Contrary to what TikTok might tell you, not all skin care products can magically transform your skin from uneven and dull to bright and supple in just one night. But if there’s a single product that comes close, it’s an at-home chemical peel.
Unlike moisturizers, serums or cleansers, a chemical peel exfoliates — or “peels” — the upper layers of the skin, usually revealing more even-toned and healthier-looking skin. For decades, the only way to get a chemical peel was to visit a dermatologist for a highly potent in-office treatment. But over the last few years, brands have debuted less-harsh at-home iterations that can help boost an otherwise diligent skin care routine. These are no substitute for an in-office treatment, but they’re a fantastic and more budget-friendly way to tackle dullness, hyperpigmentation and fine lines head-on.
“At-home chemical peels are a wonderful way to boost the effectiveness of a solid skin care regimen and to enhance the effects of in-office procedures between sessions,” says Dr. Corey L. Hartman, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. “They’re a great way to control acne breakouts, smooth fine lines and wrinkles, improve pigmentation and provide an overall glow to dull skin.”
While most are familiar with physical exfoliation, like using a washcloth or a certain apricot scrub to slough off dead skin cells, chemical exfoliation uses a different mechanism to get the same effect. “Certain ingredients, like acids or enzymes, break down the sugars in the skin, which eventually causes the skin to shed them off quicker than it would on its own,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital’s department of dermatology.
“Chemical peels deliver high concentrations of exfoliating acids to the skin to brighten the complexion, even skin tone and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” Zeichner says.
Despite the name, most peels won’t actually have your skin coming off in sheets, but you may see some peeling or dryness after use as the product works its magic.
iStock “Most at-home peels contain glycolic or salicylic acid, which are two of the hardest-working hydroxy acids on the market,” says Hartman. “Mandelic acid and lactic acid are starting to find their way into some products as well, but the vast majority contain glycolic acid, which comes in different concentrations and allows for gradual titration up as tolerated.”
As a general rule, Zeichner says that high-concentration, single-ingredient peels tend to be more potent than those that use lower concentrations of multiple acids.
Not all skin types can tolerate at-home chemical peels as well as others. Still, it’s possible to find one that works for you — just be sure to patch-test on an area like your arm to check for any possible interactions.
“First-timers should start low to see how it goes,” says Zeichner, who recommends a peel with salicylic acid for oily or acne-prone skin. “If you have dull skin or are addressing fine lines and wrinkles, glycolic acid is your go-to ingredient,” he says, mentioning that it’s the most powerful of the hydroxy acids due to its ability to penetrate most deeply into the skin.
Zeichner advises, “If you have more sensitive skin, stick to ingredients like lactic acid, which is gentler because of its larger chemical structure.”
Because chemical peels can be harsher on the skin than other product categories like serums or masks, it’s best to cut out any possibly irritating ingredients from your rotation days before use, like retinol or other AHAs.
SkinBetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads ($105; skinbetter.com)
SkinBetter ScienceSkinBetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Peel Pads
“This is the best at-home peel system that I’ve seen to deliver the closest to in-office-like results in a safe and reliable product,” says Hartman. “These peel pads offer an extra level of exfoliation for those seeking to boost their skin cell turnover and add to their retinol. They can be used weekly after a ramp-up period. They are so gentle that they can be used as often as every other day initially and then titrated down to once every week or two. If you want to maximize your skin’s glow, these pads are a great addition or helpful between in-office treatments.”
Ole Henriksen Dewtopia 20% Acid Night Treatment ($55; sephora.com)
SephoraOle Henriksen Dewtopia 20% Acid Night Treatment
This overnight treatment relies on a mix of glycolic and lactic acids to exfoliate skin — but its main ingredient, aloe vera, makes it a great option for those with sensitive skin. Reviewers rave about how well it works on multiple skin types and tones.
The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA ($6.50; ulta.com)
SephoraThe Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA
A budget-friendly pick, this peel uses a mix of lactic acid and hyaluronic acid — a natural moisturizing agent — to exfoliate skin gently.
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment ($122; dermstore.com)
DermstoreSunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
A derm favorite for those with sensitive skin, this lactic acid peel uses a low concentration to smooth and plump skin.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel ($88; sephora.com)
SephoraDr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel
More than 7,000 5-star reviews (and a cult following of beauty editors) say this AHA/BHA peel pad is an effective fix for dull, uneven skin.
Murad Daily Clarifying Peel ($39; sephora.com)
SephoraMurad Daily Clarifying Peel
This daily peel uses a low concentration of salicylic and glycolic acids to reduce pore size and keep breakouts under control.
Dermalogica Rapid Reveal Peel ($85; ulta.com)
UltaDermalogica Rapid Reveal Peel
AHA extracts, lactic acid and fermented plant enzymes combine to fight fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.
StriVectin Daily Reveal Exfoliating Face Pads ($45; sephora.com)
SephoraStriVectin Daily Reveal Exfoliating Face Pads
StriVectin is a favorite of so many derms thanks to its effective, no-nonsense formulas (and the dozens of 5-star reviews show it’s a customer fave, too).
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel ($95; sephora.com)
SephoraDr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel
Another cult favorite from Dr. Dennis Gross, this two-step peel features a higher concentration of glycolic acid, along with witch hazel, lactic acid and salicylic acid to chemically exfoliate skin. Nearly 1,000 5-star reviews rave about its ability to even skin tone, curb breakouts and brighten skin.
Everything you need to know about at-home facial peels
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