What Is Glycolic Acid in Skincare?

How to Use Glycolic Acid in Your Skin Care

Skin Care Products
Glycolic acid is found in many skin care products. Photo: Thomas Northcut / Getty Images

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is derived from sugar cane. It is one of the most well-known and widely used alpha hydroxy acids in the skincare industry. Other alpha hydroxy acids include lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid.

How Glycolic Acid Works

Glycolic acid has the smallest sized molecules of all the alpha hydroxy acids. Because of these super tiny molecules, glycolic acid can easily penetrate the skin.

This allows glycolic acid to exfoliates the skin more effectively than other AHAs.

Glycolic acid works by speeding up cell turnover. It helps dissolve the bonds that hold skin cells together, allowing dead skin cells to slough off more rapidly than they would on their own.

Glycolic acid also stimulates your skin to create more collagen. Collagen is the protein that gives skin its firmness, plumpness, and elasticity. (Collagen is also the protein that gives strength to your bones and connective tissues.) As you age, collagen production naturally slows down. It's also destroyed by excessive sun exposure. Using glycolic acid regularly can help prevent this breakdown of collagen.

What Glycolic Acid Does for Your Skin

Glycolic acid is an incredibly popular treatment because of the many benefits it has for the skin. It has effective skin-renewing properties, so it is often used in anti-aging products.

It can help smooth fine wrinkles and improve the skin's tone and texture. Glycolic acid plumps the skin and helps boost hydration levels.

It's not just an anti-aging treatment, though. Glycolic acid can also help fight sun damage. It's often used to fade minor fade hyperpigmentation too.

Because it's an effective exfoliator, using glycolic acid regularly can help brighten the complexion.

It's this exfoliating property that also makes it an effective preventative against ingrown hairs. If you have large pores, glycolic acid can help make those appear smaller as well.

Many acne treatment products also contain glycolic acid. It isn't an acne treatment per se, but glycolic acid can help keep pores clear from blockages, preventing comedones, blackheads, and inflamed breakouts from forming. 

Although many sources claim glycolic acid gets rid of scars, this is one thing it simply can't do. Glycolic acid can lighten dark discolorations left by acne or other wounds, and may soften the look of raised scars and pitted scars, but it will not make them disappear. For more efficient treatment, your best bet would be professional strength glycolic acid peels or a completely different scar treatment altogether.

Where You Can Find Glycolic Acid

If you're looking for glycolic acid, you have choices—and lots of them. This skin care darling can be found in a multitude of over-the-counter products. Try your local drug store, department store, or skin spa and you'll find plenty of cleansers, masks, toners, and moisturizers that contain this ingredient. Over-the-counter glycolic acid products typically come in strength of up to 10 percent.

For stronger treatments, glycolic acid is also utilized in chemical peels available at the salon or your dermatologist's office. Light duty glycolic acid peels up to 30 percent strength can be done by an esthetician at the salon or skin spa. Stronger peels of up to 70 percent can be had at the dermatology office.

Can you make a DIY glycolic acid yourself? While glycolic acid is obtained from sugar cane (and also naturally found in some fruits) the sugar you buy at the store is not the same as glycolic acid. Rubbing your face with sugar manually exfoliates the skin and will leave the skin feeling smoother.

But it's not going to give you the same results as a glycolic acid treatment. Skincare products contain other thoughtfully chosen ingredients to give a specific end result. You can definitely make your own skincare products, but they won't give you results on par with a professional glycolic product or peel.

Choosing the Right Glycolic Acid Treatment for Your Skin

The glycolic acid treatment you choose depends a lot on your skin type and what your end goals are. If you are simply wanting brighter, healthier-looking skin (or a reduction in breakouts and fine lines) an over-the-counter product is effective enough without stronger pro peels. Using low concentrations of glycolic acid over long periods of time creates a cumulative effect; your skin will look better the longer you use it.

For treating specific skin issues like noticeable sun damage, dark spots or acne marks, and deeper lines and wrinkles, or for a marked improvement of the skin quickly, a professional peel is a good option. But because peels deliver a higher percentage of glycolic acid than daily use products they will be more irritating and have a greater chance of side effects.

When choosing any glycolic acid treatment, percentage of glycolic acid is just one factor. The product's pH is the other. A more acidic product will deliver a stronger and more effective treatment than a less acidic product, regardless of the percentage of glycolic acid. So a product containing a low percentage of glycolic acid but with a lower (i.e. more acidic) pH will be more effective than a high percentage but low acidity product.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of skincare products simply list the percentage glycolic acid used. They are not required to list the pH, so it can make it difficult to compare products apples-to-apples.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Safely

In general, glycolic acid is a very safe and effective skincare ingredient. To keep your skin safe, though, there are a few things to know before using glycolic acid.

First and foremost, you must wear sunscreen whenever you are using glycolic acid treatments. Like all alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. You don't want to undo all the good your glycolic acid is doing, and you definitely don't want to end up with a nasty sunburn. Wear SPF of at least 30, please.

Allow your skin to acclimate to glycolic acid. If you are using an OTC product, start off by applying it just three times per week for a week or so. If your skin isn't red or irritated, try using it four times a week for a week or two. Continue slowly building up this way until you're able to use it every day. If at any point your skin becomes irritated, scale back use for a period of time and try again.

For in-office or in-salon peels, you will probably start off with a lower concentration of glycolic acid. If your skin tolerates that reasonably well, you will most likely be bumped up to higher strengths for subsequent peels.

In the initial few days of treatment, your skin may feel a bit more rough than typical. This is normal and just means that the glycolic acid is working. Unless your skin is irritated, keep using your glycolic acid product. Smoother skin is just around the corner.

Don't use glycolic acid, even OTC products, if you are currently using topical retinoids, like Retin-A (tretinoin) or Differin (adapalene), Accutane (isotretinoin), or any products that rapidly exfoliate the skin. Most importantly, if you're under a dermatologist's care make sure you get their OK before using any glycolic acid product or having a peel done.

A Word From Verywell

Glycolic acid OTC products and professional peels have been around a long time and have a safe and effective track record. Most skin types can use them without much trouble. If you have very sensitive skin, you may want to stick with wash-off glycolic acid products like cleansers. These aren't quite as irritating as leave-on glycolic acid treatments and allow your skin to build up a tolerance without (hopefully) too much irritation.

While glycolic acid is a wonderful skincare ingredient, if you're looking for powerful anti-aging or anti-acne treatments, topical retinoids will give you more bang for your buck. They are prescription-only, though.

If you need any help choosing a glycolic acid product, your dermatologist can help you do so. 

Sources:

Abels C, Reich H, Knie U, Werdier D, Lemmnitz G.  "Significant Improvement in Mild Acne Following a Twice Daily Application for 6 Weeks of an Acidic Cleansing Product (pH 4)."  Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. 2014 Jun;13(2):103-8.

Kaminaka C, Uede M, Matsunaka H, Furukawa F, Yamomoto Y.  "Clinical Evaluation of Glycolic Acid Chemical Peeling in Patients with Acne Vulgaris: A Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled, Split-face Comparative Study." Dermatological Surgery. 2014 Mar;40(3):314-22.

Sharad J.  "Glycolic Acid Peel Therapy - A Current Review."  Clinical Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2013 Nov 11;6:281-8.

Takenaka Y, Hayashi N, Takeda M, Ashikaga S, Kawashima M.  "Glycolic Acid Chemical Peeling Improves Inflammatory Acne Eruptions through its Inhibitory and Bactericidal Effects on Propionibacterium acnes."  Journal of Dermatology. 2012 Apr;39(4):350-4.

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