Do-It-Yourself Chemical Peels

How to Use Glycolic Acid at Home for Younger-Looking Skin

A chemical peel can be one of the most effective ways to shave a few years off the appearance of your face. You can go to a dermatologist or aesthetician for a peel, of course, but if that’s not in your budget or you prefer to tend to your skin at home, an at-home peel may be the answer. This quick guide to DIY skin peels will help you get started.

Mature woman looking at her face in a mirror
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Blend Images / Getty Images

The Magic of Glycolic Acid

Among the best over-the-counter skin peels for home treatment are those containing glycolic acid, a chemical also used in medical office peels but at a higher strength. Glycolic acid is derived from plants such as pineapple and sugar beets; when incorporated into skin care products it can help skin look younger and fresher in several ways.

Here’s how it works: Skin is made up of three layers: the epidermis—the outer, protective one; the dermis, which lies just beneath the epidermis; and subcutaneous tissue—the deepest layer of the skin made up of fat, connective tissue, and larger blood vessels and nerves.

The middle layer, the dermis, is the thickest of the three skin layers. It accounts for 90% of the skin’s thickness and is held together by a network of a protein called collagen, which gives skin its durability and strength. A breakdown of collagen is one of the reasons skin develops fine lines and wrinkles with age. One thing glycolic acid does is promote collagen growth in the upper dermis. This increase in collagen production and restructuring of the dermis can increase skin thickness, diminishing wrinkles and fine lines.

Glycolic acid is an exfoliant as well. It seeps into the more superficial layers of the skin where dead cells accumulate, causing skin to look dull. The acid destroys the attachments that hold dead skin cells together, allowing them to slough off and make room for new skin cells to grow. The result is brighter, softer, smoother skin, and a more even skin tone.

Choosing and Using Glycolic Acid at Home

While higher concentrations are available, a cosmetic industry expert panel concluded that alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid are safe for consumer use if the concentration is 10% or less. Talk to your healthcare provider before using a stronger product.

Because it’s considered a chemical peel, you’ll want to start slowly. Don’t use too much too often in a short span of time. Glycolic acid peels have a cumulative effect, so once a week at most is likely often enough. Keep in mind that the strength of the product you use and how your skin reacts to it also will be a factor in how frequently you apply it. Follow the directions on the packaging or check with your dermatologist for specific guidance.

It’s likely you’ll experience some peeling and redness when you begin using glycolic acid on your skin, especially if your skin is sensitive. If you have excessive peeling and redness, or any sort of discomfort, stop using the product and check with your dermatologist. And one big caution: As with retinoids, glycolic acid can leave skin more sensitive to damaging UV rays. Stay out of the sun, slather on sunscreen, wear a hat, and enjoy your younger, fresher complexion.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863

  2. Food and Drug Administration. Alpha hydroxy acids.