What is a Glycolic Chemical Peel?

J.S. Metzker Erdemir

A glycolic chemical peel is a cosmetic skin treatment that uses glycolic acid. Glycolic acid is a plant-based acid derived from sugar cane. Chemical peels are used to treat the effects of aging, sun exposure, and some types of scars. A glycolic chemical peel is a light chemical peel, with effects similar to deep exfoliation.

Glycolic chemical peels can be used to prevent acne.
Glycolic chemical peels can be used to prevent acne.

Chemical peels can remove blemishes such as age spots, fine wrinkles, and scars. They work by dissolving top layers of skin so that the skin replenishes itself underneath. Light chemical peels done with acids such as lactic acid, malic acid, citric acid, or salicylic acid remove one or a few layers of the epidermis and have relatively few side effects. Glycolic acid, also called alpha hydroxy acid, is popular for chemical peels because it stimulates collagen growth and draws moisture into the skin.

Glycolic acid cream.
Glycolic acid cream.

Deeper chemical peels, such as procedures done with trichloroacetic acid or phenol acid have longer recovery times, require bandaging and pain killers, and can cause scars or permanent discoloration. Sometimes glycolic acid or another mild acid is used before a deep chemical peel to prepare the skin.

Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane.
Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane.

One type of very light glycolic chemical peel contains less than 10 percent glycolic acid and can be purchased over the counter. These home peels may be used once or twice a month to make skin look fresher and younger and help prevent acne. A glycolic chemical peel that uses a solution of 30 percent or more is generally performed as an outpatient procedure.

A diagram of younger and older skin showing the decrease in collagen in older skin. Glycolic acid is often used to help boost collagen production.
A diagram of younger and older skin showing the decrease in collagen in older skin. Glycolic acid is often used to help boost collagen production.

Glycolic acid works by dissolving the tissue that connects the surface layer of skin from the deeper layers. A slight burning sensation is possible during the procedure, and the skin might become very red for a few days afterward. As the epidermis lifts off the face, white spots appear that resemble blisters or peeling skin from sunburn. The old skin is usually rinsed or wiped away.

Light chemical peels usually have to be performed regularly to maintain the result. An outpatient glycolic chemical peel may be repeated as often as every two weeks. Light peels tend to be most effective on fair-skinned people. For three months following a procedure, the patient must use high SPF sunscreen daily, or there is a risk of serious damage to the skin. Chemical peels are not recommended for smokers, people with certain conditions such as rosacea or herpes, or patients taking some types of medication such as oral contraceptives.

Women on birth control pills should not get glycolic chemical peels.
Women on birth control pills should not get glycolic chemical peels.

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Discussion Comments

bear78

@ZipLine-- An over-the-counter glycolic peel with a low concentration of glycolic acid may be suitable for a diabetic. But I think you should avoid the strong peels that are offered by spas or dermatologists. As far as I know, diabetics have a higher risk of infection due to poor blood circulation. And if the glycolic peel causes irritation to the skin, it might take much longer for a diabetic to heal than someone else.

You could use over-the-counter products like glycolic acid toner and facial cream though. Some Asian brands offer more varieties of these products. But make sure to follow directions because frequent use of these can cause irritation too. I know because it happened to me.

fify

@ZipLine-- I think there are two categories for peels -- chemical and physical. Physical exfoliants/peels remove dead skin or strip the top layer of skin through physical movements. So when you use a facial scrub containing cornmeal for example, you are using a physical exfoliant. Chemical exfoliants/peels do not require any physical action. The compounds in the peel work on their own to remove the top layer of skin.

So a chemical peel isn't necessarily a peel with chemicals, although there may be some additives to glycolic peels, I'm not sure about that.

ZipLine

If glycolic acid is plant based, then why is this type of peel called a chemical peel? And is it safe for a diabetic to have a glycolic chemical peel done?

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