it’s best to start with low-strength peeling products. Make sure to closely follow the instructions provided with your skin care treatments. Avoid applying skin peels too frequently, as this may increase your risk of experiencing side effects.
Chemical peels are an effective treatment for mild to moderate acne, as well as other common skin issues such as acne scarring, hyperpigmentation and fine lines.
For the best results, talk to a board certified plastic surgeon or dermatologist about receiving a chemical peel in their clinic. They’ll be able to recommend the most appropriate procedure for your needs and aesthetic goals.
If you only have mild acne, you can use an over-the-counter skin peel to exfoliate your skin at home. While this won’t provide the same results as a clinical procedure, it can help to remove dead skin cells and improve your skin’s texture and overall appearance.