Treating Acne with Glycolic Acid

Treating Acne with Glycolic Acid

Pre-teen boy suffering from Acne
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Glycolic acid.  Sounds scary, right?  I mean, who wants to put acid on their face?

Despite the name, glycolic acid is actually a very safe, and very commonly used, skin care ingredient.  And, although glycolic acid alone is not often used as a first line of defense against acne, it makes a great addition to your regular acne treatment routine.  It's often incorporated into acne treatment products.  Glycolic acid is good for both comedonal acne and inflammatory breakouts.


How It Works

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that can improve many types of skin problems.  It works by speeding up cell turnover (also called desquamation, if you'd like to get technical.) 

It keeps old skin cells and oil plugs from developing in the hair follicle, preventing the formation of comedones and pimples.  The skin looks brighter, feels softer and smoother.  Pore size is also reduced.

Glycolic acid is also used to fade post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (or, those annoying dark spots pimples cause) and sun damage, and can make the skin look and feel younger. 

Over-the-Counter Cosmetic Products:

Glycolic acid is easy to find over the counter.  Cleansers, pads, and toners, moisturizers, and masks -- basically you can find glycolic acid in every type of skin care product available. You're limited only by your desires (and your pocketbook.  Some glycolic acid products can get very pricey.)

Take a look at the active ingredient.  OTC products contain anywhere from .5% up to 15% glycolic acid.  Higher percentage products may work faster, but they can be more irritating.  You may want to start with a low percentage product first until you know how your skin tolerates glycolic acid.

In-Office Peels:

Stronger glycolic acid peels can jump-start your acne treatments.  Called "lunchtime peels" because you can have them done during your lunch hour and go back to work, with no one the wiser.  There is no downtime.

Superficial peels, up to 30% strength, can be done at a full-service salon or skin spa.  Light- to medium-depth peels can be performed by your dermatologist.

In-office or salon peels can be a one-time deal for smoothing and brightening the skin.  But in the case of acne, you'll need a series of peels to really start seeing improvement of the skin.

Possible Side Effects:

Glycolic acid can cause stinging or burning, mild peeling, redness, and sensitivity to the sun (but you're wearing your sunscreen anyway, right?)  It might also make your skin dry.  Using acne treatments, especially topical retinoids, in the days immediately before your peel can up your chances of side effects. 

Helpful Tips:

  • Always ask your dermatologist before using any glycolic acid product, whether OTC or a salon procedure.
  • Tell the technician performing your peel about all acne treatments you're currently using before having a procedure done.
  • If you are using acne medications, it's safer to get your peel done at the dermatologist's office rather than the salon.  Your dermatologist knows exactly which medications you're using, how they interact with glycolic acid, and will counsel you on how to properly prepare for your peel.
  • Thanks to the internet, professional strength glycolic acid is available for anyone to buy.  Please don't do it!  Unless you're trained, using higher strength glycolic acid products can be unsafe.  You can burn the heck out of your face.  You can get just as effective a treatment by using lower percentage product over the course of a few weeks.  And it's much, much safer for you.

Next Steps:

Treating Acne with Superficial Chemical Peels

At-Home Skin Resurfacing with Glycolic Acid


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