Multitasking glycolic acid is disrupting our skincare routines to deliver outstanding results. Here’s everything you need to know about this powerhouse
- What is Glycolic Acid?
- Glycolic Acid Benefits for the Skin
- Using Glycolic Acid for Exfoliation
- Glycolic Acid for Brightening and Evening Out Skin Tone
- Treating Acne with Glycolic Acid
- Minimising the Appearance of Fine Lines and Wrinkles
- Can You Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol?
- How To Add Glycolic Acid Into Your Skincare Routine
- What Are the Potential Side Effects of Glycolic Acid?
- How Does Glycolic Acid Benefit the Skin?
- What Are the Potential Side Effects of Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid has gained holy grail status in the beauty industry in light of its ability to tackle many skin conditions.
The powerful ingredient has become revered amongst its family of AHA, BHA, and PHA chemical exfoliants in light of its multitasking properties which, according to some, give you back that flawless baby skin you had when you just landed on planet earth! No kidding!
Even retinoids are battling to maintain the untouchable Nirvana they’ve created in many skincare-obsessed hearts (and bathrooms) at the moment!
Want to get rid of breakouts? Run to your glycolic acid cleanser. What about those awful dark spots that are stopping you from having a make-up free Instagram-ready face? Grab your glycolic acid containing serum. Oh, wait – what if you’ve just started to get really annoyed with the rough patches and fine lines on your face and body that make you look way older than you actually are? No problem, there are plenty of at-home glycolic acid peels that will help you shed all that dullness and breathe new life into your skin.
I guess by now you want to find out why glycolic acid is almost treated as a miracle ingredient. Where does it actually come from? How does it work its magic on our skin? Are there any risks associated with its uses? Is it safe for sensitive skin types and people with dark skin tones? What are some glycolic acid containing products worth checking out? Scroll down to find out more.
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What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is extracted from sugarcane, sugar beets, and other natural and synthetically made substances. It has the smallest molecular size among AHAs, allowing it to penetrate the skin effectively.
As an exfoliant, glycolic acid works by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells, promoting their shedding and revealing fresher, younger-looking skin underneath.
Its exfoliating properties have turned it into a workhouse capable of treating many skin concerns, from handling your breakouts to brightening and evening your dull complexion. Basically, it’s a darling skincare ingredient that you will find in many cleansers, lotions, serums, and chemical peels when you shop around.
When browsing beauty counter shelves in the UK and European Union, you will find that the concentration level of glycolic acid is capped at 4% with a pH ≥ 3.8 in many over-the-counter beauty products, in accordance with the European Commission SCCNFP recommendations.
On the other hand, in the United States, which follow FDA guidelines, you will be able to find over-the-counter beauty products containing glycolic acid at up to 10% with a pH of ≥ 3.5. In addition to that, the FDA recommends that such beauty products must avoid making your skin more sensitive to the sun and should actively encourage sun protection.
Glycolic Acid Benefits for the Skin
Glycolic acid wonders have made it a must-have item in your beauty regimen for several reasons.
- Exfoliation: by breaking the bonds of the outermost layer of your skin, glycolic acid helps to get rid of accumulated dead skin cells clogging up your pores. The results? A softer and smoother skin that will thank you for many years to come.
- Skin Brightening: by encouraging cellular turnover, glycolic acid can help fade dark spots, sunspots, and uneven skin tone, resulting in a more radiant and even complexion.
- Acne Treatment: kiss goodbye to tiny pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads, and acne scars with glycolic acid whose anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties will help clear your skin by gently removing accumulated oil debris on your skin’s surface.
- Anti-ageing: when loosening the bonds found on the skin’s surface to help release dead skin cells, glycolic acid stimulates fibroblasts in your dermis that are responsible for the production of collagen. This facilitates skin renewal, helping to improve skin firmness and slow down the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines.
Using Glycolic Acid for Exfoliation
Glycolic acid’s small molecular size allows it to penetrate the skin deeply, promoting the shedding of dead skin cells and decongesting clogged up pores.
The beauty of it all is that it helps reveal your baby-buttock skin that will ease the penetration of other skincare and makeup products that form part of your beauty regimen. No more rough patches on the skin!
