It’s Time To Learn All About Glycolic Acid So You Can Use It Like A Pro

Glycolic acid has been dubbed as a "holy grail" ingredient by beauty experts and enthusiasts alike. If you're looking to up your skincare game, give it a try and experience the difference for yourself.

Glycolic acid is an actual standout ingredient in the skincare scene and has earned a lot of loyal followers due to its ability to renew the skin and make it glow. Not to mention it can improve most skin conditions, and nearly every dermatologist and aesthetician sing its praises. Whether you’re looking to brighten dark spots, smooth wrinkles, clear acne, or boost radiance, you can bet your bottom dollar that glycolic acid will help you. With such fame, it’s no wonder why so many beauty enthusiasts have made it a regular part of their routine. However, before jumping on the glycolic acid bandwagon, there are a few essential things to consider because, as good as it is, this guy comes with some caveats.

Are you curious whether this wonder ingredient is right for your delicate skin? Well, sit tight and keep reading to find all the ins and outs of glycolic acid in skincare. By the end of this article, you will learn how to use it like a pro and how to mix it with your go-to skincare products for a powerhouse routine that’s just right for your skin.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha-hydroxy acid derived from sugar cane. In skincare, it’s renowned as one of the strongest chemical exfoliants that work to remove the top layer of the skin. Technically, it loosens the bonds between dead cells accumulated on the skin’s surface so they can be shed off faster. In this way, glycolic acid promotes the growth of new skin cells to replace damaged and older ones. In simpler words, glycolic acid fuels the skin’s natural renewal process.

 “Of the AHAs, glycolic is the simplest in structure and the smallest; it has the lowest molecular weight,” says Kenneth Howe, 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, stimulating cell turnover more effectively.

Worth mentioning, glycolic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which are great for fighting acne and encouraging pimple healing.[1][2][3] It’s also hypothesized to act as an antioxidant, meaning it may have photoprotective effects that can help reduce sun damage.

How glycolic acid works in skincare

Exfoliates the 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 to the skin, glycolic acid reacts with the epidermis’ upper layer, weakening the binding lipids that hold dead cells together. In turn, this reveals brighter and smoother skin, softens fine lines and wrinkles, thickens and retexturizes the skin, and reduces the chances of breakouts.

Supports collagen production

Moreover, glycolic acid supports collagen and hyaluronic acid production as an extension of its ability to promote cell growth.[4] Collagen is the main protein that provides structure and strength to the skin, maintaining its elasticity and firmness. Hyaluronic acid is equally important as it’s responsible for the skin’s natural ability to retain moisture. By increasing the levels of these essential components, glycolic acid does everything from plumping and hydrating the skin to reducing aging signs—the reason you’ll often find it in skincare products that address wrinkles.

Attracts moisture into the skin

Glycolic acid removes dry, flakey skin from the surface, helping relieve tightness and dryness, and it also has humectant activity. A humectant is a compound that can bind and attract water molecules from the atmosphere to the skin, replenishing moisture and giving the skin a supple appearance. And so glycolic acid does that by increasing the synthesis of glycosaminoglycans, molecules that draw water into the skin.[1]

Improves acne 

Glycolic acid is a potent acne-fighter, and for a good reason. By eliminating dead skin cells, it unclogs the pores and removes excess oil and bacteria that can lead to breakouts. But that’s not all. Its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits pack quite a punch and make it a true superhero for anyone with acne-prone skin.[2] In fact, one study showed that after 12 weeks, a 35% glycolic acid peel reduced both inflammatory and non-inflammatory acne by up to 70%.[3]

Reduces hyperpigmentation

If you’re dealing with hyperpigmentation—be it dark spots or post-acne blemishes—the brightening effects of glycolic acid will definitely get in handy. It turns out this ingredient has two pathways to improve skin discoloration. Firstly, it sheds off old and pigmented cells, making room for new brighter ones to replace them. Secondly, glycolic acid works as a melanin inhibitor, suppressing the production of pigment that causes dark patches on the skin.[5] With glycolic acid by your side, you can say hello to a brighter, more even complexion.

Enhances skin penetration

Glycolic acid also enhances skin penetration by removing the buildup of dead cells from the surface. This creates a clearer path for other products to penetrate deeper into the skin, increasing their efficacy. Simply put, glycolic acid amplifies the benefits of your skincare routine.

