How Glycolic Acid Gets You Bouncy and Radiant Skin

Your guide to glycolic acid for skincare.
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Using skincare products loaded with alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHAs) already has a long tradition. They’re the best at banishing hyperpigmentation, acne, and wrinkles, making products infused with AHAs as practical as sunscreen these days. Although there are several members of the AHA family, there’s one that stands as the strongest one: meet glycolic acid.

This guy is famous for its powerful exfoliating effects that can clear and smooth skin while battling a wide array of concerns, including the aforementioned ones. So if you want to learn more about glycolic acid for skincare, you came to the right place. First, though, let’s start with the root of where all this is coming from.

What are AHAs?

Alpha-hydroxy acids are water-soluble substances that occur naturally as acid components of certain botanicals, like sugary fruits, but can also be made synthetically. As far as skincare is concerned, AHAs help peel away the skin’s surface, eliminating the buildup of dead cells, which in turn comes with countless benefits — more on that later.[1]

The best examples of AHAs are lactic acid, malic acid, and glycolic acid. “Of the AHAs, glycolic is the simplest in structure and the smallest; it has the lowest molecular weight,” says Kenneth Howe, M.D., a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York City. The small molecular weight allows glycolic acid to penetrate the skin deeper and quicker than other AHAs, meaning it stimulates cell renewal more effectively.

What is glycolic acid?

As mentioned, glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid highly soluble in water that occurs naturally in sugar cane yet can be lab-made too. Due to its small molecule, glycolic acid can penetrate deep into the skin layers, exfoliating intensely. Yet, for some, this intense exfoliation can cause irritations, so if your skin is on the sensitive side, you should err on the side of caution when using glycolic acid serums.

As for skincare, glycolic acid is used as an exfoliator to slough off dead cells and impurities from the surface, smoothing rough patches, fading discoloration, thickening the skin, and reducing wrinkles look.[2] Other than that, glycolic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, great for fighting breakouts.[1][3]

The benefits of glycolic acid for skin

According to board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, the main function of glycolic acid is to exfoliate the skin, or as she explains, it’s “ungluing dead cells from each other.” Once applied, glycolic acid reacts with the epidermis’ upper layer, weakening the lipids’ binding properties that hold the dead cells together. In turn, this helps with:

Dull skin

Even the healthiest skin loses radiance when pores get clogged with oil, dead cells, and debris. As a matter of fact, the main cause of dull skin is not exfoliating enough or not exfoliating properly. That’s why you should use glycolic acid, as it removes surface buildup, so your complexion appears smoother, more even, and brighter.


When dead cells stick together, they clog pores and cause breakouts. And since exfoliating the skin results in less junk that blocks the pores, glycolic acid is great at reducing acne and preventing future pimples. Dr. Melda Isaac, a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington, D.C., says that “glycolic acid could get down into the hair follicles and loosen up the sebum and proteins that could lead to blackheads.” For the record, during one clinical trial, a 35% glycolic acid peel reduced inflammatory and noninflammatory acne by up to 70% after 12 weeks. So, in case your skin is acne-prone, you should keep glycolic acid on your radar.[4]

Rough, uneven texture

Exfoliating your skin with glycolic acid helps avoid the dry, flaky appearance that can leave rough patches and uneven texture. Besides, glycolic acid aids in transferring water molecules from the air to the skin (aka it acts as a humectant), replenishing lost moisture so your complexion appears plump.


Using topical products formulated with glycolic acid can also diminish sun damage. During a clinical trial study at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, 74 women between 40 and 70 years with photodamaged skin have applied a cream containing 8% glycolic acid for 22 weeks. By the end of the trial, the treatment with glycolic acid cream was effective in reducing photodamage and sallowness.[5]


If you’re dealing with dark spots or post-acne marks, a glycolic acid product will definitely get in handy. Since some discoloration only affects the top layer of the skin, by exfoliating the pigmented cells from the surface with glycolic acid, dark spots fade away and appear less visible.

More than that, another skin benefit of glycolic acid includes suppressing melanin formation (skin-darkening pigment) by directly inhibiting tyrosinase activity — the enzyme responsible for melanin synthesis.[6] Less melanin means fewer discoloration and an overall brighter appearance, resulting in an even skin tone.

Wrinkles and fine lines

Because glycolic acid has such small molecules, it can get deep into your skin, where it can affect the collagen-storing cells, aka fibroblasts. Collagen is the foundation protein that maintains skin structure, supporting elasticity, density, and firmness, so you need it to hold on to that youthful appearance. Well, glycolic acid is great for boosting collagen levels since it stimulates fibroblasts in the dermis to produce more proteins, making your skin appear plumper as well as reducing the look of wrinkles and fine lines.[7]

Acne scars

Most of the time, post-acne scars are linked to the loss of collagen, as it’s needed for wound healing. Thanks to its ability to stimulate collagen, glycolic acid is a great treatment for diminishing acne scarring.[8]

When to use glycolic acid

Anyone should exfoliate — no matter the skin type — especially since dead cell buildup can worsen wrinkles, pimples, discoloration, and skin texture. By stimulating cell turnover, exfoliation boosts overall radiance, keeping skin healthy and revitalized. Thus, glycolic acid is for you whenever you feel your skin is dull, rough, it’s breaking out, or you want to get rid of scars left by breakouts.

