Chemical Peels for Acne Scars: The Ultimate Guide

Acne scars can be emotionally challenging, affecting appearance and confidence. ‘Chemical Peels’ offer a popular treatment to reduce these marks. The procedure involves applying a chemical solution to exfoliate and promote skin regeneration. Superficial peels use milder acids for minor scars, while medium-depth and deep peels target stubborn scars, requiring longer recovery. Multiple sessions may be needed for better results. Consulting a dermatologist is essential to tailor the treatment plan, and other treatments like microneedling and laser resurfacing can complement chemical peels for scar reduction.

chemical peels for acne scars

Understanding Acne Scars

Acne scars form as the body heals from inflammatory acne lesions like papules, pustules, and cysts, altering collagen and elastin fibers due to inflammation. The scars’ type depends on factors like severity and duration of inflammation. Atrophic scars are depressions caused by tissue loss during healing and include ice pick, boxcar, and rolling scars.

Hypertrophic scars result from excess collagen production, forming raised tissue within original lesion boundaries. Factors like genetics, skin type, and inflammation influence scar development, with a family history of scarring increasing the likelihood of hypertrophic scars.

chemical peels for acne scars

The 5 Types of Acne Scars Explained

Acne scars come in various forms, and understanding their types can be essential in determining the most effective treatment. Recognizing the specific type of acne scars you have is the first step in exploring suitable treatments to improve your skin’s texture and overall appearance.

chemical peels for acne scars

1. Ice Pick Scars

Definition: Characterized by deep, narrow, and pitted scars resembling small, ice pick-like holes in the skin.


  • Small, V-shaped or U-shaped depressions.
  • Can be shallow or extend deeper into the skin.
  • Commonly found on cheeks and temples.

2. Box Car Scars

Definition: Broad, well-defined depressions with sharp edges resembling a boxcar or chickenpox scar.


  • Wider than ice pick scars.
  • Shallow or deep depressions with flat, angular sides.
  • Typically found on cheeks and temples.

3. Rolling Scars

Definition: Wave-like or undulating depressions that give the skin a rolling or “wavy” appearance.


  • Broad depressions with sloping edges.
  • Skin appears uneven and rolling when viewed from certain angles.
  • Found on cheeks and lower face.

4. Hypertrophic Scars

Definition: Raised, thickened scars that develop due to excess collagen production during the healing process.


  • Elevated above the surrounding skin.
  • Can be red or pink in color.
  • Typically stay within the boundaries of the original acne lesion.

5. Keloid Scars

Definition: Similar to hypertrophic scars but extend beyond the boundaries of the original wound and can be more severe.


  • Raised, thickened, and extend beyond the original site of the acne lesion.
  • Darker in color compared to the surrounding skin.
  • Can be itchy, tender, or painful.
acne scars photo examples
Examples of ‘Rolling Scars’ as a result of acne

What is a Chemical Peel?

A chemical peel is a popular and effective cosmetic procedure used to improve the appearance and texture of the skin. It involves the application of a chemical solution to the skin’s surface, which induces controlled exfoliation and stimulates the skin’s regeneration process. This process results in the removal of the outer layers of damaged or dead skin cells, allowing fresher, smoother, and healthier skin to emerge.

The chemical solution used in the peel can vary in strength, depending on the specific skin concerns being addressed and the desired depth of exfoliation. Superficial peels typically use milder acids, such as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), while medium-depth and deep peels employ stronger acids like trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or phenol.chemical peels for acne scars

Types of Chemical Peels

Chemical peels can be categorized into three main types based on their depth and the layers of the skin they target:

Superficial Peels

Superficial peels, also known as light peels, are the mildest form of chemical peels. They are ideal for individuals with mild skin concerns or those looking for a quick and gentle skin rejuvenation treatment. These peels primarily target the outermost layer of the skin, known as the epidermis, making them suitable for improving skin texture, addressing fine lines, and promoting a radiant complexion. The chemical solution used in superficial peels typically contains alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid or lactic acid. AHAs are water-soluble acids derived from various natural sources, such as fruits and milk. Due to their smaller molecular size, AHAs can penetrate the epidermis more effectively, encouraging gentle exfoliation and stimulating collagen production.

chemical peels for acne scars

Pros of Superficial Peels:

1. Quick and Convenient: The entire procedure can be completed in a single office visit, making it a time-efficient option for busy individuals.

