Your Guide to At-Home Chemical Peels
At-home chemical peels can be scary. Between all the acids, very strict instructions, and warnings about a "burning, tingling sensation," it's no wonder that they can seem a little daunting. But chemical peels, both the kind performed by your doctor and the at-home variety, don't have to be alarming — though most of them do tingle, I'm not gonna lie.
Chemical peels are just a kind of exfoliation, which is why they're also called chemical exfoliators — and, they're totally worth it in the name of refreshing your complexion.
Unlike manual exfoliation, where you scrub with particles like sugar or salt to slough off and remove dead skin, chemical exfoliation "utilizes acids and/or enzymes to dissolve the debris and gunk that builds on your skin from daily living," explains Flora Kim, M.D., F.A.A.D., a dermatologist in Dallas. While chemical peels are great skin-care products in the short term, removing dead skin cells and other glow-robbing particles, they also stand out in the long term. "With continued use, chemical exfoliation has been shown to improve photoaged skin, with studies reporting decreases in skin roughness, discoloration, pigmentation, and increase in the density of collagen," says Dr. Kim. (FYI, "photoaged" means aging of the skin caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, primarily from the sun but also from artificial UV sources — opposed to natural aging.)
While that all sounds great, there are some things you should know about at-home chemical peels before you try one yourself because the acids that make up these masks, peel pads, and serums should be treated cautiously. On the one hand: glowing skin! On the other hand: acid! Here, all of the precautions you should know, according to experts, plus the best at-home chemical peel products and why they work so well.
The Basics of Chemical Peels
As mentioned above, at-home chemical peels exfoliate the skin by removing dead skin with a blend of alpha and beta hydroxy acids, typically referred to as AHAs and BHAs. AHAs commonly found in at-home chemical peels include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid, explains Dan Belkin, M.D., of the Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York. Lipohydroxy acids (LHAs) are a newer ingredient related to salicylic acid (which isn't technically a BHA, though it behaves like one), and are more efficient at peeling, notes Nikhil Dhingra, M.D., of Spring Street Dermatology. You may also see retinol listed in at-home chemical peel ingredients. Although it's not technically a chemical exfoliator, it does cause a peeling response, points out Dr. Belkin.
It's worth noting that not all chemical exfoliation is limited to peels and not all peels are face masks. Products such as toners and serums may contain similar ingredients to chemical peels while also working to break down dead skin cells. What sets at-home chemical peels apart, whether they're single-use pads or applied like a face mask, is that the goal is a peeling response — which does generally mean the acids in them will be a bit stronger than in other products. Don't worry: This doesn't mean you'll actually see layers of your skin sloughing off like it would from a sunburn (or Baby Foot). What you will see is clearer skin, fewer clogged pores, and a more radiant complexion.
In terms of product type, texture, and application, there's a ton of variety ranging from face masks to overnight serums to cotton pads you swipe on once a week. "Some peels are for daily use, more like a toner, while others are for weekly or biweekly use," explains Dr. Belkin. "These are determined based on the active ingredients, the concentration, and the pH of the product." His advice for trying your first at-home chemical peel is paramount: "Start slow, especially if a retinol or retinoid and other alpha or beta hydroxy acids are part of your usual regimen. Overusing can easily lead to irritation."
Curious about in-office chemical peels? They work the same way as the ones you use at home, explains Dr. Kim, but in much higher quantities and also may require some down time. Peels, at-home or in-office, are classified based on the level of penetration into the skin as superficial, moderate, or deep. At-home peels will tend to be superficial, while in-office peels range from superficial all the way to deep.
Chemical Peel Precautions
There are a few safety measures to keep in mind when using at-home chemical peels. To start, you should avoid daily use of retinols or retinoids and acid-based products for at least a week before attempting an at-home peel, explains Dr. Dhingra. This is because while products containing retinols, retinoids, and acids might not technically be peels, they do create a peeling response, albeit less obviously than a mask designed to chemically exfoliate. Adding peeling on top of peeling could be too much for your skin to handle. So if you want to try an at-home chemical peel, skip other chemical exfoliators for a bit before diving in.
"Also, only apply to intact skin," adds Dr. Belkin. "If there's an area that's scaly or raw — say, from too much retinol — the peel will hurt and go much deeper than expected, potentially prolonging healing and even leading to discoloration." The same goes for picked or popped pimples and blemishes.
Giving your skin lots of TLC post-peel is also important because the skin is not as protected by the stratum corneum (aka the top layer of dead skin cells that make it hardy), explains Dr. Belkin, so it's important to be gentle after a peel. Wash your face with cool water instead of warm or hot water, use gentle cleansers instead of harsh soaps, and apply creamier moisturizers instead of thin lotions or toners, he recommends. Additionally, Dr. Dhingra advises avoiding skin-care products with fragrance to prevent potential increased irritability and using lots and lots of mineral-based sunscreen. Yes, sunscreen is a must all the time, but particularly the week following chemical exfoliation. Many studies have demonstrated that peels can increase the sensitivity of the skin to UV light, and even more have indicated that UV light combined with AHA-associated peeling leads to more serious skin damage, says Dr. Kim.
Picking an At-Home Chemical Peel Product
Picking the right at-home chemical peel for your skin type can be confusing. Brands proudly display the AHA and BHA percentages right on their products — but more of an active ingredient, especially an acid, doesn't necessarily mean better results.
To choose the right product for you, you should be aware of your skin type (oily, dry, acne-prone) and concerns (evening out your skin tone, minimizing pores, etc.). Then, there are a few rules of thumb to help guide you. While it's tempting to base all your decisions on the ingredient types, that doesn't exactly work for at-home chemical peels. "The focus shouldn't be on the actual ingredient because there are so many variations in formulations, and many peels contain more than just the hero acid printed on the cover," explains Dr. Kim. "Often times, it is that combination more so than the acid that can be right or wrong for a consumer's skin."