Even people suffering from keratosis pilaris can safely invest a glycolic acid containing exfoliator such as dermatologist formulated DERMAdoctor KP Duty Body Scrub or Necessaire The Body Exfoliator to get relief from dry patches on their body.
Nécessaire The Body Exfoliator
Drunk Elephant TLC Glycolic Body Lotion
Glycolic Acid for Brightening and Evening Out Skin Tone
Glycolic acid can help you bid adieu to uneven skin tone and discoloration as a result of melasma, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, or sun damage. Regular gentle exfoliation of your skin’s surface helps fade dark marks, gradually restoring your skin complexion to its uniform beauty with an additional glow.
Many beauty lovers credit Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser for unclogging and brightening their skin whilst keeping it soft and well hydrated.
As a leave-on product, Murad Vita C Glycolic Brightening Serum has amassed a great fan base, courtesy of the noticeable results that it delivers within just two weeks of regular use.
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Murad Vita C Glycolic Brightening Serum
Whilst glycolic acid is currently seen by many people as a “jack of all trades” when it comes to dealing with hyperpigmentation issues, people with darker skin tones who are the most concerned by dark marks and uneven skin tone should be mindful of the use of this AHA.
As a chemical exfoliation, an overuse of glycolic acid might end up causing you more harm than good, by triggering skin irritation and increasing your skin sensitivity to the sun, which might eventually lead to sun damage and inflammation.
Sticking to mild to medium strength glycolic acid containing products you get over the counter is the best way to go. It is crucial to start with lower concentrations and do your product patch tests before incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine. Using your chosen product in moderation once or twice per week only might also help minimise any potential issues you might encounter.
People with deeper skin tones who want to use higher concentrations of glycolic acid should seek advice from their dermatologist or an experienced aesthetician to do it the right way.
If your dark skin is far too sensitive to handle glycolic acid, give lactic acid or mandelic acid a try. Both AHAs have bigger molecular structures than glycolic acid. This means that they will work more on your skin’s surface and will not penetrate your skin as deeply as glycolic acid does, thereby causing less irritation.
Allies of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Serum and Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment have both reached cult status among their repeat customers for their abilities to brighten, plump, and smooth the skin without causing any irritation.
Treating Acne with Glycolic Acid
People with acne-prone skin can definitely reap lots of benefits from using glycolic acid as part of their skincare routine. Pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads can all become worries of the past, as it helps remove excess oil, unclog pores, and reduce the occurrence of breakouts. Additionally, glycolic acid can minimise acne scarring by promoting cell turnover and fading post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
Neostrata Foaming Glycolic Wash AHA 20 throws in PHA lactobionic acid in its ingredients mix to deliver Really good for severe acne, it works wonders
Dermalogica Daily Glycolic Cleanser
Neostrata Foaming Glycolic Wash AHA 20
However, if you have cystic acne or any sensitivity resulting from acne, do yourself a favour by staying away from glycolic acid that might be a bit too irritating for your skin. But, if you insist on using it, get help from a Board-certified dermatologist or an experienced aesthetician who might be able to assist.
Minimising the Appearance of Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Glycolic acid helps trigger the cells’ renewal process by boosting collagen production. The AHA exfoliant works its magic by gently dislodging dead cells on the dermis, which in turn has a stimulating effect on fibroblasts that help trigger the appearance of collagen in our cells. These combined properties facilitate skin rejuvenation, firm up skin, minimise and prevent the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
SkinCeuticals Glycolic Renewal Gel Cleanser with 8% glycolic acid is a classic favourite due to its gentle formulation containing hydrating hero aloe vera juice that deeply nourishes, soothes the skin whilst taming fine lines and wrinkles and strengthening its natural protective barrier function.
Those living in the United States can enjoy L’Oréal Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum for optimum results.
SkinCeuticals Glycolic Renewal Gel Cleanser
L’Oréal Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum
Can You Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol?
You may wonder whether you can actually use glycolic acid alongside retinol and other active ingredients in your skincare routine. The short answer is yes, but it is not for the faint hearted. When it comes to potent exfoliating ingredients and skincare in general, less is more.
To avoid setting your face on fire and further drying out your skin by wrongly mixing glycolic acid with retinol, it is crucial to:
- Start by using each ingredient separately and monitor your skin’s response before combining them.
