If you’re curious about trying a face peel, it isn’t as scary as it sounds. These skin-smoothing products are often a liquid or cream (in mask, serum, or face pad form) that contain exfoliating ingredients—and the results can be pretty impressive.
“By removing the top layers of the skin, peels can treat conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation, melasma, wrinkles, and improve skin’s texture and luminosity,” says Channa Ovits, M.D., a dermatologist at Westmed Medical Group in Westchester, NY.
Peels are typically made with a mix of acids, including alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs, like glycolic, lactic, or malic acids), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs, like salicylic and citric acids), and even fruit acids (like apple or pumpkin). “These ingredients work by dissolving the bonds between the skin cells,” Dr. Ovits explains. They may also contain ingredients that stimulate cell renewal, like vitamin C or retinol, adds Cyndi Yag-Howard, M.D., president and CEO of Yag-Howard Dermatology Center in Naples, FL.
You can get a professional peel at a dermatologist’s office, which will penetrate deeper into the skin, says Dr. Yag-Howard. That makes them more effective, but also comes with potential side effects like redness or downtime due to actual skin peeling.
But since these treatments can get expensive, an at-home peel is a solid alternative (and gentler in nature). “There are so many great benefits to these at-home peels. It may take trial and error between milder products and ones that are more aggressive to find the right one for you,” says Dr. Yag-Howard.
How to choose and use the best at-home face peel
Mind your reaction: If your skin is sensitive or you have a condition like rosacea, you can still use a peel, but consider speaking with your dermatologist about what might be right for your complexion, skin concerns, and goals.
Look for products that are specifically formulated for sensitive skin, which will use soothing ingredients and gentler acids, says Dr. Ovits. You may want to look for fruit enzymes as the active ingredient and hydrators to buffer dryness, like hyaluronic acid. You can expect some tingling—that’s okay. But if the peel starts to burn, take it off, says Dr. Ovits. That’s not a normal reaction or a sign that it’s “working.”
Apply at night: Follow the instructions on the product, as this will tell you how often to use the specific peel for optimal benefits and a reduced risk of side effects like dryness.
Peels that are suited for daily use are generally milder than those designed for weekly use, says Dr. Yag-Howard. What’s more, you’ll have to decide how this step fits into your schedule. It might be easier if you save a peel for self-care Sunday versus rushing through it. Because peels can make your skin more sun-sensitive, apply them at night and use SPF the next day (as you should be doing already).
Scan the label: A great at-home peel will include some combination of the acids mentioned above, but look for supporting ingredients in the formula, too. For example, you might choose vitamin C or green tea for protective antioxidants that brighten, ceramides to help retain moisture, or peptides to help build collagen for bouncier skin.
Not sure where to start? Here are the best at-home face peels that will make a real difference in your complexion.
Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
Dr. Dennis Gross SkincareDermstore
This peel comes with individually wrapped pads, with two in each set. One is saturated with AHAs like glycolic, malic, and lactic acids, plus salicylic acid to defend against dullness, blotchiness, and acne. The second wipe contains retinol and resveratrol (an antioxidant) to encourage collagen production and guard against aging free radical damage. The results? Smaller pores, a smoother complexion, and a boost in radiance.
AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
The OrdinaryUlta Beauty
For such a budget-friendly buy, this serum-style peel really packs a punch with a blend of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids to smooth and brighten the skin. “When used once or twice weekly, this peel gives a nice, even glow at a very reasonable price point,” says Dr. Ovits. It wins universal rave reviews for making skin look like it’s under a real-life Instagram filter.
FIRMx Exfoliating Peel Gel
Peter Thomas RothDermstore
Keratinase enzymes help break down the bonds between skin cells, while fruit enzymes from pomegranate and pineapple deftly remove them. But the treatment doesn’t stop there: After your fresh face is revealed, glycerin and hyaluronic acid (both humectants that attract water) trap in moisture to plump and hydrate. “I SWEAR by this stuff, and you’ll honestly feel like you have a whole new face afterwards!” one reviewer raved. “The tiniest, pea-sized drop targets every morsel of dead skin on your face in the most gentle, non-abrasive manner.”