That said, there's one exception. "There are many studies that demonstrate the efficacy of glycolic acid and salicylic acid formulations" for acne-prone skin, says Dr.Kim. If you're looking to combat other things, such as hyperpigmentation or uneven skin tone, the best approach is to look into the product's intended use. (The recommendations below are a great place to start.) Also, start slow for at least a few applications. "Think about applying less at the beginning and also starting slow with the frequency to first see how your skin responds," advises Dr. Kim, "then increase the quantity and frequency based on tolerability. But always, always, always avoid the sun!"
Best At-Home Chemical Peel Products
Best Overall At-Home Chemical Peel: The Ordinary's AHA 30% BHA 2% Peeling Solution
Both Dr. Dhingra and Dr. Belkin agree that this chemical peel, which also happens to be a TikTok sensation, is great. "It's amazing, especially for the price," says Dr. Dhingra, adding that "it carries a fairly high concentration of glycolic acid for at home use — one of the highest I know of — and yields great results, amazing price aside." The secret to this exceptional and affordable peel is its blend of AHAs, including glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acid, which feature both alpha and beta acids as well as salicylic acid.
Best At-Home Chemical Peel for Dry Skin: OLEHENRIKSEN PHAT Glow Facial Mask
In addition to AHAs and BHAs, there's another acid you should know about, especially if your skin is dry. Say hello to PHAs, the main ingredient in this at-home chemical peel from Ole Henriksen. "PHAs represent the next generation of AHAs for use in cosmetic and dermatologic skin care," says Dr. Kim.
You heard right: They're the future. As Dr. Kim explains, PHAs "provide clinically proven anti-aging and skin-smoothing effects while functioning as humectants and moisturizers," which basically means they're your new favorite chemical peel ingredient if you have dry skin. In addition to PHAs, PHAT Glow Facial Mask also features birch sap and chia seed oil which both hydrate and plump the skin, checking off every box on your dry skin care checklist.
The Best Daily At-Home Chemical Peel: Alpyn Beauty Wild Huckleberry 8-Acid Polishing Peel
This celebrity favorite from skin-care brand Alpyn Beauty is vegan, fragrance-free, and made from sustainably harvested ingredients. It's the ingredients that make this peel a standout for sensitive skin. While a proprietary blend of acids (including salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid) breaks down dead skin cells, this at-home chemical peel also features a combination of arnica, chamomile, and calendula, all skin-soothers and inflammation fighters which make this mask gentle enough for daily use. I can attest to the glowy aftermath of using this mask which also stands out from the pack by adding a manual exfoliation boost — bamboo powder and berry seed paste help scrub away the dead skin loosened by the stellar blend of acids. (Related: Exactly Which Order to Apply Your Skin Care Products)
The Best At-Home Chemical Peel for Oily Skin: M-16 PowerGlow Peel Pads
I've been a fan of M-16 peel pads forever; these little pads were actually my first introduction to the world of at-home chemical peels. As with most of these picks, the PowerGlow Peel Pads feature two great acids as well as a botanical skin soother. Glycolic acid and salicylic acid break down dull, dead skin while chamomile soothes any post-peel irritation. Thanks to the salicylic acid, an exfoliator and acne-fighter, these pads are a great option for oily and acne-prone skin (seriously, they saved my T-zone in my mid-twenties), but they also work wonders on uneven skin tone and dry patches courtesy of vitamin K and bilberry extract, according to Dr. Dhingra.
The Best At-Home Chemical Peel for Acne-Prone Skin: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial AHA BHA Mask
I learned that this cult favorite chemical peel from Drunk Elephant was a godsend for sensitive skin when I was dealing with stress-related breakouts and trying (and failing) to extract my own blemishes. A fellow beauty addict recommended I try Babyfacial and since then I've been paying it forward by recommending it to everyone: my friends in their 30s, my teenage sister, literally everyone. It's a miracle worker for sensitive skin because it manages to seriously chemically exfoliate the skin without creating redness and irritation which is a normally occurring issue with heavy duty chemical peels.
It features all the usual acidic offenders but is packed with AHAs. As Dr. Dhingra points out, AHAs are "great superficial exfoliants that dislodge dead skin cells from the surface of the epidermis," and so the fact that Babyfacial boasts 25 percent AHAs is stellar. That high AHA content really kicks into action when combined with BHAs, which "have the added advantage of being fat-soluble, so they can go into oil glands and de-clog pores them before they turn into breakouts," says Dr. Dhingra, making this at-home peel a nice buy for sensitive acne-prone skin. (That said, everyone's skin responds differently; Iskra Lawrence's skin, for example, did not like Babyfacial.)
The Best At-Home Chemical Peel for Sensitive Skin: Stevie Fox La La Lit Power Glow Mask
This vegan, organic, and cruelty-free mask features lactic acid as its main chemical exfoliator, which makes it a great option for folks who find other AHAs too harsh. Lactic acid "is similar to glycolic acid but a bit less intense," says Dr. Dhringa. "I recommend it for more sensitive or mature skin for a milder exfoliation that's less likely to agitate the skin." This mask also works well for hyperpigmentation and stubborn brown spots thanks to enzymes derived from fruits, including orange peel. The banana inside works to moisturizes skin after breaking down dead cells. It's the only chemical peel I've used that gets rid of those deep, mostly invisible lurker blemishes that periodically pop up around my nose. (Related: What Does Vegan Skin Care Really Mean?)