- Use a low concentration of each ingredient, especially when starting out.
- Begin by applying glycolic acid and retinol on alternate days to allow your skin to adjust.
- Moisturise regularly to maintain skin hydration by using complementary products containing lots of nourishing ingredients
- Apply sunscreen daily every 2 hours as both ingredients can increase sun sensitivity.
Moreover, avoid doing chemical and physical exfoliation at the same time as part of your skincare routine. Scrubbing your face after a glycolic acid or any other AHA treatment can damage your skin surface by weakening your skin’s natural barrier function. This in turn might lead to breakouts, irritation, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in severe cases.
How To Add Glycolic Acid Into Your Skincare Routine
The best way to incorporate glycolic acid into your existing skincare routine is to consider your skincare needs and pick a product or two that will best assist you in treating your specific skin concerns.
Whatever glycolic acid product(s) combination you choose to go for, start with a lower concentration and gradually increase over time. Remember that less is more – stick to the beauty product manufacturer’s recommended use.
If you are completely new to glycolic acid and want to figure out whether your skin can tolerate glycolic acid at all, start with a wash-off product such as a cleanser or a toner.
These are great entry skincare products to use once or twice per week to further exfoliate and prep the skin for other products. As they do not stay on your face for the whole day, you will be able to gauge how your skin reacts to glycolic acid after immediate application and a week of use.
Thanks to its hydrating ingredients such as jojoba oil and calendula extract, Dermalogica Daily Glycolic Cleanser has amassed a cult following. It clears and brightens the skin without drying it out, leaving it fresh and highly nourished.
For those who are confident that their skin can better tolerate glycolic acid, give a try to the the following skincare treatments:
- Serums: apply a glycolic acid serum to target specific concerns like hyperpigmentation or ageing.
- Chemical Peels: consider professional in-clinic or at-home chemical peels with glycolic acid for more intensive exfoliation and skin rejuvenation. These stronger skincare treatments generally done once a month contain more high-performing ingredients that deliver better results for many people.
Collen Rothschild Glycolic Acid Peel Pads with Blue Agave
Goop Glow 15% Glycolic Acid Peels
What Are the Potential Side Effects of Glycolic Acid?
Skin irritation, dryness, flakiness, and increased sensitivity to the sun are the most common side effects people might experience when using glycolic acid the wrong way, especially if they use their products incorrectly or in high concentrations.
Some people with very sensitive skin and those with compromised skin barrier functions may also find glycolic acid to be far too harsh for their skin, which can trigger potential allergic reactions.
This is why when using glycolic acid, it is always wise to patch test your chosen skincare product for 24 hours to a week to genuinely find out how your skin is handling it
Always use sunscreen with SPF30 or higher when incorporating glycolic acid or any active ingredient into your skincare routine.
Finally, before jumping into the glycolic acid bandwagon, drop by your dermatologist or aesthetician to get their take on it, especially if you have sensitive skin, are pregnant, or are dealing with any underlying skin conditions.
Glycolic acid is definitely a game-changing ingredient that can dramatically help level up your skincare routine. From exfoliating and brightening to treating acne and reducing signs of ageing, its multitasking properties have made it invaluable to many people. However, it is essential to use glycolic acid correctly and consider individual skin sensitivities.
Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Tang S-C, et al. (2018). Dual effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on the skin. DOI:
Liedtka J, et al. (2016). Glycolic acid.
Sharad J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy — a current review.
Alexis AF, et al. (2013). Natural ingredients for darker skin types: Growing options for hyperpigmentation.
Kornhauser A, et al. (2009). The effects of topically applied glycolic acid and salicylic acid on ultraviolet radiation-induced erythema, DNA damage and sunburn cell formation in human skin. DOI:
This blog post is not intended to provide diagnosis, treatment, or medical advice in any form or shape. Content provided on this platform is strictly for informational purposes only. This is based on my own research and reading of clinical studies in the beauty industry, keeping updated about new changes in the cosmetics market, and my personal journey of battling for over 25 years with severe skin disorders such as acne, eczema, and hyperpigmentation. Please consult with a physician or other healthcare professional regarding any medical or health-related diagnosis or treatment options you might have. Information on this platform should not be considered as a substitute for advice from a healthcare professional. The statements made about specific products throughout this video are not to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.