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Unpacking Chemical Skin Peels

By September 22, 2020No Comments

What are chemical peels? What acids are used and what products are available? All the answers are here!

Chemical skin peels use weak organic acids (often derived from fruit or plant sources) to renew the skin surface and address skin problems such as abnormal pigmentation, lines and wrinkles, enlarged pores, acne and poor surface texture.

Chemical peeling was described by the ancient Egyptians in the Eber’s Papyrus in 1550 BC, and Queen Cleopatra was famously said to have bathed in sour milk containing lactic acid to improve her complexion.

A wide range of mostly gentle acid peeling agents are available in over-the-counter preparations and in-clinic solutions, and looking at what is on offer can be very confusing.

The most common preparations contain AHA’s such as glycolic acid, or BHA’s such as salicylic acid. In practice, the most important differences are the depth of penetration into the skin (determined by the acid compound), and the solution strength (%).

Some compounds are therefore better for daily use and in sensitive skin, whilst some are better for occasional use or for in-clinic peels.

Most commonly, glycolic acid, lactic acid and salicylic acid are seen in products available at the pharmacy and online. It is common to see combination products.

For daily use in leave-on products such as moisturisers and toners, look for total AHA concentration which is less than 10%. Stronger concentrations up to 25% as seen in cleansers or weekly peels are usually well tolerated.

AHA products are very useful for all skin types, and are particularly useful in pigmentation disorders. For sensitive skin, look for lactic acid, mandelic acid or gluconolactone.


Salicylic acid (BHA) is to be used with care – 2% concentrations are available in cleanser and cream forms and this is very safe. It is particularly indicated for acne-prone skin, and is best avoided for dry or sensitive skin types. Stronger solutions (>2%) are best used on the advice of a skin-care professional.

Gentle peeling agents like Gluconolactone are great for sensitive skin.

Augmenting agents are frequently seen in many products – these include antioxidant vitamins such as Vitamin C, plant-derived antioxidants such as resorcinol, resveratrol and Vitamin B3 or niacinamide.


Peeling Agents


Glycolic Acid is a small molecule with pH 3.5 – 3.8. It has the best epidermal penetration of AHA’s and is commonly present in concentrations of 8-15%

Lactic Acid is also commonly seen in products and is slightly larger molecule than glycolic acid with a pH 3.8. It is considered slightly weaker than glycolic acid.

Mandelic Acid is larger again and hence has lower penetration – again it is a more gentle agent at the same concentration than glycolic acid.

Others include malic acid, citric acid and tartaric acid which are again larger molecules with lower penetration.



Salicylic Acid is a oil-soluble and therefore a very well absorbed acid into skin with a low pH 2.97. It is also a UV neutraliser. High absorption means it will also pass into the bloodstream ~60% of dose, therefore care is required and high concentrations or use over large areas should be avoided. It suppresses acne bacteria (C acnes) and exfoliates and disperses sebum, so is especially indicated in acne-prone skin.

LHA – Capryloyl Salicylic Acid – a lipid chain is added to salicylic acid reduces its skin penetration – it is a good exfoliant with increased safety over salicylic acid.


Alternative Acids

Gluconolactone is a gentle acid exfoliator with pH 3.6. It is also  an anti-oxidant, UV protective and humectant (draws water and hydrates the epidermis).

It has low skin penetrance and is good for sensitive skin.

Bionic Acids – (lactobionic and maltobionic) – are non-irritating gentle acids and are again good for sensitive skin types



The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution – www.theordinary.com

SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser and Toner – 12% LHA/AHA/BHA blend

Dr Lewinn’s Reversaderm Glycolic Cleanser – 12% GA – Priceline

Clear Skincare 8 Smooth Skin 8% GA – Priceline

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 25% AHA + 2% BHA Exfoliant Peel

Paula’s Choice Weightless Body Treatment 2% BHA – Exfoliating Body Lotion

Paula’s Choice Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA – gentle Leave-on daily exfoliant

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 9% Salicylic Acid gel formula – strong SA formula for limited area or occasional use – eg, back of the hands

SVR Sensifine AR Anti-redness moisturising cream – 2.5% Endothelyol (anti-oxidant glycosidic blend rosemarinic/gallic/caffeic acids) for rosacea reduces inflammation, vasodilation and angiogenesis

Sebiaclear Active – 14% gluconolactone + 4% niacinamide – gentle exfoliant, anti-inflammatory, probiotic, excellent acne, rosacea, peri-oral dermatitis formula – Caretobeauty.com


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Skin Resus

436 Cambridge Street
Floreat, Perth

T: 08 9284 0900
E: email@skinresus.com.au

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