Can Glycolic Acid Peels Treat Acne Scars?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

That’s what my dear reader Roxann asked me a few days ago. I have to admit, this question took me a bit aback. I’m a big fan of glycolic acid (it’s the best exfoliant ever!), but I had never thought about it as a treatment for acne scarring.

Why? Unlike Roxann, I never had to deal with acne. Every now and then, a zit pops its ugly head on my chin, but serious acne has, so far, passed me by (thank the skincare gods). So, even though I use glycolic acid a lot, I have no first hand experience about how well it works to treat acne scars.

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So, I did some research. I scoured scientific journals for studies on glycolic acid and its effects on acne scars. Here’s what I found out:

  • What Are Acne Scars?
  • What Is Glycolic Acid?
  • Can Glycolic Acid Peels Treat Acne Scars?
  • What Concentration Of Glycolic Acid Peels Do You Need To Treat Acne?
  • How To Use Glycolic Acid Peels To Treat Acne Scars 1.Start Small 2. Don’t Do It Alone! 3. Be Patient 4. Don’t Forget Sunscreen
  • The Bottom Line
  • 1.Start Small
  • 2. Don’t Do It Alone!
  • 3. Be Patient
  • 4. Don’t Forget Sunscreen

What Are Acne Scars?

Before we talk about treating acne scars, let’s make sure that’s what you have. It’s not always easy to tell. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is often mistaken for acne scarring.

What’s post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation? That red, pink, or brown discoloration that appears after a blemish has healed. These spots are not scars, and, thank goodness, they fade away on their own (although, they take their sweet time to do so).

Scars, instead, occur when your skin is damaged. In the case of acne cysts, pores get clogged up with bacteria, excess oil, and dead skin cells. When all this gunk accumulates too much, it’s unable to pass through the skin’s surface. Inevitably, it expands until the pore breaks, releasing matter that causes inflammation and scars.

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What Is Glycolic Acid?

Ok, so you’re sure yours are scars, not post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Why should glycolic acid be able to help? A member of the alpha hydroxy acid (AHAs) family, glycolic acid is a colorless, odorless and water-soluble substance derived from sugar cane.

Glycolic acid has exfoliating properties. It is able to loosen the “glue” that holds skin cells together, allowing them to peel off and reveal the brighter, even-toned, skin underneath. It also boosts collagen production.

This double action reduces the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and even hyperpigmentation. So, it makes sense it’d help treat acne scars too.

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But glycolic acid isn’t without side effects. When you use too much of it, or apply it too often, it can cause redness and irritation, especially if your skin is sensitive. That’s why OTC treatments only contain small concentrations (up to 15%).

Higher concentrations work faster, but they need to be prescribed by a dermatologist, or you risk removing too many layers of skin. That’s not gonna look pretty, and it’ll hurt like hell!

Glycolic Acid can cause skin to become more sensitive to the sun as well. To prevent that, simply use it together with sunscreen (sunscreen is something you should never skip anyway!). Or, if you prefer, use it at night. Whatever works best for you.

Can Glycolic Acid Peels Treat Acne Scars?

If you have post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, glycolic acid will help. As mentioned above, these spots fade on their own. But if you can’t wait to get rid of them, glycolic acid will hasten the process.

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If you have slight to moderate acne, things are a bit more complicated. Glycolic acid, especially when used with vitamins C and A (both of which can stimulate collagen production), can make scars less noticeable overtime. The bad news is that OTC concentrations usually aren’t powerful enough on their own to solve the problem.

What Concentration Of Glycolic Acid Peels Do You Need To Treat Acne?

According to a 2000 study, about 70%! How did the scientists arrive at this conclusion? They tried several concentrations on three groups of women.

Glycolic acid peels with 20%, 35%, 50%, and 70% concentrations,” the study reads, “were applied serially at 2-week intervals to 23 patients in Group A. Twenty patients in Group B used a 15% glycolic acid cream once or twice daily for a period of 24 weeks. The remaining 15 patients in Group C applied a placebo cream twice daily during the same period.”

The results? Low concentrations of glycolic acid were better tolerated, but “repeated short-contact 70% glycolic acid peels provided superior results” and “are necessary to obtain evident improvement.”

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But low concentrations aren’t completely useless. The same study claims that “long-term daily use of low-strength products may also have some useful effects on scars and may be recommended for patients who cannot tolerate the peeling procedure.”

How To Use Glycolic Acid Peels To Treat Acne Scars

Glycolic acid peels can treat acne scars, but how should you use them? Here are a few tips to help you:

1.Start Small

Although higher concentrations work best, glycolic acid is pretty powerful and should be used with care. It’s best to start with concentrations of 20%. After a couple of weeks, switch to a 30% concentration. Do a couple more treatments, and increase to 50%. Only if this is not powerful enough for you, use the strongest amount, 70%.

2. Don’t Do It Alone!

Don’t go buy a glycolic acid peel treatment on Amazon just yet! These concentrations are way too strong to be used without proper medical supervsion. Go to a doctor, and let her prescribe you the right dose and frequency.

3. Be Patient
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Glycolic acid peels work, but not overnight. Depending on how pitted (depressed) your scars are, it may take several weeks, if not months, for them to disappear.

If your scars are very severe, glycolic acid peels may not even be enough on their own to solve the problem (although, you’ll certainly see an improvement). In that case, consult your doctor for an alternative treatment.

4. Don’t Forget Sunscreen

Always, always, always, apply sunscreen after a glycolic acid peel. Glycolic acid, as we already know, makes skin more prone to sun damage. After a peel, your skin is very delicate and needs all the protection you can give it.

The Bottom Line

Glycolic acid peels can help treat slight to moderate acne scars. But they need to be administered by a professional, or you risk doing more harm than good!

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