There's a misconception about the common skincare peel, and it's easy to figure out as soon as you try one. "Even in a professional-strength peel, there is rarely any peeling," Jordana Mattioli, a medical esthetician with Complete Skin MD, says. Although the name is misleading, the buzz around peels—especially those with a leading ingredient of glycolic acid—is entirely on point.
"Glycolic acid is one of the most popular alpha-hydroxy acids used for professional peels, as it can be used to treat many skin conditions and skin types," she explains. "Lower-strength glycolic acid peels can even be done at home."
The anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and keratolytic properties of glycolic acid peels remove the top layers of the skin to reveal healthier cells underneath, Mattioli notes, which can smooth texture, reduce the appearance of fine lines, even out pigmentations, and boost collagen. Glycolic acid peels can be an acne treatment, and Mattioli finds that they're her go-to choice for melasma, too. "I also use them on the body—they are great for the neck, chest, and hands," she continues.
Given the wide-ranging benefits of glycolic acid peels, Mattioli doesn't encounter many negative side effects. But when she does, she says, it's because patients are using too many activating products at home. "For example, if someone is using any prescription topical retinoids, acne medication, or skin lighteners, they should consult with their dermatologist or esthetician on how and when to use an at-home glycolic peel," she says. "Side effects are easily mediated by just taking a break from the prescription products for a few days. For those who are not on any topical prescriptions, you can avoid any side effects by diligently wearing sunscreen following your peel."
We asked Mattioli to list the glycolic acid peels that are best for all skin types, and her choices can be used in five minutes, overnight, and even on feet. "All skin types can use at-home glycolic peels," she adds. "Sensitive skin types can usually use them, but they should start out with a lower strength and do a test patch first. I would say that most at-home peels can be used once a week."
Read on to get her recommendations, and you can start seeing these benefits as soon as possible.
"Neostrata makes my favorite professional-strength glycolic peels that I use in my office—the company created glycolic acid peels, after all," she says. This at-home peel uses two types of alpha-hydroxy acids at a high enough strength, which makes it ideal for serious anti-aging. Plus, it comes in single-dose servings, a peel pad, and a neutralizing pad, so it's easy to travel with."
"This is a unique formula because it combines oils with the glycolic acid, making it a great option for very dry skin," Mattioli continues. "It works fast, too. You rinse it after five minutes, and the skin is still really hydrated."
"This is a great starter peel for dry or sensitive skin, as it uses a low amount of acids in a hydrating base," she notes. "It's left on overnight, so there's no need to neutralize."
"The addition of a beta-hydroxy acid (salicylic acid) to the alpha-hydroxy acid formula makes this a good option for normal to oily skin," Mattioli says. "It rinses off in 20 minutes."
"The lightweight toner-like formula of this item makes it easy to swipe on to the face and other areas of the body, too," she adds. "It's safe for all skin types."
"These saturated, pre-packaged swabs are left on overnight," Mattioli continues. "The addition of hydrolyzed collagen and elastin make this a good option for normal to dry skin, and the packaging makes it easy for travel."
"This absorbing serum is left on overnight," she notes. "Its low-strength blend of acids with added soothing ingredients make it a good pick for first-time acid users or for those with sensitive skin."
"These are like a sheet mask but for your feet!" Mattioli explains. "These little booties are soaked with acids and hydrating ingredients, which are great for softening up rough areas on the feet."
"This creamy overnight formula is perfect for dry skin," she says. "It has a unique exfoliation product that includes retinol, along with an alpha-hydroxy acid blend."