Glycolic Acid

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

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. It is one of the most well-known and widely used alpha hydroxy acid.

Glycolic acid is used to smooth wrinkles, fade hyperpigmentation and sun damage, and generally improve the tone and texture of the skin. Because of its skin renewing properties, it is often used in anti-aging products.

Off all the alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid has the smallest sized molecules.

  These super tiny molecules means glycolic acid can easily penetrate the skin.

That's a good thing.  Glycolic acid exfoliates the skin.  It helps loosen the bonds that hold skin cells together, allowing dead skin cells to slough off more effectively.  Because of this, your skin will feel softer and smoother, and its overall appearance is enhanced.

Many acne treatment products contain glycolic acid.  Glycolic acid helps fight pore blockages, preventing comedones, blackheads, and inflamed breakouts from forming. 

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 and moisturizers that contain this ingredient. 

For stronger treatments, glycolic acid is also utilized in chemical peels available at the salon or your dermatologist's office.

Like all alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid can cause sun sensitivity.  You must wear sunscreen whenever you are using glycolic acid treatments.

In general, glycolic acid is a very safe and effective skin care ingredient.  But, of course, you should take care when trying any new product.  If it causes skin irritation, stop using it.


Probably the most important: if you're under a dermatologist's care, make sure you get their OK before you add glycolic acid to your skin care routine.

Next Steps:

Treating Acne with Glycolic Acid


Abels C, Kaszuba A, Michalak I, Werdier D, Knie U, Kaszuba A.  "A 10% glycolic acid containing oil-in-water emulsion improves mild acne: a randomized double-blind placebo-controlled trial."  J Cosmet Dermatol. 2011 Sep;10(3):202-9.

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)."  J Cosmet Dermatol. 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." Dermatol Surg. 2014 Mar;40(3):314-22.

Sharad J.  "Glycolic acid peel therapy - a current review."  Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 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."  J Dermatol. 2012 Apr;39(4):350-4.

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