Chemical Peels: Can Chemical Peels Make Acne Scars Worse?

Woman having chemical peel treatment Chemical Peels: Can Chemical Peels Make Acne Scars Worse?

Acne scars are an incredibly frustrating condition: noticeable reminders of previous bouts of acne breakouts. You may have heard that a chemical peel can help to treat acne scars, but maybe you’re worried there are possible side effects that could make things even worse. Read on and learn if a chemical peel is right for your acne scars.

What to Know About Acne Scars and Chemical Peels

A Brief Explanation of Acne Scars

Acne, especially severe cystic or nodular acne (conditions that form in the deeper layers of the skin), causes a good deal of trauma to our skin. With deep, severe acne, the risk of scarring is high even if you do everything right, like never popping pimples and properly caring for your skin. Acne scars come in a few forms. These scars go by different names; you may hear terms like boxcar, icepick, rolling, or hypertrophic to describe your acne scars. The one thing these scars all have in common, besides being caused by acne, is that they make the skin uneven. Rolling, icepick, and boxcar scars all appear as different types of small holes in the skin. The skin heals and sinks inward. With hypertrophic acne scars, however, the skin raises when it heals. Regardless, the goal of treating acne scars is evening out the skin, restoring its smoothness and unblemished appearance. This is where chemical peels come in.

What Is a Chemical Peel?

A chemical peel is a cosmetic treatment that uses an acidic substance like glycolic acid, among others, to damage the topmost layers of the skin in a controlled setting. By causing trauma to the skin, a chemical peel actually encourages the skin to work extra hard at repairing the damage that was done to it. That’s why it can be immensely useful at reducing the appearance of acne scars, no matter how old they are. The skin, following a chemical peel, is rushing to heal itself, producing higher levels of useful, natural substances like collagen, elastin, and hyaluronic acid. These substances help give skin its structure, ability to retain moisture, and elasticity. All of these attributes help smooth the skin that grows in place of the traumatized, dead skin as it slowly flakes and peels away following treatment. A chemical peel can cause a bit of discomfort, especially with more intense peels. Your dermatologist may apply a topical anesthetic before treatment or cold compresses following treatment. Your skin will look sunburnt and inflamed following treatment, and it’s important to avoid sun exposure for the next few weeks as your skin recovers. There’s little downtime associated with a chemical peel. There’s no anesthesia, and the most disruptive rule is that you shouldn’t exercise for a day or two following the treatment. The results of a chemical peel aren’t permanent, but they can be impressive. Additional chemical peels will only produce more noticeable and long-lasting results with each follow-up.

Can Chemical Peels Make Acne Scars Worse?

The short answer is yes, possibly. But it’s not quite that simple. Chemical peels can, in rare cases, cause scarring. This scarring isn’t precise to where the acne scars are, but it’s scarring nonetheless. This side effect is most commonly observed on the lower half of the face, around the mouth and on the chin and cheeks. Scarring can occur in people who are taking or have taken the acne drug isotretinoin in the last six to twelve months. It’s crucial that you discuss any possible contraindications of a chemical peel with your dermatologist before the procedure. They will ask these questions and more about your skin and any family history of scarring. In the hands of a qualified dermatologist, a chemical peel of any depth is not dangerous and is very unlikely to cause scarring. With that in mind, it’s important to be picky about where your peel is performed. Health spas and at-home chemical peels are much riskier, because the level of expertise is far below that of a qualified dermatologist. Don’t take unnecessary risks with your skin, especially when you’re dealing with acne scarring.


Acne scarring can prolong the social stigma and self-esteem damage that acne causes for teens and adults alike. Ready to do something about your acne scars? Reach out to the pros at Northeast Dermatology Associates to learn whether a chemical peel is right for you.

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