Chemical Peels for Acne: Everything You Need to Know

Acne vulgaris is a pervasive skin issue that can significantly impact your quality of life, affecting not just teenagers but adults as well. Even after active acne has subsided, you’re often left with marks and scars that are equally challenging to manage. 

While there’s an array of over-the-counter treatments available, these options might not always give you the results you desire. This brings us to a more specialized method of dealing with acne and its aftermath—chemical peels.

How Do Chemical Peels Work?

A chemical peel is a dermatological procedure that involves applying a chemical solution to the skin. This solution typically contains various types of acid, such as glycolic acid, alpha hydroxy acid, or salicylic acid. The purpose of these acids is to induce controlled injury to the skin, leading to exfoliation and eventually, peeling of the outer layers.

When the dead skin cells shed off, what’s revealed is a new layer of skin that is typically smoother, less wrinkled, and more even in skin tone. The level of exfoliation depends on the type and concentration of acid used, how long the acid is left on the skin, and your specific skin type and concern.

Types of chemical peels

Chemical peels are categorized into three types based on their depth of penetration. Superficial peels use mild acids like alpha-hydroxy acid to penetrate only the outer layer of skin and exfoliate it. Medium-depth peels use trichloroacetic acid or TCA and penetrate the outer and middle layers of skin for more dramatic resurfacing. Deep peels contain phenol and penetrate the middle layer of skin more deeply; they have a high risk profile are not recommended for acne.

How Do Chemical Peels Help with Acne?

Acne is often the result of clogged pores, bacterial infection, and inflammation. Over-the-counter products generally offer temporary relief but may not target the root causes effectively. 

Chemical peels are clinically proven to improve acne symptoms, and offer several advantages in acne management:

Unclog pores

Acids like salicylic acid (a beta-hydroxy acid or BHA) are effective in breaking down the debris and oils that clog pores. This helps to reduce breakouts and promotes clearer skin.

Control oil

Salicylic acid lowers the production of sebum, the oil naturally produced by your skin. With less sebum to clog your pores, you’ll start to see fewer breakouts. It’s also comedolytic, meaning it prevents pimples from forming because of clogged pores.

Improve product absorption 

With the top layer of dead skin removed, the skin care products you use at home can penetrate more deeply, making them more effective.

Fade hyperpigmentation and acne scars

Peels can help lighten areas of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation that can linger for months or years after a bad breakout. Stronger peels can also smooth out the texture of the skin, reducing the appearance of mild acne scars.

What’s the Best Chemical Peel for Acne?

The best chemical peel for you depends on your specific type of acne, skin type, and any additional skin issues you might have like sun damage or hyperpigmentation. Today’s peels are usually composed of a cocktail of ingredients optimized to treat a specific condition or range of conditions.

Ingredients found in chemical peels for acne include:

  • Salicylic acid: Ideal for oily and acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, allowing it to penetrate into the pores and exfoliate from within. 
  • Glycolic acid: Glycolic acid, a type of alpha-hydroxy acid, is safe for all skin types. It is good for not just acne but also for fading dark spots and fine lines.
  • Trichloroacetic acid: TCA is usually found in medium-depth peels. It’s effective for treating more severe forms of acne, scars, and pigmentation.
  • Jessner’s solution: This peel is a combination of salicylic acid, lactic acid, and resorcinol. It’s particularly effective for people with darker skin tones because it minimizes the risk of discoloration.
  • Hydroquinone: a bleaching agent that lightens post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

How We Treat Acne at Circles of Wellness

For our acne-prone patients, we typically recommend a VI Peel from the Vitality Institute. These painless medium-depth peels offer significant results and are safe for all skin types and tones. They contain a blend of skin-boosting, acne-fighting  ingredients including TCA, salicylic acid, retinoic acid, and vitamin C. 

  • VI Peel Purify is specially formulated to tackle excess oiliness, active blemishes, and congested skin
  • VI Peel Precision Plus targets acne scarring and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation
  • VI Peel Purify + Precision Plus combines the two formulas to tackle active acne and scars at the same time.
  • VI Peel Body combats active acne, congestion, and hyperpigmentation on the body, including the neck, chest, and back

Depending on your skin’s unique needs, we may also advise complementary acne treatments such as a customized facial or Stellar IPL, a gentle light-based therapy that destroys acne-causing bacteria.

Good Candidates

Determining whether you are a good candidate for a chemical peel depends on various factors, including your skin type, the severity of your acne, and your overall health. Generally, individuals with mild to severe acne, frequent breakouts, acne scarring, or hyperpigmentation are suitable candidates. Additionally, if you have uneven skin tone or fine lines, a chemical peel could offer multiple benefits.

However, certain contraindications such as active skin infections, certain types of dermatitis, or the use of specific medications like retinoids may make you unsuitable for this treatment.

What to Expect at Your Chemical Peel

When you arrive for your chemical peel appointment, your skin will be cleansed thoroughly, and the chosen peel solution will be applied. You may feel a tingling or burning sensation during the application. After a set period, the solution is neutralized and removed, followed by the application of a moisturizer and sunscreen.


You can expect some redness and sensitivity after the peel. Some peels may also result in temporary discoloration of the skin. Your skin will start to shed, revealing a new layer beneath. 

Downtime and the severity of side effects varies depending on the type of peel, so your recovery may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. It’s crucial to follow your dermatologist’s aftercare instructions, which may include moisturizing, avoiding sun exposure, and using gentle skin care products. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher to protect your new skin, which is especially prone to sun damage during the healing period.

How Often Should I Get a Chemical Peel for Acne?

The frequency of your chemical peels will depend on the specific type of peel, the severity of your acne, and your skin’s healing capacity. Mild peels can usually be done every three to four weeks, while medium depth peels might only be advisable a few times a year. Always follow the guidance of your dermatologist or skincare specialist.


Chemical peels can be a beneficial addition to your skincare routine if you’re struggling with acne or acne scars. They offer a way to deeply exfoliate the skin, unclog pores, and accelerate the turnover of skin cells. When chosen carefully and administered by professionals, chemical peels can lead to significant improvements in your skin’s texture and tone. Always consult a dermatologist or skin care specialist to determine if a chemical peel is suitable for you and which type would provide the most benefits.

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