Treating Acne With Light-Duty Chemical Peels

How to Treat Acne With Superficial Chemical Peels From the Salon

Superficial chemical peels are extremely popular treatments offered at day spas, salons and dermatology offices. Are they a good treatment choice for your acne? 

Before you have your chemical peel done, learn what to expect during treatment. 

Woman getting a chemical peel facial treatment
 Image Source Collection / Photodisc / Getty Images

What Is a Light-Duty Chemical Peel?

Light-duty peels are the most superficial of all chemical peels. They're the most popular and widely done chemical peels because there is no downtime. These peels are often called "lunchtime peels" because you can get one done quickly over a lunch hour and return to work directly afterward, with your coworkers being none the wiser. 

During a light-duty chemical peel treatment, the skin is exfoliated using an alpha or beta hydroxy acid. Done in a series, these peels can improve mild to moderately severe cases of acne, and can be given over the face or another body area where acne is a problem. Superficial chemical peels are also used to soften the look of fine lines and wrinkles, even out skin texture and fade discolorations.

The price of your peel is largely determined by the size of the area being treated. The bonus of having a peel done at a day spa or salon is that they are often incorporated into a relaxing facial treatment. Some salons do charge extra for this, so make sure to ask what is included in the price of the treatment.


Click Play to Learn All About Chemical Peels for Acne

This video has been medically reviewed by Casey Gallagher, MD.

How Superficial Chemical Peels Work

Chemical peels don't really peel the skin, despite what the name implies. They rapidly exfoliate the skin, allowing dead skin cells to shed more effectively. By keeping dead skin cells and excess oil from clogging the hair follicle, pore blockages (comedones) and pimples can be reduced.

Your clinician will most likely use glycolic acid as the peeling agent. Glycolic acid is a well-known AHA derived from sugar cane and is used most frequently for light chemical peel treatments. But beta hydroxy acid peels are quickly gaining popularity.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are close cousins to AHAs and work in much the same way. BHAs are especially helpful in dissolving excess oil buildup within the pores, and they tend to be less irritating than AHAs. Salicylic acid, a familiar and effective anti-acne ingredient, is the most commonly used BHA for chemical peel treatments.

Light-Duty Peels Are Best Alongside Daily Acne Treatments

Obviously, there are plenty of benefits to having a superficial peel done. But are light-duty peels effective acne treatments? 

While they can reduce pore blockages and breakouts, superficial peels are best used as an add-on to your regular acne treatment routine. Unless your breakouts are mild, you'll also need to use a daily acne treatment product to really get those blemishes under control. 

What to Expect During Your Peel

During a light chemical peel treatment, the skin is first thoroughly cleaned and dried. Next, the AHA or BHA is applied to the face. The exfoliating agent is generally thin, almost water-like in its consistency, and is applied with a small brush, cotton pad or large cotton swab.

You will feel a warming sensation soon after the exfoliating agent is applied. Some people say they feel just a slight stinging; others describe it as more of a burning.

The length of time the peeling agent is left on varies, but the average is about 10 minutes. Many clinicians use small, hand-held fans to gently cool the skin during the peel, which can keep you more comfortable during the treatment.

Next, the peel is removed with cool water and a neutralizing agent. The skin is dried and the peel is complete. If your peel is being incorporated into a full facial treatment, the clinician will follow with a soothing mask application, facial massage (optional), toning and lightly moisturizing.

After your peel, your skin will look like it's sunburned. This redness can fade in just a few hours time or last up to five days, depending on the strength of the peeling agent used and how long it was left on the skin. It's OK to use makeup to conceal the redness.

Many dermatologists and some estheticians will ask you to use a special cleanser and/or moisturizer with sunscreen for two or so weeks before your peel. And depending on your skin's needs, your healthcare provider may also prescribe a retinoid, such as Retin A, for use prior to treatment.

These steps help to fully prepare your skin for a chemical peel. Ask the clinician performing your peel what steps you should take before coming in for your treatment.

Possible Side Effects of a Superficial Chemical Peel

The most common side effects of a light chemical peel treatment are:

  • Redness, peeling or flaking of the skin
  • Burning during the treatment

More serious redness and irritation can occur, but it's fairly rare. Let the clinician performing your peel know if you feel uncomfortable burning during the treatment.

If you are using any prescription medications, you must get your healthcare provider's approval before having a chemical peel. This includes oral medications, like isotretinoin, or medications for issues other than acne.

Tell the clinician performing your peel about all acne treatments you are using, including over-the-counter products. Also, be sure to let them know about the skincare products you are currently using, especially if they contain AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, etc.) or salicylic acid.

Getting the Most from Your Chemical Peel

Remember to wear sunscreen daily. Your skin will be more prone to sunburn and sun damage for some time after your peel. Choose a ​noncomedogenic brand that won't clog your pores.

Medicated cleansers, such as those containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, can sting if used after a chemical peel. Instead, use a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil or Dove for a few days, or until your skin heals.

Although your skin will feel softer and smoother after just one session, you will get the best results with a series of treatments. To treat acne, the sessions are usually spaced one to two weeks apart.

If you are using any prescription medication, always get your dermatologist's OK before having a light chemical peel. Ask your healthcare provider what acne treatment medications, if any, you should use while having a series of light chemical peels done.

7 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.
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  2. Castillo DE, Keri JE. Chemical peels in the treatment of acne: patient selection and perspectivesClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2018;11:365–372. doi:10.2147/CCID.S137788

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By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.