Glycolic acid benefits for skin

All things considered, this is how using products with glycolic acid can benefit your skin and lead to a healthier, more radiant complexion:

  • Resurface the skin and remove dead cells
  • Stimulate collagen and hyaluronic acid production 
  • Diminish fine lines and wrinkles
  • Tighten and firm
  • Soften and smooth rough texture
  • Brighten dark spots and enhance radiance
  • Unclog pores and prevent blackheads
  • Improve acne
  • Hydrate and plump the skin
  • Enhance skin penetration

Side effects of glycolic acid 

Aside from peeling, which is normal, glycolic acid can cause some side effects, especially when you first incorporate it into your skincare regimen or if your skin is easily reactive. These may include redness, stinging, burning, itching, and irritation and happen because the newly produced cells temporarily lack the lipid protection that the older cells had. This leaves the skin more sensitive and susceptible to damage. Besides, glycolic acid can leave skin dry and flaky for the first few days after use because it strips away natural oils. It also makes the skin photosensitive, which is why you should use products with high concentrations of glycolic acid at night. 

Glycolic acid may also cause a temporary side effect called “skin purging” as a result of increased cell turnover, which brings excess oil and bacteria rapidly to the surface, leading to breakouts.

However, most of these side effects go away on their own as your skin adjusts to glycolic acid and gets accommodated with the changed rate of cell turnover. To mitigate the risk of irritation, start with a low concentration of glycolic acid and gradually increase it to give the skin time to adjust and build up its protective barrier. Overuse or using high concentrations of glycolic acid can worsen the side effects.

How to use glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is found in all sorts of skincare products, so the best approach is to use it according to the directions of the product at hand. As a rule of thumb, cleansers and toners with glycolic acid can be used daily to clear the skin of impurities and dead cells. On the other hand, serums and facial peels with high amounts of glycolic acid should be used at most three times a week after cleansing and before moisturizing.

Here are some dermatologist-approved tips for using glycolic acid:

  • Start with a low concentration of glycolic acid (<2%) and gradually increase it as the skin builds tolerance. Face washes, toners, or moisturizers infused with glycolic acid are great for the accommodation period since they’re gentler and work to prepare your skin for more potent serums or facial peels.
  • Perform a test patch before you apply glycolic acid to your face. Apply a small spot under your chin and leave it for 30 seconds. Rinse with water and wait for 48 hours to notice if your skin experience redness or irritation. 
  • Use a rich moisturizer or night cream infused with replenishing ingredients (ceramides, cholesterol, fatty acids) right after glycolic acid to reduce the chances of side effects.
  • Apply sunscreen every day. Since glycolic acid can make skin more sensitive to the sun, it’s crucial to wear sunscreen daily.

Who should use glycolic acid

Anyone should regularly exfoliate their skin, especially since dead cell buildup can worsen wrinkles, pimples, discoloration, and skin texture. Thus, glycolic acid is ideal for most people, and you should head toward it whenever you feel your skin is dull or rough, it’s breaking out, or you want to get rid of dark spots or scars left by breakouts.

Who should not use glycolic acid

You should avoid using high concentrations of glycolic acid if you have very dry or sensitive skin since it can lead to irritations. The same goes if you have rosacea, eczema, or sunburn. 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. Last but not least, don’t use glycolic acid when your skin is vulnerable or compromised, like after a chemical peel or microneedling. 

What can you pair glycolic acid with?

Glycolic acid pairs well with hydrating and replenishing ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and fatty acids, as they help offset its possible side effects. Here are a few examples of what you can pair glycolic acid with to address your skin concerns.

