The best chemical facial peels
If you're dealing with dark spots, fine lines, wrinkles, acne, dullness, and other skin issues, a chemical facial peel is often the most effective way to smooth and brighten your skin. By helping to exfoliate dead cells, they resurface the skin, unclog pores, and help even out your skin tone. It's easy for an at-home chemical facial peel to cause irritation, so if you're not sure what to look for, our buying guide can help take all the guesswork out of choosing the right one. Our top pick by QRxLabs features glycolic acid in a gel formula, so it's highly effective but not as messy as liquid peels.
Considerations when choosing chemical facial peels
Most chemical facial peels use some type of acid to help dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells in place. The type of acid used usually determines how strong the peel is and how much irritation it may cause.
Fruit enzymes are found in the mildest at-home chemical facial peels, so even those with sensitive skin can use them. They usually come from pineapple, papaya, or pumpkin and are more effective in exfoliating the skin than they are in boosting collagen production.
Mandelic acid is a mild alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that's found in bitter almonds. It's less likely to irritate the skin than stronger AHAs, and it can work well to fade hyperpigmentation and treat acne.
Lactic acid is another mild AHA, but it comes from sour milk. It works well for fading hyperpigmentation and helps boost moisture in the skin, so it works well for dry and aging skin.
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that's found in willow tree bark. It's usually recommended for acne-prone skin because it can exfoliate inside the pores to remove embedded dirt and oil. Salicylic acid also works well for fading hyperpigmentation and smoothing fine lines. Sensitive and aging skin should avoid it.
Glycolic acid is a strong AHA that comes from sugar cane. It's found in the most potent at-home facial peels and can help boost collagen production, soften fine lines and wrinkles, brighten the skin, and fade hyperpigmentation. In most cases, sensitive skin should avoid using a glycolic acid peel.
In addition to the type of acid used in a chemical facial peel, the acid concentration is an important factor to consider because it affects how strong the peel is. The higher the acid percentage, the more potent the peel is. For example, a 50% glycolic acid peel is stronger than a 20% glycolic acid peel so it should only be used by individuals with extremely resistant skin.
Chemical facial peels are available in a few different formulas. While all formulas can be effective, you may find some options easier to use than others.
Liquid chemical facial peels have a thin, watery consistency. They usually must be applied with a brush and are fairly messy because of their tendency to drip off the face.
Gel chemical facial peels have a thicker consistency, so they usually stay put when you apply them. They make much less of a mess than liquid peels.
Chemical facial peel pads are thin cotton rounds that are saturated with liquid peel solution. They are usually easier to apply and don't drip down the face like liquid peels do.
Depending on the acid featured and its concentration, some chemical facial peels should only be used once a month. Other mild peels can be used up to three times a week. Consider how often you're willing to use the peel to see results and choose a formula that fits the bill.
Chemical facial peel prices
Chemical facial peels range from $9 to $90. Mild chemical facial peels cost between $9 and $25. Gentler AHA and BHA chemical facial peels range from $15 to $55. The strongest at-home chemical facial peels generally cost between $55 and $90.
Q. Is it safe to do a chemical facial peel at home?
A. It depends on your skin issues and the peel you use. Always consult with your dermatologist or doctor before using a chemical peel if you have a skin condition like rosacea, acne, or eczema. Do a test patch with the peel on a small area of the skin, such as behind your ear, to see how your skin reacts before applying it all over -- and never leave the peel on your face longer than the recommended time.
Q. Is it normal for a chemical facial peel to sting or burn?
A. Because it usually contains acids, you may experience burning or stinging when you apply a chemical facial peel. Your skin may also become red, though these side effects should go away within an hour or so of using the peel. If your skin is still burning or you experience blistering several hours afterward, see a doctor.
Chemical facial peels we recommend
Best of the best: QRxLabs Glycolic Acid 50% Gel Peel with Chamomile and Green Tea Extracts
Our take: A professional-quality peel at home for smoothing texture issues, deep cleaning pores, and fading dark spots.
What we like: Contains 50% medical-grade glycolic acid. Gel formula is easy to apply and not as messy. Includes chamomile and green tea to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. Works for a variety of skin issues, including acne and hyperpigmentation.
What we dislike: Burns can occur if instructions aren't followed properly. Is usually too strong for sensitive skin. A neutralizer is often required to prevent irritation.
Best bang for your buck: Neogen Dermalogy Bio-Peel Gauze Peeling Wine
Our take: Budget-friendly peel that helps brighten the skin without drying or irritating it. May not be the strongest at-home peel but is a great value.
What we like: Contains both glycolic and lactic acids, as well as good-for-your-skin botanicals. Solution is infused in 100% cotton mesh gauze pads for easy application. Gentle enough to be used up to three times per week. Ideal for mature, dry, or sensitive skin.
What we dislike: Some find the peel too mild to provide results. Can exfoliate and brighten but isn't as effective for smoothing fine lines and wrinkles.
Our take: A gentle peel pad that may not be potent enough to treat major skin issues but brightens and smooths without irritation.
What we like: Contains five different acids, including 15% glycolic acid. Also features arginine to help stimulate collagen production and plant-based extracts for antioxidant properties. Gentle enough for sensitive skin. Pads allow for mess-free application.
What we dislike: Fairly expensive. Isn't as strong a peel as some might like, though that's a benefit for individuals with sensitive skin.
Jennifer Blair is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.