Contrary to what TikTok might tell you, not all skin care products can magically turn your patchy and dull skin into bright and supple overnight. But if there’s one product that comes close, it’s a chemical home peel.
Unlike moisturizers, serums, or cleansers, a chemical peel exfoliates – or “peels” – the top layers of the skin, typically revealing more even, healthier-looking skin. For decades, the only way to get a chemical peel was to see a dermatologist for a very powerful in-office treatment. But over the past few years, brands have launched less harsh at-home iterations that can help boost an otherwise diligent skincare routine. These aren’t a substitute for in-office treatment, but they are a fantastic, more economical way to tackle dullness, hyperpigmentation, and fine lines head on.
“At-home chemical peels are a great way to increase the effectiveness of a strong skin care regimen and improve the effects of in-office procedures between sessions,” says Dr Corey L. Hartman, founder of Dermatology Skin well-being in Birmingham, Alabama. “It’s a great way to controlling acne breakouts, smoothes fine lines and wrinkles, improves pigmentation and gives general glow to dull skin.
While most are familiar with physical exfoliation, such as using a washcloth or some apricot scrub to remove dead skin cells, chemical exfoliation uses a different mechanism to achieve the same effect. “Certain ingredients, like acids or enzymes, break down the sugars in the skin, which ends up causing the skin to eliminate them faster than it would on its own,” explains Dr. Designer Joshua, director of cosmetic and clinical research in the dermatology department at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“Chemical peels deliver high concentrations of exfoliating acids to the skin to brighten skin tone, even skin tone and improve the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles,” says Zeichner.
Despite the name, most peels won’t let your skin peel off into sheets, but you may experience peeling or dryness after use because the product works by magic.
“Most at-home peels contain glycolic or salicylic acid, which are two of the strongest hydroxyl acids on the market,” says Hartman. “Mandelic acid and lactic acid are also starting to find their way into some products, but the vast majority contain glycolic acid, which comes in different concentrations and allows gradual titration depending on tolerance.”
Generally, Zeichner says that high-concentration single-ingredient peels tend to be more potent than those that use lower concentrations of several acids.
Not all skin types can tolerate chemical peels at home as well as others. Still, it’s possible to find one that works for you – just be sure to do a patch test on an area like your arm to check for all possible interactions.
“Newbies should start low to see how it goes,” says Zeichner, who recommends a salicylic acid peel for oily or acne-prone skin. “If you have dull skin or treat fine lines and wrinkles, glycolic acid is your essential ingredientHe says, noting that it is the most potent of the hydroxyl acids due to its ability to penetrate deepest into the skin.
Zeichner advises, “If you have more sensitive skin, stick to ingredients like lactic acid, which is milder due to its greater chemical structure.
Because chemical peels can be more aggressive on the skin than other product categories like serums or masks, it’s best to remove any potentially irritating ingredients from your rotation days before use, such as retinol or other AHAs.
SkinBetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Pads ($ 105; skinbetter.com)
SkinBetter AlphaRet Exfoliating Pads
“This is the best at-home peel system I’ve seen to deliver the closest office-like results in a safe and reliable product,” says Hartman. “These peelable pads offer an extra level of exfoliation for those looking to increase their skin cell turnover and add to their retinol. They can be used every week after a period of ramp-up. They are so gentle that they can be used as often as every other day at first, then titrated up to once or twice a week. If you want to maximize the glow of your skin, these tampons are a great addition or useful between in-office treatments.
Ole Henriksen Dewtopia 20% Acid Night Treatment ($ 55; sephora.com)
Ole Henriksen Dewtopia 20% Acid Night Care
This overnight treatment relies on a blend of glycolic and lactic acids to exfoliate the skin, but its main ingredient, aloe vera, makes it a great option for sensitive skin. Critics rave about its effectiveness on several skin types and tones.
Regular Lactic Acid 5% + HA ($ 6.50; ulta.com)
Ordinary lactic acid 5% + HA
An economical choice, this peel uses a mixture of lactic acid and hyaluronic acid – a natural moisturizer – to gently exfoliate the skin.
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment ($ 122; dermstore.com)
Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
A dermal favorite for sensitive skin, this lactic acid peel uses a low concentration to smooth and plump the skin.
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Daily Extra Strength Peel ($ 88; sephora.com)
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Daily Extra Strength Peel
Over 7,000 5-star reviews (and a cult beauty editor) say this AHA / BHA peel pad is an effective solution for dull, patchy skin.
Murad Daily Clarifying Peel ($ 39; sephora.com)
Murad Daily Clarifying Peel
This daily peel uses a low concentration of salicylic and glycolic acids to reduce pore size and control rashes.
Dermalogica Rapid Reveal Peel ($ 85; ulta.com)
Peeling Rapid Reveal Dermalogica
AHA extracts, lactic acid and fermented plant enzymes work together to fight fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.
StriVectin Daily Reveal Exfoliating Facial Pads ($ 45; sephora.com)
StriVectin Daily Reveal Facial Scrub Pads
StriVectin is a favorite of so many dermis thanks to its effective, no-frills formulas (and dozens of 5-star reviews show it’s a customer favorite too).
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel ($ 95; sephora.com)
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Clinical Grade Resurfacing Liquid Peel
Another cult favorite of Dr. Dennis Gross, this two-step peel contains a higher concentration of glycolic acid, along with witch hazel, lactic acid and salicylic acid to chemically exfoliate the skin. Nearly 1,000 5-star reviewers raved about its ability to even skin tone, reduce rashes and lighten skin.