Glycolic acid is a natural chemical found in many skin care products. It’s also known as fruit acid, because it’s derived from sugarcane and other natural sources that are rich in glycolic acid. Glycolic acid peels are used to treat acne, wrinkles, and sun damage.Glycolic acid peels can be used on all skin types, including sensitive skin. Glycolic acid peels are milder than TCA (trichloroacetic acid) peels and Jessner’s solution because they do not require downtime. A glycolic peel can improve fine lines and wrinkles, acne scarring, hyperpigmentation (brown spots), enlarged pores, oily skin, acne and blackheads.
Glycolic acid peels can be done at home or in a spa setting with professional supervision by a licensed esthetician or medical professional. Professional glycolic peels use higher concentrations of the active ingredient than at-home kits do, so you can expect better results with professional treatments. You should only use glycolic acid if you have already been tested for allergies by a dermatologist or other healthcare provider before starting any kind of treatment program with it.
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For those new to the game, chemical peels sound like something that belongs in a science lab and not your skincare drawer. But don’t let that put you off – many at-home peels are surprisingly gentle and can transform your skin in a matter of minutes.
Despite the name, peels don’t literally leave you snake-like and shedding layers of skin. Instead they typically use a range of alpha and beta hydroxy acids (also known as AHAs and BHAs) and other exfoliating ingredients to gently lift the dirt and dead cells clogging up your pores, resurfacing and encouraging skin cell renewal in the process.
This is especially beneficial for those looking to improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation or large pores.
We admit that chemical peels still sound pretty aggressive, but for the most part the experience is painless. Expect a little bit of tingling and warmth, especially if you’re new to acids and exfoliants. Over time your skin builds up a tolerance, priming you for the world of stronger concentrations.
But no matter how potent your peel, the important thing to remember is that your skin is literally healing itself in the aftermath. As a result, it’s much more vulnerable to the sun, so be sure to layer up on SPF after use. We’d suggest avoiding other active ingredients after using a chemical peel too – just stick to a super hydrating serum and moisturiser for the rest of your routine.
And as with any powerful skincare product containing acids, avoid using them on damaged skin and don’t hesitate to abandon ship if your skin becomes irritated – tingling is okay, but burning or itching is a sign something’s not right.
We’re big fans of acid exfoliation, so dove right into the deep end when looking for our favourite at-home chemical peel. However, we were hypervigilant of how our skin reacted to each product during use to find those best suited for peel beginners and veterans alike.
We wanted something more than a quick radiance boost – we were looking for long-term benefits, such as brightening dark spots and tackling blemishes. Here are the peels worth the effort.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
REN Clean Skincare glycol lactic radiance renewal mask
We’re obsessed with REN’s entire radiance range, and this peel might just be its crowning jewel. Made with lactic, glycolic, tartaric and citric acid, it’s just powerful enough to decongest troubled skin without triggering a breakout. When applying the gel formula over dry skin, the first thing you notice is the divine citrusy scent. You do experience some brief tingling in the ten minutes of use, but it’s extremely mild.
Once the 10 minutes are up, the product rinses off to reveal brighter, tauter skin. The more we used the mask, the longer these effects lasted, and over time we even saw improvement in sebum production and acne scarring. A lot of masks promise to deep clean your skin, but this was the first time we really believed it. The effects of each weekly peel were comparable to a professional facial. Peels sound so harsh, and yet this gave us an unbeatable healthy, dewy finish without any unwanted side effects. Magic in a bottle.Buy now £36, Renskincare.com
The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% peeling solution
There’s a reason why this peel became a TikTok sensation and consistently sells out across the internet: it’s a cheap miracle-worker. We’ll be the first to admit we were terrified to use it at first – it’s a blood-red concoction, with a very high concentration of acids – but after one use, we were hooked. Using the dropper, you apply a thin layer across dry skin. This can be tricky as it’s such a watery formula, but the important part is to avoid the eye and mouth area. Then wait for 10 minutes before washing off with lukewarm water (learn from our mistake and don’t use hot water).
After just one use, our complexion looked smoother, more radiant and quite literally like we’d just shed a layer of dull, dead skin. Used in the long-term, it also does an incredible job of fading acne scars. As we said before, it’s an extremely potent peel, containing glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, salicylic and hyaluronic acids. This translates to high-impact exfoliation, but does mean your skin is left vulnerable to irritation, so it’s important to ease yourself into it. Our tester’s an old hat when it comes to acid exfoliation, but still felt a slight tingle during use, so newbies might find it too powerful. However, you can’t beat its instant results.Buy now £6.30, Boots.com
Alpha-H beauty sleep power peel
This peel brings new meaning to beauty sleep, serving as a final step in your night-time routine to resurface and restore your skin. Although this is an overnight treatment, the formula still packs a punch – with 14 per cent glycolic acid and 0.5 per cent retinol, the cream helps to boost collagen and fade hyperpigmentation. Thick enough to lock in moisture but not so much that your skin feels smothered, we liked how glowy our skin looked before bed. There was a slight tingle at first, but it really was slight and never veered into the burning territory we’ve come to fear from acid products.
Radiance continued well into the next day, and our complexion looked fresh and plump like we’d had twice the amount of sleep than usual. After three weeks we saw a big difference in acne scarring and the appearance of our pores, and it didn’t break us out once. It’s pricey, but as you can only use it twice per week and a pea-sized amount goes a long way, it’ll last much longer than you expect.Buy now £54, Alpha-h.com
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. sukari babyfacial
As the name suggests, this exfoliator aims to give you baby soft skin with the aid of glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric and salicylic acids. This sounds like a lot, but it’s really quite gentle. We applied a thick layer over our entire face and only experienced a slight tingling sensation for the first few minutes, then rinsed it off with lukewarm water after 20 minutes or so. While we didn’t experience any redness afterwards, the peel does also come equipped with a mini sample of Drunk Elephant’s marula oil to soothe irritation.
