Glycolic acid is a natural and highly effective way to exfoliate or refine the skin.
Maybe you’ve heard of a glycolic peel or even experienced one before. When used topically, this natural acid helps remove dead skin cells, which can benefit many common skin concerns — from acne to wrinkles, comedones and many others.
Glycolic acid works by breaking the bonds of those old, no longer needed skin cells that can clog up pores and make the skin look dull. After using this acid, many people report a more revitalized, glowing appearance.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
Common AHAs used in cosmetics include glycolic, malic and lactic acid. As an AHA, glycolic acid is considered to be an “effective active compound” in the skin care world.
So what is glycolic acid? It’s a colorless and odorless alpha hydroxy acid that is typically derived from sugar cane.
Its chemical formula is C2H4O3, and it can also be created synthetically.
What is glycolic acid structure like? It’s considered a hygroscopic (it readily takes up and retains moisture) crystalline solid.
Glycolic acid is the smallest of the AHAs, and it also has the most simple structure. The simple and small-sized molecules are said to easily and readily penetrate the skin.
In beauty products, you’ll often see glycolic acid as a percentage. For example, glycolic acid 10% means that 10 percent of the formula is this acid. A higher percentage means it’s a stronger product. (This is similar how glycerin in beauty products can also be labeled.)
Other acids for skin include:
Benefits for Skin
In general, glycolic acid works as a skin exfoliant that helps remove the outer, dead skin cells. It can also help to get rid of excess oil.
As an active skin care ingredient, it can speed up the skin renewal process and improve the texture as well as the appearance of skin.
Dermatologists and estheticians may recommend glycolic acid for the following skin concerns:
- large pores
- sun spots (also known as age spots)
- signs of aging, including fine lines and wrinkles
- keratosis pilaris
In addition to improving this wide variety of skin-related problems, glycolic acid can also increase collagen production.
According to Kenneth Howe, M.D., a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York City, “Glycolic acid stimulates fibroblasts in the dermis to produce increased amounts of collagen.”
Why is this a good thing? As we age, our bodies’ collagen generation naturally slows down so a boost to production can equate to a more youthful appearance, including firmer, smoother skin.
How to Use
Just like with other exfoliating products, you should start off small and see how your skin does with this AHA. If you have sensitive skin, it’s even more important to be careful or check with your dermatologist before using it at all.
A cleanser containing glycolic acid can be a good way to test out this skin care ingredient for the first time. Once you know you do well with a cleanser, then you can move on to other products if you like. You can also start off with a lower percentage glycolic acid product to see how your skin reacts.
Are there more glycolic acid toner benefits with a higher percentage? In general, a higher percentage product can equate to more obvious or faster effects, but it also increases skin sensitivity more. This is why a strong glycolic acid peel is often done under the supervision of a professional, and it’s not done too frequently (once a month, for example).
What are some of the potential glycolic acid products you may want to consider for your skin care routine? Options include:
- glycolic acid face wash
- glycolic acid toner
- glycolic acid pads (another way to use this AHA acid as a cleanser/toner)
- glycolic acid cream
- glycolic acid lotion
- glycolic acid peel
Glycolic acid products are typically recommended for people with normal, oily or combination skin.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may not do well with glycolic products so check with your dermatologist before using.
Risks and Side Effects
What are the side effects of glycolic acid? As with other AHAs, it can increase your sensitivity to the sun. It’s very important to wear sunscreen after using any type of AHA to avoid a sunburn.
It’s often recommended to only use products containing this acid at night so read products carefully and check with your dermatologist or esthetician on how to best use it most effectively for your skin care goals.
Discontinue use of a glycolic product if irritation occurs. Sometimes, a lower percentage of this acid may also be necessary if you find a product is too strong.
- Along with malic and lactic acids, glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid or AHA.
- Of the AHAs, glycolic has the simplest structure and is the smallest in size, which contribute to its ability to easily penetrate and benefit the skin.
- If you’re wondering how to use this acid, some of the options include as a toner, face wash, face mask or peel.
- The best products use glycolic acid derived naturally from sugarcane and contain other beneficial natural ingredients.
- Using this acid for common skin care complaints like acne or wrinkles can be highly effective because it helps remove clogging dead layers of skin and reveal the more youthful skin underneath.
- This acid is typically recommended for people with normal, oily or combination skin.
- Always read product label directions carefully, and wear sunscreen after using products containing AHAs to avoid sunburn.