Used in over-the-counter and dermatologist-prescribed products, glycolic acid is one of the most popular exfoliating agents in the market due to its versatility and the ability to address multiple skin concerns while improving skin’s overall health and appearance.
From anti-aging benefits to evening out the complexion and even addressing inflammatory conditions like acne, it’s not hard to see why glycolic acid has become one of the most beloved steps in the skincare routines of many.
However, with how popular this ingredient is, you’d think we’ve all figured out how to use it correctly by now, right?
Well, glycolic acid, although efficient, can be a bit of a meanie in some cases, which is why, in this article, we will explain how glycolic acid works, how to use it to relieve various skin concerns, and most importantly, how to avoid the dreaded irritation glycolic acid sometimes brings along.
What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is a substance that belongs to the family of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and is a naturally occurring component that can be found in foods like sugar cane, beets, pineapple, tomatoes, and unripe grapes.
However, although naturally occurring, the glycolic acid used in skincare products is synthetically made due to its overall stability, safety, and longer shelf life.
Compared to other members of the AHA family, glycolic acid has the smallest molecular weight or the tiniest particles, which is how it can penetrate the skin easier and work in the deeper layers instead of merely sitting on the surface.
This ability makes glycolic acid the most potent member of the AHA family that delivers the best results compared to its cousins and is often used in over-the-counter products as well as professional treatments due to the various benefits it offers for the skin.
Benefits of Glycolic Acid
A master exfoliator that improves the skin’s health and appearance, here are some benefits of using glycolic acid:
Refines Skin Texture
Glycolic acid is an exfoliating ingredient that smoothes out rough, uneven skin texture by dissolving the protein bonds that hold dead skin cells together and helping them shed naturally.
This will, in turn, help unclog those tiny clogged pores that appear as flesh-colored or white bumps on the skin and give you an overall more refined complexion.
Minimizes Enlarged Pores
Our pores become enlarged when excess sebum and skin cells accumulate inside them, pushing the pore lining to expand and accommodate the cellular debris.
This is why exfoliation is an essential step in the skincare routine of anyone dealing with excess oiliness and enlarged pores.
Glycolic acid helps minimize enlarged pores by increasing cellular turnover and prevents them from getting stuck inside the pores, which makes them look smaller and more refined.
Decreases Fine Lines and Wrinkles
Fine lines and wrinkles result from a decrease in the production and breakdown of collagen, but they are made to look even more prominent by the layers of dead skin cells on the skin’s surface that haven’t shed properly and are making the complexion appear dull and sallow.
Glycolic acid helps remove this buildup of dead skin cells and encourages them to renew themselves faster, which means new, younger, and plumper-looking cells will travel to the skin’s surface quicker than the usual cycle and soften the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
When there’s inflammation in the skin, the melanocyte cells, which are part of our skin’s defense mechanism, will begin the production of excess melanin, a brown pigment that determines our skin color, which will result in uneven distribution of pigment at the site of injury.
However, by exfoliating the uppermost layers of the skin, glycolic acid will help hyperpigmented spots and uneven areas shed faster, eventually bringing up new cells to the skin’s surface, evening out the skin tone, and fading away discoloration.
Acne is an inflammatory condition that results from a clogged pore, bacterial overgrowth inside this airless environment, and the immune system’s reaction to a pathogen.
Therefore, by exfoliating the skin and dissolving the built-up gunk inside the pores, glycolic acid can help reduce the frequency and intensity of breakouts, resulting in a clearer and smoother complexion.
Glycolic Acid Side Effects
Glycolic acid might be efficient in addressing multiple skin concerns, but, like all ingredients, it comes with its own set of potential side effects.
Here are some of them:
As we already mentioned, glycolic acid is an exfoliating acid with a small molecular weight, making it the most potent exfoliating agent compared to its AHA cousins.
This is why it’s essential to be cautious when introducing glycolic acid into your skincare routine, as, although efficient, this component can also be highly irritating, which is one of the main side effects associated with its use.
To avoid irritation, stinging, burning, and discomfort, you should introduce glycolic acid into your routine slowly and in low concentrations.
That means you should exfoliate only once or twice a week with a product that contains up to 8% glycolic acid.
You also need to make sure that you’re applying heavy-duty sunscreen with a sun protective factor of no less than 30, as glycolic acid is notorious for making the skin more sensitive to UV rays and more susceptible to sunburns.
When helping the dead skin cells shed from the skin’s surface, glycolic acid exposes the younger cells from underneath to the environment.
These cells might look smoother, plumper, and more even; however, they are also more immature when it comes to retaining moisture in the skin because they are not strong enough to withstand the osmotic pressure of water building up within the cells.
