What you need to know about all-the-rage at-home acid peels

Which is best for your needs, and tips on when and how to use them from the pros.

Which is best for your needs, and tips on when and how to use them from the pros

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Acid peels had a bad rap when they first came out in the 1990s, because most of them left skin red, irritated and ready to, actually, peel off. Over the past decade, at-home peels have revamped their image, and we're all about them. But they can be tricky, if not slightly intimidating, to get into. So we talked to Victoria Radford, medical aesthetician and founder of Radford salon, as well as Patricia Clare, NeoStrata National Training Manager, (NeoStrata brought glycolic acid to the Canadian market), to learn which peels work best on what type of skin, how often you can use an at-home version and which formulations actually do what.

Here's our complete guide to acid peels, and some acid-packed powerhouse products to help get your complexion glowing this season.

Prime candidate

Who is best suited to use acid peels? Is there an age that best responds to their exfoliating powers? "As early as our late teens and our early '20s the skin's natural exfoliation begins to slow down," Clare warns. So starting at a young age can help combat skin issues. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try them if you're in your '30s, '40s or older. "All ages will get great benefits from a peel," she adds.

"Salicylic acid works best on acne, so I use it more on a younger demographic," Radford recommends. "Glycolic acid is good for fine lines and wrinkles and generally best used on an older demographic. Lactic acid is a little more gentle, and does wonders on pigmentation and brightness. I use this on any age."

The great chemical debate

In this area of skincare, there are buzzwords that may be confusing. Like what exactly is the difference between AHA's (the most popular form is glycolic acids) and BHA's (salicylic acids are considered BHA's)? And why are they called peels? Because that sounds pretty scary.

We also found out that AHA's, aka alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid, are known for their deep exfoliating powers. "[AHA's provide] exfoliation that leads to enhanced cell turnover and smoother, brighter skin," Clare said. According to her, they are fast absorbing, water-soluble ingredients that sink into the skin, and contain anti-aging benefits by helping to "build the skin's hydrating support matrix to improve visual signs of aging such as fine lines, wrinkles." BHA's, also known as beta hydroxy acids, conversely do similar work, but are more known for working to unclog pores and can have major acne-fighting benefits, like Radford mentioned.

Clare says, "Like peeling a fruit, the best is yet to come and so it is with our skin." When the top surface of the skin is exfoliated, that's when brands and doctors refer to it as a peel. And with most at-home peels, you'll only be taking off that top layer of skin. "Doctors now often refer to peels as 'lunchtime peels' to help clients understand that there is no down time with a glycolic peel."

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution, $9, The Ordinary Salicylic 2% Solution, $5.30,

The redness factor

Even if you haven't seen Sex and the City (um, what is wrong with you?), you'll likely remember the scene where Kim Cattrall's character Samantha Jones shows up to Carrie Bradshaw's book party wearing a lace veil to cover up her freshly peeled face. Nobody wants that, so how are we to know that the at-home versions of these chemicals won't do the same? First off, the pH levels of at-home peels are low, but they're not as low as those administered at the derm's office, according to Clare. Also, if you start to feel a tingle that is uncomfortable, take the mask off or wash your face, asap, she recommends. "A peel is always working for you whether you feel it or not," Clare continues. "So, don't decide to leave it on longer than package instructions when doing one at home. For most clients, there can be a bit of tingly sensation with a high-grade at-home peel. If you feel heat, or itchiness, or see irritation such as redness or swelling, simply rinse the peel immediately from your face and follow with a post procedure cream that will be suggested with your at-home peel."

Radford takes it one step further. She says that consistent use of chemical peels may have a detrimental effect on the skin, so use wisely. "Acids are a very effective tool to provide you with medical results, however people get very excited about those results," Radford said. "They can continue to use acids when no longer needed, which may cause adverse effects. When and if your skin turns red and irritated you've used them too long. I like to use acid as a mini treatment before a special event or in my case every weekend. I will also use concentrated everyday for three days to give me the glow." So once your skin has reached an optimal level, i.e. bright, smooth and slightly glowing, you may want to lay off the acids unless a special occasion calls.

If you have sensitive skin, you've probably stayed away from peels, because why give your skin another reason to freak out, right? People with skin that truly is sensitive (i.e., it reacts easily to heat, wind, friction and cold), should likely consult a doctor or a medical aesthetician before trying an at-home peel, although there are versions on the market that fall into the sensitive skin category. A patch test is a must, but also look for ingredients like willowherb, lavender and rose, that help to soothe skin while the acids get to work.

Boscia Exfoliating Peel Gel, $45,

On notice

The amazing thing about peels is how quickly results can show. Almost right away, after applying a mask or an acid toner solution, you'll notice that skin is smoother and softer, and that it will have a little bit of a glow. If you start using a masque frequently in a series, after three treatments you should see some pretty fantastic results. "After a series (three or more) is where you really start to see clarity improve and great vitality come back to tired and lethargic skin," Clare said. "At-home peels are a great jump start to great skin care, as they provide both exfoliation and rejuvenation." Expect to see results like a reduction in fine lines, acne scars and brown spots.

Korres Pomegranate AHAS & Enzymes Resurfacing Mask, $45,

One acid to rule them all?

If you've researched peels, you've likely heard that glycolic acid is the most beneficial of AHA's. And Clare agrees. "Glycolic Acid that comes from sugar cane is the medically favoured AHA. It is the workhorse of the AHA family, as it is the smallest in molecular weight, which allows it to penetrate the skin quickly," she said.

"My favourite thing about being able to use acids is mixing and matching," said Radford. "I often layer and treat different areas of the face and use one type of acid to make others more effective." Ideally, if you're looking to get results in one area, let's say, use an acid that will help as a spot treatment, instead of all over the face. "When your skin is dry, use products for dry skin," she adds. "Just like when your skin is breaking out, use your acne products, and when you lose your sparkle use products that brighten your skin. Treat an issue with a specific acid rather than just blindly using any 'miracle fix' product."

At NeoStrata, their products also include Smart Amphoteric Complex, a system that allows the glycolic acid to be delivered in a gradual fashion, meaning it's less irritating to the complexion.

NeoStrata Glycolic Renewal 10% Lotion, $42,

Body tonic

We usually think of peels for just the face, but lately products have been popping up for other parts of the body that contain acids to help produce younger looking skin. "Avoid applying at-home peels around the eyes, the tender tissue around the nose and also, we don't recommend at-home peels be applied on the thinner tissues of the lips," Clare advises. But other parts of the body that are a go—the backs of the hands and decolletage.

Deborah Lippmann Marshmellow Whipped Hand & Cuticle Scrub, $33,