Melasma is a common acquired disorder of facial hyperpigmentation. In this study we investigated the efficacy and safety of a combined treatment regimen including serial glycolic acid peels, topical azelaic acid cream and adapalene gel in the treatment of recalcitrant melasma. Twenty-eight patients with recalcitrant melasma were enrolled in a prospective, randomized, controlled trial lasting 20 weeks. The patients of the group receiving chemical peels underwent serial glycolic acid peels in combination with topical azelaic acid 20% cream (b.i.d.) and adapalene 0.1% gel (q.i.d., applied at night). The control group received only topical treatment including topical azelaic acid and adapalene. The clinical improvement was assessed with the Melasma Area Severity Index (MASI) at baseline and monthly during the 20-week treatment period. The results showed a prominent decrease in MASI scores at the end of the treatment in both groups, although the results were better in the group receiving chemical peels (P = 0.048). All patients tolerated the topical agents well with minimal irritation observed in the first few weeks of the therapy. Three patients in the glycolic acid peel group developed a mild-degree postinflammatory hyperpigmentation with total clearance at the end of the treatment period. Therefore, the present study suggests that combined treatment with serial glycolic acid peels, azelaic acid cream and adapalene gel should be considered as an effective and safe therapy in recalcitrant melasma.