This cult-favorite mask has garnered devout followers who “can’t live without it” because this peel delivers. There is a 25% blend of AHAs, making it one of the more potent at-home peels around. Reviewers are into this for delivering near-flawless skin that rivals a dermatologist peel. Just note it can be harsher on sensitive faces, so test the product first before using it for the first time (and start with just a few minutes, not the full 20).
Retinol is the highlight in the first step of this peel, an ingredient that promotes skin cell turnover to combat fine lines and wrinkles. The second step is a resurfacing serum that helps fight dull, uneven skin. Reviewers are overwhelmingly blown away by how effective the system is (which can be used daily), especially for mature skin that can be drier and more sensitive to retinoids.
For when you want to bring the spa home to you, this peel asks you to take two steps for even more radiant results. The first is using the vitamin C/peptide resurfacing crystals for a mask-like treatment. Then, finish up with the lactic and salicylic acid activating gel, which creates a warm foam. The result? Instantly softened skin.
First Aid BeautyMacy’s
This gentle peel utilizes lactic and salicylic acids to exfoliate, clear pores, and brighten skin. Kaolin clay sops up excess oil, while jojoba and green tea hydrate and soothe. Great for sensitive skin, this peel doesn’t cause any stinging or redness, and leaves the face feeling calm and smooth.
“These pads with glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid are my favorite chemical exfoliants for brighter, more even skin tone,” Shari Marchbein, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Downtown Dermatology in New York City. “These are great for improving hyperpigmentation of the skin, minimizing the appearance of pores, and giving the skin a gentle exfoliation for glowing hydrated skin. I use once weekly at night and be sure to moisturize over top, and then use SPF in the morning.”
Enriched with 10% AHAs and fruit enzymes, this leave-on peel acts more like a facial treatment, gently exfoliating, busting through build-up, and improving skin texture. “It does a great job of clearing out blocked pores with regular use and does not dry out skin,” one happy reviewer wrote. “I love that it is alcohol-free, so it won’t dry out or irritate my skin. It dries quickly and does not leave a sticky residue, so you can easily layer serum and moisturizer on top.”
AHAs and BHAs join forces with vitamins A, C, and E to fortify skin, promote collagen formation, and boost moisture, while aloe nourishes and soothes. Reviewers love that it can be used frequently, does not irritate the skin, and gives overnight results.
The INKEY ListSephora
The 10% glycolic acid is the main player that sloughs off tired cells in this peel. It’s supported by fruit acid (another exfoliator) and apple cider vinegar to target and prevent blemishes. Folks with sensitive skin really stand by this peel and say it doesn’t cause stinging.
Dr. Dennis Gross SkincareDermstore
Along with lactic and glycolic acids, you’ll also find the pineapple-derived enzyme bromelain in step 1 of this two-step peel that’s designed to be used up to three times per week. Whereas step 1 exfoliates, step two calms things down with antioxidants, including tiger grass and green tea. Bonus: It’s suited for a range of skin types from dry to oily (and in between).
EminenceEminence Organic Skincare
Pumpkin, pineapple, and papaya work with glycolic and lactic acids to slough off cells while nourishing the fresh, healthy skin underneath. The benefit of a pumpkin and yam enzyme peel is that it not only boosts radiance, but it also provides antioxidant beta-carotene (from the squash’s orange hue!) that fortifies your complexion’s defenses. Hyaluronic acid prevents moisture loss to keep skin plump and hydrated.
The set of 60 pads delivers two months of daily treatments to maintain a brighter complexion. Pomegranate enzyme lifts off dead cells, while fatty acids rehydrate. The best part about this peel is that you can swipe over skin without needing to rinse after, so you could keep these by your bedside table for an in-bed treatment to exfoliate and moisturize before you hit the hay.
Tell me which ones you have tried….. I have tried over half of these in the past couple years – my top are the hanicure and beauty counter along with Dr. Dennis Gross.