Can Glycolic Acid Peels Treat Acne Scars?

by Gio
glycolic acid peels treat acne scars

Can glycolic acid treat acne scars?

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.

That’s because, unlike Roxann, I never had to deal with acne. Every now and then, a zit pops its ugly head on my chin, but acne has, so far, passed me by. So, even though I use glycolic acid a lot, I have no first hand experience about how well it works to treat acne scars.

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?

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 on their own (although, they take their sweet time to do so).

Scars, instead, occur when the 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.

Who is more likely to get acne scars? Some people have inherited a predisposition to them, but the severity of your acne matters too. The worse it is, the more likely you’ll develop acne scars. And, as you age, they only become more noticeable (one of the side effects of the natural depletion of collagen).

Related: The Complete Guide To Acne Scars: The Best Treatments For Each Type

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.

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.

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid: What It Is, What It Does & How To Use It

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.

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.

So, what concentrations do you need? 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.”

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.”

Related: How To Take Care Of Your Skin After A Chemical Peel

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. That’s why I believe it 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.

Glycolic acid peels remove an entire layer of skin, and that doesn’t come without side effects! You’ll surely experience some peeling and redness. A little is normal, but, if you take matters into your own hands rather than trusting a professional, the side effects will be quite severe, and as bad to deal with as your scars. Don’t risk it!

3. Be patient

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!

Have you ever used Glycolic Acid peels to treat acne scars? Share your experience in the comments below!

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165 comments

whitney c June 16, 2016 - 8:06 pm

I have acne scars for 15 years ago. I tried everything even Proactiv, which did not work for me. For the last month, I have been using Citrus Clear’s Sensitive line (moisturizer and face wash), and I have noticed that they are starting to fade! It does make my skin red after I use it, but the redness goes away after 5 minutes, and that is what is helping get rid of them!

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Gio June 25, 2016 - 5:00 pm

Whitney, I am a bit concerned by the redness, but I’m glad you’ve found something that works for you.

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Sabrina July 30, 2016 - 8:20 am

I have bad acne scaring…I want to try the glycolic peel but I don’t want to damage my skin more. Can u offer me some advice please. Thank you.

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Gio July 31, 2016 - 6:34 pm

Sabrina, I think your best bet would be to go to a dermatologist. He/she will be able to administer the peel without side effects.

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Kawthar September 1, 2016 - 6:23 pm

I have bought Glycolic acid peel at 12% today, I have hyperpigemntation and some scars (a bit of them are quite deep …) Do you think that 12% will work for a first time ? Never did peelings before !

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Gio September 2, 2016 - 6:48 pm

Kawthar, 12% is not a very high dose but for home use is fine. You will definitely see an improvement but you should use the treatment regularly if you want them to disappear.

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Kawthar September 2, 2016 - 11:01 pm

Thank you for your answer ! 😀

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Gio September 3, 2016 - 5:34 pm

Kawthar, my pleasure!

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nicholas October 8, 2016 - 5:59 pm

i have post acne scars and some wrinkles on my fore head due to the acne, is glycolic good for me and i have consulted doctor he recomended a superficial peel but it cost too much to do there is it possible for me to do it at home .pls reply me!!!!!

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Gio November 26, 2016 - 4:50 pm

Nichols, sorry to hear about your problem. I wouldn’t recommend doing peels at home on your own. If you exfoliate too much, you may remove too many layers of skin and that will take months to heal. The best bet would be to use an OTC glycolic acid exfoliant (concentration around 10/12%) but that would work slowly.

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laura con November 21, 2016 - 12:06 am

While its not a peel, the Tangerine Tingle (from CItrus Clear) works just like a peel, you just have to LEAVE IT ON FOR 5 MINUTES. Its starts to tingle, and that is the glycolic acid working. Once you wash it off, its like having a professional $100 glycolic peel. Highly recommended.

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Gio November 26, 2016 - 7:10 pm

Laura, thanks for the recommendation!

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mercy mhetri December 5, 2016 - 12:46 pm

I have lot of pores on my face doctor asked me for derma roller treatment…for now she has given me glyco 6 and uv sunscreen..and fash face wash…plzz can tell me that will my pores go away doing this…plzzz reply

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Gio December 7, 2016 - 8:58 am

Mercy, I’m assuming you’re talking about large pores? We all have pores and we can’t get rid of them. We can only make them look smaller. That prescription will definitely help although I would add a retinol serum too. Hope this helps.