When not to use glycolic acid

Despite its long list of skin benefits, glycolic acid isn’t for everyone. That being said, you should avoid using high concentrations of glycolic acid if you’ve got dry, highly reactive skin since it can lead to irritations. You should consider the seasonal factor too. During the summer, glycolic acid makes skin sensitive to sunlight. On the other hand, in the cold season, glycolic acid can act more aggressively for some since the skin’s barrier is at risk (of getting dry).

Last but not least, don’t use glycolic acid when your skin is vulnerable or compromised, like after a chemical peel or microneedling.

Side effects

Some people can react to glycolic acid, resulting in itching, burning sensations, excessive dryness, and other sensitivities. You’re more prone to this if your skin is dry or sensitive.

How to use glycolic acid?

As with any exfoliant, it’s better to start with low concentrations and gradually increase the strength as the skin build tolerance. You can begin with a cleanser or toner infused with glycolic acid, or in case your skin is already used to acids, it’s okay to apply creams or serums formulated with this hero ingredient. Once every two-three weeks, give your skin a reset with a glycolic acid peel, which gives more dramatic results than serums, as it uses very high concentrations of acids (above 15%).

FYI, the US regulations are quite strict regarding the use of glycolic acid products since they can make skin photosensitive.[1] According to the FDA, glycolic acid is safe for use in cosmetic products in concentrations lower than 10%. So because glycolic acid makes skin sensitive to light, it’s better to use it in your PM routine. Doing so gives enough time for it to do its magic trick without the risk of damaging your skin. And you should always follow up with sunscreen in the morning.

Can I use glycolic acid daily?

How often you can use glycolic acid mostly depends on the product at hand and your skin’s tolerance. But, as a general rule, products with 5 to 10% concentration should be used two to three times per week or daily if your dermatologist recommends it. Glycolic acid peels of 30% or higher should be limited to once every two weeks.

What can you pair glycolic acid with?

Glycolic acid works well with hydrating and replenishing ingredients such as hyaluronic acidceramides, and squalane. Using a rich moisturizer infused with these actives after your glycolic acid peel is actually a great way to reduce the chances of irritations. You can also use glycolic acid and retinol together. I know most people consider glycolic acid and retinol two worlds apart as far as skincare is concerned; and fairly so — as both are known as harsh ingredients. However, if your skin can stand this duo, you hit it big since both work to reduce aging signs, acne scars, and discolorations, boosting each one benefits.[9]

Our skincare dictionary and ingredients cheat list are great places to keep an eye on all skincare ingredients and learn how you can mix them for dramatic results.


  1. Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the SkinMolecules. 2018;23(4):863. Published 2018 Apr 10. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863
  2. Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013 Nov 11;6:281-8. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S34029. PMID: 24399880
  3. Perricone NV, DiNardo JC. Photoprotective and antiinflammatory effects of topical glycolic acid. Dermatol Surg. 1996 May;22(5):435-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1524-4725.1996.tb00343.x. PMID: 8634805.
  4. Sarkar R, Ghunawat S, Garg VK. Comparative Study of 35% Glycolic Acid, 20% Salicylic-10% Mandelic Acid, and Phytic Acid Combination Peels in the Treatment of Active Acne and Postacne PigmentationJ Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2019;12(3):158-163. doi:10.4103/JCAS.JCAS_135_18
  5. Stiller, M & Bartolone, J & Stern, Robert & Smith, S & Kollias, Nikiforos & Gillies, R & Drake, LA. (1996). Topical 8% glycolic acid and 8% L-lactic acid creams for the treatment of photodamaged skin. Archives of dermatology. 132. 631-6. 10.1001/archderm.132.6.631. 
  6. Usuki A, Ohashi A, Sato H, Ochiai Y, Ichihashi M, Funasaka Y. The inhibitory effect of glycolic acid and lactic acid on melanin synthesis in melanoma cells. Exp Dermatol. 2003;12 Suppl 2:43-50. doi: 10.1034/j.1600-0625.12.s2.7.x.
  7. Kim SJ, Park JH, Kim DH, Won YH, Maibach HI. Increased in vivo collagen synthesis and in vitro cell proliferative effect of glycolic acid. Dermatol Surg. 1998 Oct
  8. Chandrashekar BS, Ashwini KR, Vasanth V, Navale S. Retinoic acid and glycolic acid combination in the treatment of acne scarsIndian Dermatol Online J. 2015;6(2):84-88
  9. Chandrashekar BS, Ashwini KR, Vasanth V, Navale S. Retinoic acid and glycolic acid combination in the treatment of acne scarsIndian Dermatol Online J. 2015;6(2):84-88
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana is a sociologist and feminist with a shared passion for literature, psychology, and skincare, the combo that made her determined to start Women's Concepts. With over five years of experience in dermatological research, she has now become a certified skincare consultant keen to convince others of the importance of a diligent routine. Her close relationships with dermatologists around the globe, along with years of researching, analyzing studies, and hand-testing products on a daily basis, made Ana one of the best persons you can get advice from.
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