As far as chemical peels go, glycolic acid peels are among the mildest and most popular. That’s largely because glycolic acid is considered to be natural. It comes from sugar cane and belongs to a family of acids called alpha-hydroxy acids or fruit acids [source: Pollick]. Think of it this way: If the fruit acids formed a football team, glycolic acid would be their star quarterback. It is by far the most popular and well-known acid of the bunch.
Glycolic acid has many uses. In fact, it’s used in high concentrations to remove rust from metal, and anything with a glycolic acid concentration of more than 10 percent is considered a hazardous material [source: Pollick]. Keeping that in mind, most glycolic acid peels have a concentration of 50 percent or higher [source: Hilinski]. That means you’re actually using a hazardous material on your skin, but considering what you’re trying to accomplish, that makes sense.
During a glycolic acid peel, the solution is applied using a sponge and left on the skin for a predetermined amount of time based on concentration. It penetrates the skin and breaks the bonds that hold each layer together. Once the desired number of layers have been separated and removed, the acid can be washed off with water. Immediately after a treatment, the skin will look red and continue to peel for several days. The entire process from treatment to recovery can take a week or more [source: Hilinski].
Glycolic acid peels are mild when compared with some of their more hazardous counterparts, and as a result the outcome might not be as noticeable as you’d like. It’s typical that multiple peels will be necessary to achieve the desired result. The upside is that there are very few complications associated with glycolic acid peels.
See other types of Peels to find out about a similar chemical peel that, like the glycolic treatment, also targets the superficial level of the skin.