Exfoliants: The Facts About Glycolic Peels


When it comes to facial peels, there are a lot of myths and rumours out there – but it seems the biggest fear lies in the unknown. Do they hurt? Which one is right for me? Are they expensive? Can I do them if I have acne? How effective are at-home peels, really? It’s time to take a deep dive under the surface of facial peels to separate fact from fiction, once and for all.

Exfoliation itself has long been touted as the one skin care treatment that yields immediate results1. The ancient science of cosmetology (including the use of exfoliants)is believed to have originated in ancient Egypt when abrasive masks, minerals and alabaster particles were used as physical scrubs2. Today, there is still debate around which method is best, though most would agree that exfoliation is an essential part of any health care regimen. To find the one that is effective, harmless and most beneficial for your skin, it’s really important to understand the different types and how they work. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the two most popular methods.

First, Why Exfoliate?

It all comes down to understanding the skin’s regenerative process. The skin is on an approximately 28-day cycle, constantly renewing itself and generating new cells3. The old cells however, can accumulate on the surface contributing to blemishes, scaling and a flat, dull appearance. Exfoliation helps to shed these old, dead layers that cling to the skin’s outermost surface4 and prepare your skin to properly absorb the proper moisturizers and treatments.

While some methods of exfoliation have touted anti-aging benefits, exfoliation is actually an important step for people of all skin types.

For Dry Skin

The layer of dead, dry skin cells on the surface of your face may actually be blocking your skin care products from working to their full potential. As a result, dry skin types can benefit from finding the right exfoliant to help clear the dry skin5 and maximize the benefits of your skin care routine.

For Oily, Acne Prone Skin

Excess sebum production mixes with dead skin cells creating build-up that can lead to unwanted pimples and breakouts. Mild exfoliants help break up the debris, oil, and dead skin cells that causes breakouts.5

A Look At Exfoliation Methods

There are two established methods of exfoliation, mechanical and chemical. Both accomplish the same goal of sloughing off dead skin cells, but they do so in very different ways6

Physical (or Mechanical) Exfoliation

How does it work? This method uses a textured surface, small grains, brushes, and/or towels to physically scrape and remove dead skin cells on the surface7.

What are the pros? Physical exfoliation can be done in a number of ways to varying degrees, and can also be relatively inexpensive compared to some chemical treatments. There’s also that instant gratification of having a freshly scrubbed, soft, smooth face.

What are the cons? The harsh, excessive rubbing required to effectively master the art of physical exfoliation can aggravate sensitive skin, stripping it of its natural barrier leading to severe irritation, inflammation, dryness, even scarring.

Chemical Exfoliation

How does it work? Also known as a chemical peel, this method uses chemicals and enzymes (in different concentrations depending on skin type) to break up and remove the dead cells on the skin’s surface8.

What are the pros? Studies have shown that chemical exfoliation delivers superior anti-aging results in comparison to physical exfoliation due to its beneficial properties and gentler process. By minimizing the stimulation of the skin, chemical exfoliants also minimize aggravation. As a result, this is often the method recommended for those with sensitive skin as concentrations of ingredients, like Alpha Hydroxy Acid, can be controlled.

What are the cons? Like any skin treatment, this route can leave skin irritated and inflamed, though it typically only lasts a few hours. However, those with more sensitive skin should err on the side of caution and experiment little by little.

The Two Most Common Types of Chemical Peels

Glycolic Peels

What are they? Glycolic peels are made with Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA), naturally derived from the sugarcane plant,to exfoliate skin giving it a healthy glow.

What they do? When used in the right formulation, AHA is unparalleled in the beauty world.It helps with everything from minimizing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles to smoothing skin’s texture to removing blackheads and excessive oil9. It has also been proven to help with melasma, or hyperpigmentation10.

How do they work? When used in low concentrations (under 5%) these products gently remove the dead skin cells from the surface to reveal fresh, healthy skin. As always, people with sensitive skin should start out slowly, with a small amount, to suss out any irritation.

How often should you do them?
As tempting as it may be to do one daily, peels should only be done once a week (though it is recommended to start once a month and work your way up to monitor potential irritation). Use peels too often and it could mess with your skin’s barrier function.

What are the side effects?
Minor irritation and redness are the most common side effects. As with any new treatment, it’s best to start with a low dose and work your way up, particularly if your skin is on the more sensitive side. And don’t use a peel if your skin is already irritated, by a sunburn or cold sores, for example.

Salicylic Acid Peels

What are they? Salicylic acid peels are made with lipid-based Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), which is naturally derived from willow tree bark and has anti-inflammatory properties.

What they do? BHAs work to penetrate the pores more deeply than AHAs so it’s most beneficial for those who have oily skin or are acne prone11.

How do they work? It works by breaking down the dead cells from the skin’s surface to exfoliate inside the pores, decreasing bacteria and prevent future breakouts.

How often should you do them? Again, this type of peel shouldn’t be done on the daily. It’s recommended to do them once every 7-10 days to help with oily skin or acne.

What are the side effects? Temporary stinging, mild irritation and redness can be expected shortly after treatment however these symptoms typically subside quickly. Minor skin peeling will also follow, lasting several days after the procedure.

At-Home Peels vs. Pro Peels

Basically the difference comes down to concentration (or strength), pH and formulation of the peels themselves. If you opt for the in-office peel with a dermatologist, it will contain a stronger glycolic acid concentration than anything you’re using at home. Generally, those using peels as a corrective treatment would benefit more under a dermatologist’s supervision, while at-home peels are more beneficial as maintenance in a long-term skin care plan.

Remember no matter which route you’re considering, it’s always a good idea to consult with a dermatologist about any issues you’re having with your skin first to see if chemical peels are right for you. And that’s especially important if you’re taking any prescription acne medications or retinol.


  1. American Academy of Dermatology Association (2020) How to Safely Exfoliate At Home. Retrieved from:
  2. Patkar, Kunda B. (2008) Indian J Plast Surg. Oct; 41(Suppl): S134-S137. Herbal cosmetics in ancient India. Retrieved from:
  3. American Skin Association (2012) Healthy Skin. Retrieved from:
  4. Oackianathan, Nilani and Kandasamy, Ruckmani (2011) Functional Plant Science and Biotechnology. Skin Care with Herbal Exfoliants. Retrieved from:
  5. Canadian Dermatology Association (2020) Acne. Retrieved from:
  6. Leung, Janice (2018) Dermveda. The Science of Exfoliants: Physical vs. Chemical. Retrieved from:
  7. Draelos, Zoe Diana and Thaman, Lauren A. Cosmetic Formulation of Skin Care Products. Retrieved from:
  8. Skin Therapy Letter. (2004) STL Volume 9, Number 2. Chemical Peels. Retrieved from:
  9. Moghimipour, Eskandar (2012) Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. Winter;7(1): 9–10. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Retrieved from:
  10. Marta Rendon, MD; Lina M. Cardona, MD; Eric W. Bussear, PA-C; Adolfo L. Benitez, MD; Luz E. Colón, MS, CCRC, CCRA2; Lori A. Johnson, PhD. (2008) Therapeutics for the Clinician. Successful Treatment of Moderate to Severe Melasma With Triple Combination Cream and Glycolic Acid Peels: a Pilot Study. Retrieved from:
  11. Arif, Tasleem, (2015) Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol 8: 455-461. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Retrieved from:
  1. First, Why Exfoliate?
  2. A Look At Exfoliation Methods
  3. The Two Most Common Types of Chemical Peels
  4. At-Home Peels Vs. Pro Peels