Once upon a time, the chemical peel had a reputation for being a treatment you’d only ever get done in a dermatologist’s office with the knowledge that you’d have to hide for your face for a week or so while your skin went through a molting phase (let us not forget Samantha Jones’ infamous wide-brimmed hat at Carrie Bradshaw’s book party) before eventually revealing a resurfaced, glowing complexion.
No more. Not only have in-office offerings gotten kinder and gentler, but there are also at-home options that get you results more gradually – and without any downtime. That last part is especially great, as many of us are avoiding unnecessary appointments until the pandemic clears. Here, we are rounding up the best at-home chemical exfoliants to treat every skin concern.
The Benefits of At-Home Chemical Peels
So, what exactly is an at-home chemical peel? It’s a super exfoliator featuring chemical ingredients rather than the physical, gritty kind you find in scrubs. Think vitamin C, alpha hydroxy acids (including glycolic, lactic, and citric acids), and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid that slough away dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. Because they clear out dulling debris that can clog your pores, they can help with acne, improve skin tone and texture, up your glow, smooth the look of fine lines, and address mild hyperpigmentation.
As awareness about them has grown over the years, so too, has demand. In fact, it’s led some aesthetic providers, like New York City-based double board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon Kevin Tehrani, MD, to create a so-called “contactless chemical peel” as an at-home offering done under the guidance of an aesthetician during these COVID-19-impacted days. Calling on the same ingredients used in-office, he says, these newer offerings are a “great way for our patients to maintain their skincare routines.”
For those who want to go the DIY route in a simple and safe manner, there are also ready-made formulas you can buy off the shelf, which Arash Akhavan, MD, a board certified dermatologist in NYC, calls “an effective and generally safe way to periodically exfoliate the skin without visiting the dermatologist.”
If you’re going that route, West Hollywood-based board certified dermatologist Jason Emer, MD, says it’s best to use them to address mild surface issues and leave the bigger concerns (think: deep acne scars) to the pros. When in doubt, he suggests going with a mask-type peel that doesn’t require a neutralizer. “Most leave-on peels that you have to neutralize use alcohol as a base to get the products into the skin and they then require you to stop the peel before it actually burns you,” he explains. Sound scary? It can be. So, especially for people new to peels or who are doing it without guidance from their provider’s office via video chat, it’s best to keep it simple.
A few more pro trips:
- Pay Attention to the Directions: Read — and follow — the directions for the formula you pick to make sure you’re using that particular product correctly.
- Start Slow: When you add a new peel to your regime, you want to start slowly (like once a week) to check for any signs of irritation or inflammation along the way.
- Honor Your Skin Type: You may want to skip chemical exfoliators altogether if you’re prone to irritation or are at the darker end of the Fitzpatrick scale. “Dark skin types need to avoid strong leave-on and wash-off peels for risk of hyperpigmentation,” Dr. Emer notes.
- Consider Your Medical History: That sensitivity caution counts double if you’re on certain skin medications like Accutane or prescription retinoids.