There was a noticeable glow after our first use, but it’s with repeated weekly use that this product really shines (literally). After a month we saw big improvement in the texture of our forehead and our pores were way less obvious. There was even a slight reduction in the oiliness of our T-zone.Buy now£67, Cultbeauty.co.uk
Algenist blue algae vitamin C dark spot correcting peel
Hyperpigmentation is the bane of our life. All it takes is one spot lasting two or three days for it to create a dark mark that somehow endures for months on end, so we’re keen to try anything promising to solve our woes. This is one of the best solutions we’ve tried so far. Made with vitamin C and Algenist’s hero ingredient, alguronic acid, it’s a startlingly blue formula that works best when left on damp skin for 20 minutes once or twice a week. Like most peels, it does sting at first but this then evolves into a unique, pleasantly cooling sensation.
Our skin immediately looked brighter, and the next day we woke up to a shockingly even complexion, despite being in the midst of a breakout. It took a few uses to see a major difference, but we then noticed a significant improvement to acne scarring , fading more after each use. While it’s an expensive product, and you do have to use a lot of it each time, it’s worth the investment to tackle particularly stubborn pigmentation. Buy now £80, Cultbeauty.co.uk
Caudalie vinoperfect glycolic peel mask
This peel features all the usual staples, such as lactic, tartaric and citric acid, but also contains Caudalie’s patented ingredient, viniferine. Claiming to offer dark spot correction that’s 62 times more effective than vitamin C, we were keen to put it to the test. You can’t see the impact straight away – we used this twice a week over the course of three weeks, and it was only in the third week that we noticed a patch of hyperpigmentation on our jaw had started to fade. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t doing much in the meantime – our cheeks felt softer than usual, and texture evened out across both our chin and forehead. Unlike a lot of masks, we also didn’t experience any irritation whatsoever.
Kate Somerville liquid exfoliKate triple acid resurfacing treatment
We love when a product manages to be both effective and mindlessly easy to use, and thankfully Kate Somerville agrees. All you need to do to use this treatment is apply some product to a cotton pad, pat it over your face, and fall asleep. The glycolic, malic and lactic acids and fruit enzymes work their magic overnight, dissolving dead skin cells and smoothing out your complexion in the process. After just one night we had the usual post-mask glow and our pores seemed tighter than usual. The effects were even more pronounced a month later, at which point we realised it had potentially also prevented our usual monthly hormonal breakout. Also, there was no tingling or warmth upon application.Buy now £52, Johnlewis.com
Kiehl’s nightly refining micro-peel concentrate
Another peel designed to be left on overnight, this formula is infused with phytic acid and quinoa husk extract. Both ingredients are renowned for their exfoliative properties, but are utilised by Kiehl’s in a way that provides gradual resurfacing. While your complexion’s tolerance may vary, we found it gentle enough to use a few drops every evening before our moisturiser. The first effects we saw were plumper, glowier cheeks. After three weeks, we also saw an improvement in texture and any new spots that did crop up seemed to dry up and fade quicker than usual. These results were very gradual, but well worth the wait. Our only critique is that the consistency is quite sticky.
Murad replenishing multi-acid peel
This is a bi-phase product, which means it promises to deliver on two different fronts – resurfacing skin for a smoother, brighter finish, and nourishing your complexion to increase radiance. The former is achieved with a blend of AHAs and BHAs, while the latter relies on adaptogenic herbs like holy basil. With such a stellar ingredient list, it’s no surprise we saw such quick results. It’s a nightly product, so we massaged a small amount into our skin with a cotton pad before moisturiser and after a few days had a softer, more evenly toned complexion. While it didn’t make a major difference in hyperpigmentation, it did ease oiliness across our nose and forehead, and brightened our dark under-eyes.
The Inkey List apple cider vinegar peel
At one point it felt like the internet was convinced apple cider vinegar could achieve anything, and yet this was our first time using a skincare product that actually included it in its ingredient list. We were even more surprised this was the case once we looked into its skin benefits – not only is it anti-inflammatory, but it’s a natural exfoliant with an aptitude for absorbing excess oil. This peel bolsters it with glycolic acid and a five per cent multi-fruit blend, which makes it quite potent. It has a very strong scent and there was a brief but significant stinging effect at first.
Rinsed off after ten minutes, it brightened our complexion and held the worst of our oiliness at bay for over 24 hours. While repeated use didn’t soften our skin like other peels, it went far in resolving and preventing breakouts. We can imagine it may be too harsh on dry complexions, but it’s an effective quick solution for those with oily skin types.
Elemis pro-collagen tri-acid peel
The tri-acid peel owes its name to an exfoliating complex of lactobionic, asiatic and mandelic acids. With a relatively high active concentration of eight per cent, it was specifically formulated to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles while simultaneously protecting your skin’s moisture barrier. Only a tiny amount is needed at a time, and we only noticed tingling during our first 15 minute use. It started brightening and softening from the get go, and our skin seemed to hold onto that freshly-applied-skincare-glow for longer the day after use. With bi-weekly use, dark spots began to fade after a fortnight. While we can’t vouch for its ability to reduce wrinkles, it did also seem to tighten skin in the under-eye area
The verdict: Chemical face peels
You just can’t beat the dewy finish of REN Clean Skincare’s glycol lactic radiance renewal mask, which is why it’s our top choice. If you’re specifically targeting dark spots, the Algenist blue algae vitamin C dark spot correcting peel and the The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% peeling solution are also incredibly effective, with the latter a great all-round choice for those experienced in acid exfoliation.