2. Little to No Downtime: Superficial peels require minimal recovery time, allowing patients to resume their regular activities immediately after the treatment.

3. Refreshed Skin: They provide a simple and effective solution for refreshing the skin and maintaining a healthy glow.

4. Improves Texture and Tone: Superficial peels offer noticeable improvements in skin texture and tone, helping to achieve a smoother and more even complexion.

5. Mild Side Effects: Some individuals may experience mild redness or tingling during or after the peel, but these side effects typically subside quickly.

Cons of Superficial Peels:

1. Limited Depth of Treatment: Superficial peels primarily target the outermost layer of the skin and may not be as effective for addressing deeper skin concerns, such as significant wrinkles or extensive sun damage.

2. May Require Multiple Sessions: Achieving desired results for certain skin issues might require multiple treatment sessions, as the effects of superficial peels may be more subtle compared to deeper peels.

3. Not Suitable for Severe Skin Concerns: For individuals with extensive skin damage or deep wrinkles, a superficial peel may not provide the dramatic results they seek. In such cases, a dermatologist may recommend a medium-depth or deep chemical peel for more significant improvement.

4. Maintenance Treatments: Regular maintenance treatments may be necessary to sustain the benefits of superficial peels over time, which could add to the overall cost of the procedure.

5. Sun Sensitivity: After a superficial peel, the skin may be more sensitive to sunlight, necessitating proper sun protection to avoid potential sunburn and damage to the newly treated skin.

Medium Peels

Medium peels represent a significant step up in intensity compared to superficial peels. These peels penetrate deeper into the skin, reaching the upper layers of the dermis, making them more effective in addressing moderate skin concerns, including acne scars, fine lines, and uneven skin tone. The chemical solution used in medium peels often contains trichloroacetic acid (TCA) or a combination of TCA with other acids to achieve the desired level of exfoliation and skin rejuvenation.

Pros of Medium Peels:

1. Deeper Skin Penetration: The stronger acid, TCA, used in medium peels allows for deeper skin penetration, targeting the upper layers of the dermis. This leads to more extensive collagen remodeling and a significant regeneration response, resulting in improved skin texture.

2. Effective for Acne Scars: Medium peels are particularly effective in reducing the appearance of moderate acne scars, making them a suitable choice for individuals seeking scar reduction and smoother skin.

3. Addressing Sun Damage: Medium peels can help improve sun-damaged skin, including addressing pigmentation irregularities and sunspots.

4. Visible Results: The deeper exfoliation achieved with medium peels can lead to more noticeable and lasting results compared to superficial peels, making them appealing to patients looking for substantial skin rejuvenation.

5. Shorter Recovery Time Than Deep Peels: While medium peels may cause more noticeable peeling and redness compared to superficial peels, the downtime is generally shorter than that of deep peels, allowing individuals to return to their regular activities within a few days to a week.

Cons of Medium Peels:

1. Increased Peeling and Redness: Due to the deeper penetration of the chemical solution, medium peels may cause more pronounced peeling and redness, which may be a concern for some individuals during the initial recovery phase.

2. Potential Sensitivity: The skin may feel sensitive and reddened during the recovery period after a medium peel, which could cause discomfort for some individuals.

3. Individual Variability: The extent of downtime and recovery can vary depending on an individual’s skin type and the specific strength of the peel used, so results may differ from person to person.

4. Not Suitable for All Skin Concerns: While medium peels can effectively address moderate acne scars and sun damage, they may not be the most appropriate option for deeper wrinkles or more extensive skin issues that may require a deep peel or other treatments.