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mercy mhetri December 13, 2016 - 10:44 am

What can I apply which will reduce my pores..they r small small on my cheeks only..

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Gio December 17, 2016 - 4:54 pm

Have you tried to exfoliate with salicylic acid? That should do the trick.

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Kathleen April 2, 2017 - 11:21 pm

Will glycolic acid work on forehead and furrow wrinkles?

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Gio April 3, 2017 - 9:39 am

Kathleen, yes, glycolic acid help but it can take months to see some noticeable results.

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MD April 25, 2017 - 12:23 am

I have bad back acne scars, going to dermatologist, he is giving me chemical. Will it remove my back acne scars, my confidence is on lower level now, it had given me scars on my arms also.

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MD April 25, 2017 - 12:23 am

chemical peel he is giving

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Gio April 29, 2017 - 1:23 pm

Md, yes chemical peels work. It may take a few sessions but they definitely help.

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Jassie January 24, 2018 - 6:38 pm

My dermatologist prescribed me Isotretionoin 10 mg for acne, Glycolic acid 6% cream and clindamycin gel. I applied glycolic acid cream every night for 5 days and used sunscreen in d morning but after 5 days the skin of my cheeks turned flaky n completely dry. Now I hv stoppd usng d glycolic cream. I cnt consult my derm as he is not availabl for a week and I have an important event nxt week. Can u plz tell that hw long my skin will take to get back to normal n if I cn apply makeup. Plz reply asap. Thank u !!

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Gio February 2, 2018 - 4:48 pm

Jassie, sorry for the late reply. I’ve been stuck and am behind with my emails. All the stuff your dermatologist has prescribed works well but is harsh so this side effect is to be expected. Didn’t he warn you? If not, you may want to look for another dermatologist.

Has your skin gotten back to normal? When you’re using such an intense skincare regime, you need to moisturize religiously to avoid these side effects.

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Tanmay sonawane March 12, 2018 - 2:46 pm

Your skin has become dry due to isotretionoin same thing happened to me . I stopped taking isotretionoin and asked the doctor to give me something else.

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Rimi May 13, 2018 - 11:49 am

Hello dear I have Indian complexion.i used glycolic acid 30% before one month at home.I have little tan what should I do now? Should I use glycolic acid or other acid

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Gio May 19, 2018 - 1:02 pm

Rimi, tans fade on their own but if you want to speed up the process, exfoliate with a gentle glycolic acid exfoliant (5/8%) daily.

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Briana Klauss May 25, 2018 - 10:14 pm

I suffered from acne scars and it kinda made my face look like it still had acne when it really didn’t. I searched for effective scar creams and gels before i bought anything because I didnt want to waste money and came across the best two sellers: Mederma Gel and Dr. Max Powers Scar Serum.

I bought both of them and tried each one separately for a month. The Mederma did not work for me, but the Dr. Max Powers Scar Serum worked for me – by the 2nd day i can already see that my scars are almost not there. So I started using it on my old scars and it hasn’t disappointed me. I highly recommend it.

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Gio May 27, 2018 - 8:05 am

Briana, that’s wonderful. So glad you’ve found something that works this well. Thanks for the recommendation and sharing your experience.

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Sheeja June 1, 2018 - 4:22 am

I did glycolic peel one week ago but I didn’t get much results and now I have blackheads and pimples marks on face which Cream is best for pimples or should I do once more peeling

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Gio June 2, 2018 - 3:03 pm

Sheeja, it’s probably a purge. Use a salicylic acid exfoliant in the morning or evening to make the blemishes go away faster.

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sj August 2, 2018 - 9:09 am

Hi GIO

it’s nice to see all those people who have recovered from acne scars.
during my teenage, I suffered from a lot of acne which left from moderate to deep pitted acne scars. I still have oily skin but thank god i don’t have acne problem any more.
could you please advise me that which acid and the concentration should I use to target the scars i.e. glycolic acid or salicylic acid? I don’t think so i would be going for full skin peeling, i would just be using it to on the targetted areas.

please do reply the earliest possible

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Gio August 5, 2018 - 9:32 am

SJ, the best acid is glycolic acid but I would recommend you see a dermatologist for a series of peels. OTC glycolic acid isn’t strong enough to remove scars.

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