That said, at-home peels can and do provide visible and lasting results when incorporated into a skincare routine at a pace that your skin can handle. Now that you know the basics, below a few of our favorites off-the-shelf chemical exfoliant options:
THE TWO STEP: OLAY MASKS VITAMIN C + AHA RESURFACING PEEL
This set starts with a radiance-boosting, vitamin C-spiked mask. Layer on the AHA peel activator and let it go to town on dull spots with dissolving “resurfacing crystals” that polish as you massage for a minute before rinsing it all away. $27, olay.com
THE DERM-APPROVED SET: EMERAGESKIN AERIFY COMPLEXION KIT
Dr. Emer’s 14-day resurfacing kit has everything you’ll need to ease all your complexion woes in just two weeks, including a foaming cleanser, a chemical refiner, a vitamin C-based brightener, an antioxidant-rich soothing lotion, and a sunscreen to protect all your hard work. $250, emeragecosmetics.com
THE SWIPE-ON OPTION: NATURALLY SERIOUS GET EVEN COLD-PRESSED PEEL PADS
These mess-free pads counter any potential irritation you may get from the pomegranate enzymes inside with soothing colloidal oatmeal. Then, oleic, palmitic, and linoleic fatty acids go to work on skin texture for a smoother complexion. $29, sephora.com
THE BIG GUNS: RENÉE ROULEAU TRIPLE BERRY SMOOTHING PEEL
This formula boldly asks the question ‘why treat your skin with one berry when you can use three?’ (blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, to be exact), and then follows that up with ‘why strip away gunk with one acid when you can do it with five?’ (i.e. madelic, lactic, salicylic, tartaric, and malic). Spreading it on feels a bit like smoothing jelly on a peanut butter sandwich thanks to the fruity smell and color, but it leaves skin incredibly soft and luminous. $89, reneerouleau.com
THE BIG GUNS: RENÉE ROULEAU TRIPLE BERRY SMOOTHING PEEL
Ten minutes, twice-a-week is all you need with this cult-favorite cream mask that features papaya enzymes, viniferine (an extract derived from grapevine sap), and glycolic acid. Devotees sing its praises for fading hyperpigmentation and helping curb acne. It also gets love for showing results quickly yet gently. $30, caudalie.com
THE DAILY FIX: KIEHL’S NIGHTLY REFINING MICRO-PEEL CONCENTRATE
Dermatologist-tested and sustainably sourced, this formula is infused with quinoa husk extract and phytic acid to help address uneven skin texture. It was formulated for daily use, but, since peels can be a bit harsh on sensitive skin, we recommend you try it out a couple times a week at first and gradually work your way up from there. $60, kiehls.com
THE PRO CHOICE: PCA SKIN MICRO PEEL AT-HOME KIT
This curated kit delivers professional-grade results from the comfort of your home. The pre-peel cleanser, toner, and mask ensure your skin is properly prepped for the enzyme-powered peel. Finish off your DIY treatment with the brand’s antioxidant serum, soothing moisturizer, and gentle sunscreen. $129, pcaskin.com
THE QUICK FIX: ALPYN BEAUTY WILD HUCKLEBERRY PEEL
This five-minute multitasker combines eight natural acids to gently dissolve complexion-dulling dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, while bamboo powder and berry seed paste polish them away. $56, sephora.com
THE WRINKLE ERASER: EXUVIANCE PURE RETINOL CORRECTING PEEL
One of the heaviest hitters of the bunch, this once-a-week, skin-firming refiner combines 0.3 percent pure retinol with citrate to support collagen production. Note: Be extra vigilant about sunscreen application when using this corrector, as the retinol can make skin more vulnerable to UV rays. $72, ulta.com
THE BRIGHTNER: ALGENIST BLUE ALGAE VITAMIN C DARK SPOT CORRECTING PEEL
This vegan exfoliating treatment specifically targets uneven skin tone — reducing the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmention, while brightening dull skin — thanks to potent blend of blue algae-derived vitamin C, alguronic acid, and a proprietary triple acid complex. $85, sephora.com
THE ALL-IN-ONE: LANCER SKINCARE CAVIAR LIME ACID PEEL
A skin resurfacer that does it all. It exfoliates with 10 percent glycolic acid and 10 percent brightening phytic acid, offers moisture thanks to pineapple and papaya enzymes, and then adds some anti-aging help via stabilized retinol. $95, sephora.com
THE SMOOTHER: DRUNK ELEPHANT T.L.C. SUKARI BABYFACIAL AHA + BHA MASK
When it hit the shelves in 2019, this little wonder snapped up multiple beauty awards for good reason: It gets results. That’s thanks to a 25 percent AHA blend combined with 2 percent salicylic acid and dullness-fighting chickpea flour. $80, sephora.com
THE LUXE NATURAL: TATA HARPER RESURFACING MASK
The brand’s best-selling mask, this treatment offers exfoliation via white willow bark and pomegranate enzymes and oil-absorption by way of pink clay. And for the folks looking for a green option, take note: 100 percent of the ingredients are from natural origin. $65, tataharperskincare.com