5. Requires Professional Supervision: Medium peels should only be performed by qualified dermatologists or skincare professionals in a controlled clinical setting to ensure safety and desired outcomes. This means the procedure may not be as readily available as some over-the-counter or at-home treatments.

Deep Peels

Deep peels represent the most intensive and aggressive form of chemical peels, specifically designed to target the deeper layers of the dermis. Unlike superficial and medium-depth peels that primarily address the epidermal layer of the skin, deep peels penetrate further into the skin to induce substantial improvements in various skin concerns. They are typically performed using a chemical solution containing phenol, a potent acid known for its ability to create significant transformations in the skin’s appearance.

Pros of Deep Peels:

1. Remarkable Results: Deep peels are highly effective for severe skin issues and extensive sun damage, providing significant improvements in skin texture and tone.

2. Tackling Deep Concerns: They can address deep wrinkles, pronounced lines, and stubborn hyperpigmentation, which may not be adequately treated by milder peels or non-invasive options.

3. Substantial Collagen Stimulation: Deep peels promote substantial collagen production, leading to firmer, more youthful-looking skin.

4. Overall Skin Rejuvenation: Deep peels are well-suited for comprehensive skin rejuvenation, tackling aging-related concerns and providing comprehensive improvements.

Cons of Deep Peels:

1. Careful Consideration Required: Due to the depth of penetration and potent chemical solution, deep peels are best for patients with severe skin concerns, and careful consideration is necessary.

2. Limited Use for Acne Scars: Deep peels are less commonly used for treating acne scars as they focus on overall skin rejuvenation rather than addressing specific scar types.

3. Involved Process: The procedure for a deep chemical peel is more complex, requiring precise application by a skilled and experienced dermatologist or plastic surgeon.

4. Extended Recovery Period: Patients can expect a longer recovery time compared to other peels, experiencing significant peeling, redness, and swelling for days to weeks.

5. Discomfort and Sensitivity: During the recovery period, patients may experience discomfort, tightness, and sensitivity in the treated areas.

6. Time Off Work and Social Activities: Due to the extensive recovery, patients should be prepared to take time off work and social activities to allow proper healing.

7. Potential Risks: Deep peels carry risks such as infection, scarring, and changes in skin pigmentation, requiring careful consideration and consultation with a qualified dermatologist or plastic surgeon.

Benefits of Chemical Peels for Acne Scars

Chemical peels offer several benefits when it comes to treating acne scars:

1. Exfoliation and Skin Renewal

Chemical peels offer remarkable exfoliation by removing dead skin cells and stimulating new, healthy skin growth. This process results in smoother, more even skin texture and encourages collagen production for elasticity. Chemical peels are a powerful option for achieving healthier, rejuvenated skin and are popular for addressing various skin concerns, promoting a youthful complexion. 

2. Reduction of Scars and Hyperpigmentation

Chemical peels can help fade the appearance of atrophic acne scars, making them less noticeable. Additionally, they can reduce hyperpigmentation caused by acne, creating a more balanced skin tone.This process encourages skin regeneration, leading to the gradual fading of scars and an improvement in overall skin texture.

3. Increased Collagen Production

Certain chemical peels stimulate collagen production, which plays a crucial role in maintaining skin elasticity and firmness. By undergoing chemical peels that promote collagen synthesis, the skin’s natural regenerative process is enhanced. As new collagen fibers form, they help plump up the skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and restoring a more youthful texture. 

4. Enhanced Skin Texture and Tone

By addressing multiple skin concerns, chemical peels can lead to an overall improvement in skin texture and tone. This can result in a healthier, more radiant complexion.

Preparing for a Chemical Peel

Before getting a chemical peel for acne scars, it’s essential to prepare your skin and take certain precautions:

Consultation with a Dermatologist

Before considering any chemical peel or skincare treatment, consulting a qualified dermatologist or skincare professional is crucial. Their expertise ensures you receive the appropriate treatment for your needs. During the consultation, they assess your skin type, acne scar severity, and medical history. This evaluation guides the development of a tailored treatment plan, including the right chemical peel type.