  • Glycolic acid with niacinamide to increase skin tolerance: Glycolic acid temporarily weakens the skin’s epidermal barrier, and niacinamide helps reduce the impact by improving the production of skin lipids and fortifying the moisture barrier, therefore increasing skin tolerance to glycolic acid.
  • Resveratrol with glycolic acid to improve uneven skin tone: They inhibit the activity of pigment-producing cells and brighten dark spots.[6] Since both are vulnerable to light, use them in your PM regimen.
  • Retinol with glycolic acid to ward off aging signs: Both stimulate cell turnover and boost collagen in the skin, working great to address fine lines, wrinkles, photodamage, and dark spots. It’s important to add them gradually into your routine. The best way to use glycolic acid and retinol together is to apply them on alternative nights, or what is best known as skin cycling.
  • Azelaic acid with glycolic acid to reduce breakouts: It has been found that azelaic acid and glycolic acid are as effective as tretinoin for minimizing breakouts and have a higher tolerability level.[7] And if it wasn’t enough, pairing glycolic acid and azelaic acid makes a winning duo that promises to fade post-acne marks—the effect is similar to that of using a 4% hydroquinone cream.[8]
  • Hyaluronic acid with glycolic acid to improve hydration: This combination is excellent for getting rid of dullness and dryness. While glycolic acid sloops off dead cell buildup, hyaluronic acid hydrates and reduces the potential drying effects of glycolic acid. 
  • Vitamin C with glycolic acid to fight the loss of firmness: Since both are great at enhancing collagen production, they clear the path to plumper, bouncier and evener skin when used in tandem. However, you shouldn’t mix vitamin C and glycolic acid together as they can alter your skin’s pH and disrupt the barrier. Because vitamin C is an antioxidant that scavenges free radicals to protect your skin against oxidative stress, you want to apply it in the morning and leave your glycolic acid product for your nighttime routine.

What not to pair with glycolic acid

While glycolic acid can be teamed up with almost any skincare ingredient, you should steer clear from using it together with other exfoliants like salicylic acid or drying actives like benzoyl peroxide. Nonetheless, you can use them alternatively to avoid over-exfoliating your skin.


FAQ

  1. Can I use glycolic acid daily?

    It depends on the product at hand and how tolerant your skin is. It's ok to use a cleanser or toner with glycolic acid daily. However, serums or peels with a concentration of 5-10% glycolic acid should be used 2-3 times a week to avoid damaging your skin barrier.

  2. Should I moisturize after glycolic acid?

    You should always moisturize after using glycolic acid. Because glycolic acid is an exfoliant, applying a moisturizer after it helps reduce dryness and offset irritation.

  3. Which is better salicylic acid or glycolic acid?

    While both ingredients are exfoliating acids, they work slightly differently. Glycolic acid sloughs off dead skin from the surface, making it a good option for normal, dry, and sensitive skin. Salicylic acid goes beneath the outer skin layer, dislodging the gunk that clogs pores, which means it is a better option for oily, combination, and acne-prone skin.

  4. Is glycolic acid better or retinol?

    Both actives are potent and address similar skin concerns: wrinkles, uneven tone, dullness, and even acne. However, according to existing research, retinol is better for addressing aging signs.

Footnotes

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. Kornhauser A, Coelho SG, Hearing VJ. Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2010 Nov 24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3047947/
  2. Valle-González ER, Jackman JA, Yoon BK, Mokrzecka N, Cho NJ. pH-Dependent Antibacterial Activity of Glycolic Acid: Implications for Anti-Acne Formulations. Sci Rep. 2020 May 4;10(1):7491. doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-64545-9. PMID: 32367064; PMCID: PMC7198592.
  3. 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 Pigmentation. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2019 Jul-Sep;12(3):158-163. doi: 10.4103/JCAS.JCAS_135_18. PMID: 31619887; PMCID: PMC6785964.
  4. Bernstein EF, Lee J, Brown DB, Yu R, Van Scott E. Glycolic acid treatment increases type I collagen mRNA and hyaluronic acid content of human skin. Dermatol Surg. 2001 May;27(5):429-33. doi: 10.1046/j.1524-4725.2001.00234.x. PMID: 11359487.
  5. 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. PMID: 14756523.
  6. Jo DJ, Seok JK, Kim SY, Park W, Baek JH, Kim YM, Boo YC. Human skin-depigmenting effects of resveratryl triglycolate, a hybrid compound of resveratrol and glycolic acid. Int J Cosmet Sci. 2018 Apr 16. doi: 10.1111/ics.12458. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 29663438.
  7. Spellman MC, Pincus SH. Efficacy and safety of azelaic acid and glycolic acid combination therapy compared with tretinoin therapy for acne. Clin Ther. 1998 Jul-Aug;20(4):711-21. doi: 10.1016/s0149-2918(98)80134-3. PMID: 9737831.
  8. Kakita LS, Lowe NJ. Azelaic acid and glycolic acid combination therapy for facial hyperpigmentation in darker-skinned patients: a clinical comparison with hydroquinone. Clin Ther. 1998 Sep-Oct;20(5):960-70. doi: 10.1016/s0149-2918(98)80077-5. PMID: 9829447.
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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