They also discuss expected results, risks, and post-treatment care for optimal outcomes and safety. Prioritizing professional advice guarantees a customized approach, prioritizing safety and efficacy in your chemical peel experience.

Skin Preparation and Care

Properly preparing your skin before a chemical peel is vital for optimal results and safety. Your dermatologist will tailor a pre-peel routine to your skin type. Using gentle cleansers clears debris and aids solution penetration.

Sun protection is crucial to prevent complications, while discontinuing certain products, like retinoids, minimizes sensitivity. Adhering to your dermatologist’s guidance ensures a smoother, targeted peel, promoting the best outcomes while prioritizing safety and customization.

The Chemical Peel Procedure

The chemical peel procedure is a straightforward process that typically takes place in a dermatologist’s office or a skincare clinic. Here’s what to expect during the procedure:

Application Process

During a chemical peel procedure, the dermatologist starts by thoroughly cleansing your skin, removing dirt, oil, or makeup for effective chemical solution penetration. The solution’s type and concentration depend on your skin’s needs and concerns. Superficial peels use milder acids, while medium-depth and deep peels employ stronger ones.

Applied carefully to treatment areas, the solution’s duration varies by peel type and skin reaction. Afterward, the solution is neutralized or removed to prevent overexfoliation. Recovery varies based on peel type and depth, potentially causing redness, discomfort, or peeling.

Sensations and Downtime

During a chemical peel procedure, a mild stinging or burning sensation on treated areas is common, intensity varying based on peel depth and pain tolerance. This discomfort is normal and usually subsides shortly after the procedure. Post-peel, skin may be red and sensitive, akin to a sunburn, for a few days to weeks, depending on peel type.

Downtime varies with peel depth – superficial peels allow immediate activity, while medium to deep peels may need days to weeks for healing and redness reduction. Following post-procedure guidelines from professionals is crucial.

Aftercare and Recovery

Proper aftercare is crucial for optimal results and minimal side effects. Your dermatologist will provide specific instructions for post-peel skincare, including:

Post-Peel Skincare Routine

Maintaining a gentle and nourishing skincare routine is crucial during the recovery phase after a chemical peel. Dermatologist-recommended post-procedure care emphasizes mild products that are gentle on healing skin. Use a non-abrasive cleanser to avoid irritation and disruption to the healing process while effectively removing impurities.

Keep skin hydrated and aid healing with a specialized moisturizer containing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and soothing botanicals.

Sun Protection

Sunscreen is crucial after a chemical peel for acne scars due to increased skin sensitivity. The peel removes the outer layer of skin, leaving it more vulnerable to UV radiation. Without proper protection, sun exposure can worsen hyperpigmentation and delay the healing process, negating the benefits of the peel. Regular sunscreen use safeguards against UV-induced damage, ensuring a successful recovery and reducing the risk of further scarring. If your looking for a sunscreen for acne-prone/sensitive skin, I recommend:

Paula’s Choice DEFENSE Essential Glow Mineral Moisturizer SPF 30

My holy grail sunscreen in Paula’s Choice DEFENSE Essential Glow Mineral Moisturizer SPF 30. This sunscreen not only protects my skin from harmful UV rays, but it also boasts a blend of powerful ingredients like Kiwi Extract, Vitamin C & E, Niacinamide, Argan Oil, and Resveratrol. What I love most is its lightweight texture that doesn’t clog my pores or trigger breakouts.

By diligently protecting your skin from the sun after a chemical peel, you can ensure a safer and more effective recovery process, and enjoy the long-lasting results of the treatment. Always consult your dermatologist for personalized recommendations and guidance on sun protection during and after the recovery phase.

Potential Side Effects and Risks

Chemical peels are considered safe when performed by qualified professionals. However, like any medical procedure, they do carry some risks, particularly if not performed correctly or by an inexperienced provider. It is essential for individuals to be aware of the potential side effects and take necessary precautions when undergoing a chemical peel.

The most common side effects of chemical peels for acne scars may include:

  1. Temporary Redness: Mild to moderate redness of the treated areas is a common and expected reaction after a chemical peel. This redness typically subsides within a few days to a week.
  2. Peeling and Flaking: The exfoliating action of the chemical peel may lead to peeling and flaking of the treated skin. This is a normal part of the skin’s healing process and usually lasts for a few days to a week.
  3. Swelling: Some individuals may experience mild swelling in the treated areas, particularly with deeper chemical peels. This swelling typically resolves within a few days.
  4. Sensitivity: After a chemical peel, the skin may become more sensitive and prone to irritation, especially to products or environmental factors. It is essential to avoid harsh or abrasive products during the recovery period.
  5. Hyperpigmentation: In some cases, especially with darker skin types, there may be a temporary increase in skin pigmentation (hyperpigmentation) in the treated areas. This usually resolves on its own over time.
  6. Rare Side Effects: While uncommon, more severe side effects, such as scarring or infection, can occur. Choosing an experienced and qualified dermatologist can help minimize the risk of these complications.

Moreover, following the post-treatment care instructions provided by the dermatologist is vital to support proper healing and reduce the risk of complications. Always communicate openly with your dermatologist or skincare professional about any concerns or medical conditions you may have to ensure a positive and tailored experience.

Frequency and Maintenance

After undergoing successful chemical peels that improve acne scars, your dermatologist might suggest periodic maintenance treatments to sustain results. These treatments are crucial for preserving newfound skin clarity, texture, and overall improvement. Chemical peels can significantly reduce scars but may not eliminate them completely. Regular maintenance sessions continue skin rejuvenation and prevent scars from becoming more prominent over time.

Maintenance frequency varies based on scar severity, peel type, and skin response, tailored by your dermatologist. Complementing this, a thorough skincare routine and sun protection further support long-term skin health and peel results.

Alternatives to Chemical Peels

While chemical peels are effective for many individuals, they may not be suitable for everyone. In such cases, there are alternative treatments available:


Micro-needling utilizes fine needles to create controlled micro-injuries, triggering the skin’s healing process and boosting collagen and elastin production. This promotes skin rejuvenation, improving elasticity and firmness. Unlike chemical peels, micro-needling is non-chemical and less invasive, making it an appealing choice for those seeking milder treatments without downtime.

Laser Resurfacing

Laser resurfacing, a non-surgical cosmetic procedure, precisely removes damaged skin layers using laser energy. Dermatologists customize it for tailored and effective treatment of various skin concerns, making it an alternative to chemical peels. Controlled energy bursts stimulate collagen production and skin healing, revealing improved texture, fewer wrinkles, and reduced imperfections.

Dermal Fillers

Dermal fillers effectively treat atrophic acne scars by injecting a gel-like substance beneath the skin, plumping depressions and creating smoother surfaces. Mainly containing hyaluronic acid, they target scars that result from tissue loss during acne healing. Particularly suitable for atrophic scars like rolling or boxcar scars, the procedure is quick, minimally uncomfortable, and yields immediate results.

My Personal Experience with Chemical Peels for Acne Scars

Dealing with acne scars was a tough journey for me. Every time I looked in the mirror, those stubborn marks served as a constant reminder of the struggles I had faced. It affected my confidence, making me feel self-conscious about my appearance.

But I didn’t want to be defined by my scars. I decided to take matters into my own hands and sought ways to diminish them. That’s when I discovered the potential of chemical peels. My dermatologist explained how these treatments could help improve my skin’s texture and reduce the appearance of scars.

Having my first chemical peel was both exciting and nerve-wracking. As the solution was applied, I held onto the hope that it would be a step forward in my journey towards self-improvement. And in the following days, I could see small but promising changes in my skin.

How I’m Healing My Acne Scars: My Routine

I would describe my acne scars as mainly mild ‘box car’ scars on my cheeks and chin, with some ‘ice pick’ scars on my forehead, as shown in the ‘Types Of Acne Scars’ graphic. Over time, I’ve experimented with different approaches and sought advice from a professional dermatologist to develop a tailored routine that effectively addresses my specific skin concerns.

My exfoliation and peel routine consist of gentle daily exfoliation using Paulas Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant. Additionally, once a week, I incorporate a stronger peel solution by using The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution. These steps have played a significant role in reducing the appearance of my acne scars and improving the overall texture of my skin.

Step 1: Daily Exfoliation

Paulas Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

I’ve found a gentle exfoliant that works wonders for my skin. Using it daily has really helped me tackle surface-level skin issues like pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. The best part is that it’s gentle enough not to cause any irritation or burning sensation on my sensitive skin. Plus, it provides a hydrating effect, making it perfect for regular use. I’m truly happy with the results it gives me, and it has become an essential part of my skincare routine.

Step 2: Weekly Exfoliation

The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution.

A superficial peel I use once for my acne scars is The Ordinary’s AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution. This formula is amazing for weekly exfoliating and its ingredients of AHA and BHA are amazing at healing scars over time. This peel is a bit stronger so I only use it once a week for deep exfoliation. When using this product, you will feel a tingling sensation that lasts a few minutes but don’t worry, that’s just the ingredients working its magic. As always, I recommend a patch test on either your inner forearm or behind the ear to see how you react to the product.

Step 3: Chemical Peels by A Dermatologist

As mentioned earlier, I undergo a deep chemical peel twice a year, skillfully administered by my dermatologist, to target the deeper acne scars on my skin. These specialized peels, containing potent ingredients like TCA, are designed to penetrate the skin deeply. Due to their powerful nature, they are exclusively performed by dermatologists and not available for over-the-counter use.

Having undergone these professional chemical peels consistently for the past two years, I am so happy to witness remarkable improvements in the size, colour, and depth of my deeper scars. It has been an effective and transformative journey for my skin post-acne.

chemical peels for acne scars

Please note the following: The routine I use has been carefully developed based on extensive experimentation and consultations with a dermatologist to address my specific skin concerns. However, it’s crucial to remember that everyone’s skin is unique and beautiful in its own way. What might be effective for my skin might not yield the same results for yours. Therefore, I highly recommend trying different ingredients and seeking guidance from a dermatologist to determine the most suitable approach for treating your individual skin needs!

In Conclusion

Acne scars can be emotionally distressing, but with the advancements in skincare treatments, achieving clearer and smoother skin is possible. Chemical peels offer an effective solution for reducing the appearance of acne scars, promoting skin renewal, and enhancing overall skin health.

By taking these proactive steps and working with a qualified skincare professional, individuals can achieve a more radiant complexion and regain their confidence. Remember that results may vary depending on individual skin characteristics and the severity of acne scars, but with dedication and proper care, the journey to clearer and smoother skin is attainable.

acne uv gel

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

1. Is a chemical peel painful?

A chemical peel may cause a mild stinging or burning sensation during the procedure, but most people tolerate it well. The discomfort is usually temporary and can be managed with proper aftercare.

2. Can I undergo a chemical peel if I have active acne breakouts?

It’s generally best to wait until your acne breakouts are under control before getting a chemical peel. Treating active acne first can lead to better results and minimize the risk of complications.

3. How long does it take to see results after a chemical peel for acne scars?

Visible improvements in acne scars can be noticed after a series of treatments, usually spaced a few weeks apart. The full results may take several months to become apparent.

4. Are chemical peels suitable for all skin types?

While chemical peels can benefit many skin types, individuals with darker skin tones may be at a higher risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. It’s crucial to consult with a dermatologist to determine the most suitable treatment for your specific skin type.

5. Can I wear makeup after a chemical peel?

After a chemical peel, it’s essential to avoid wearing makeup for a few days to allow your skin to heal properly. Your dermatologist will advise when it’s safe to resume using makeup.

chemical peels for acne scars

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Naya Miller

From battling persistent acne through my teenage years and into adulthood, I've developed a profound passion for the realm of acne skincare. My mission is to impart the wisdom I've gained from both personal experiences and exhaustive research on acne. I aim to guide you in discovering a tailored solution that effectively addresses your unique skincare concerns.

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