Therefore, while exfoliating might make your skin more glowy, uniform, and smooth, overdoing it can leave the skin unable to keep itself hydrated, which leads to dryness, irritation, and discomfort.
To avoid this, use glycolic acid in moderation and always pay attention to the skin’s reaction.
If your skin starts to feel dry, stretched, and tight, this is a good enough sign that you should cut back on the glycolic acid treatments and give your skin a break to renew itself.
Peeling is another common side effect of over-exfoliation, and while mild peeling is usually acceptable when introducing an exfoliating agent into your skincare routine, a persistent occurrence of this issue is typically a sign of a compromised skin barrier.
Again, if your skin is peeling excessively for a prolonged period, you should stop using the exfoliating agent and allow your skin to repair itself.
Glycolic Acid Alternatives
Glycolic acid is not the only acid used in skincare products, and while it has its unique properties and a molecular weight that allows it to work in a certain way, there are other exfoliating agents available that can be just as effective.
Here are some glycolic acid alternatives you should know about:
Lactic acid is another member of the AHA family, but unlike glycolic acid, which has the smallest molecules and is the most potent, lactic acid has the largest molecules that make it less irritating and, therefore, suitable for more sensitive skin.
Lactic acid is also a hydrating ingredient that focuses its effects on the skin’s surface rather than inside the pores and can provide mild exfoliation and hydration, with similar benefits like decreasing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, fading hyperpigmentation and refining uneven skin texture.
Mandelic acid is also a member of the AHA family and falls somewhere between glycolic and lactic acid in terms of molecule size.
This makes it an excellent option for those with sensitive skin; however, due to its ability to penetrate the pores and clear out built-up gunk, it can be a great option for those with acne-prone skin as well.
Mandelic acid, like all AHAs, is also efficient in refining skin texture, fading hyperpigmentation, evening out the skin tone, and mildly reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Salicylic acid is the only beta hydroxy acid (BHA) with oil-soluble properties, which means it cuts through the superficial layers of the skin and penetrates deep inside the pores to clear out any built-up gunk.
This makes salicylic acid the best option for those with oily and acne-prone skin, and its mild anti-inflammatory properties also efficiently decrease redness and irritation surrounding an active pimple.
Hyaluronic acid, although an acid, isn’t an exfoliating agent but a component naturally found in our bodies surrounding the cells and helping to keep water molecules inside the skin, resulting in hydration and plumpness.
This makes it a great supporting ingredient to be used alongside exfoliating acids, as whenever you exfoliate your skin, you remove the tightly packed layers of skin cells that are holding moisture inside the skin, which can result in dryness, so hyaluronic acid will help replenish some of that moisture that’s lost during the exfoliation process.
How To Use Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is typically found in cleansers, toners, and serums, which are also the three best ways to incorporate it into your skincare routine, as these products offer a variety of effects based on how long they stay on the skin, the concentrations of the active ingredient in them and your specific needs.
Here’s how to use glycolic acid for various skin types and conditions:
If your skin is sensitive, the best way to start incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine would be in the form of a cleanser, as these products usually contain less potent concentrations of the active ingredient and are left on the skin for a short time, which decreases the chances of irritation.
If your skin is normal to dry, you can opt for a hydrating toner that also contains a low percentage of glycolic acid, as this will give your skin the moisture it needs while also providing gentle exfoliation.
Oily and Acne-Prone Skin
Finally, if your skin is oily, resistant, and acne-prone, you can choose between a more potent glycolic acid toner or a serum, based on your preference.
Cleansing with glycolic acid won’t do much for acne, as this ingredient will work best on reducing inflammation if left on the skin for longer.
Do Dermatologists Recommend Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient in skincare products, and many dermatologists recommend it as an effective way to reduce signs of aging, improve skin texture, and treat acne.
Additionally, besides recommending over-the-counter products with glycolic acid, dermatologists also provide professional treatments like chemical peels that are concentrated versions of an at-home peel and can contain anywhere from 20-70% glycolic acid.
These treatments are usually recommended to those dealing with stubborn pigmentary disorders that cover larger areas of the face and body, UV damage, prominent signs of aging, and moderate to severe acne.
Frequently Asked Questions
Glycolic acid isn’t the best option for ultra-sensitive, reactive, or compromised skin, as it can aggravate these conditions and lead to more intense discomfort.
Therefore, the best option might be a gentler exfoliating agent, like lactic acid, which can help improve most skin concerns glycolic acid tackles without causing irritation.
However, if you still want to try glycolic acid, opt for a product with a mild concentration and use it sparingly.
Glycolic acid and retinol isn’t the best combination in a skincare routine because retinol is a component that increases cellular turnover and sends young cells toward the skin’s surface, while glycolic acid will continue to remove them, which will most likely lead to irritation.
Therefore, if you’re already using one but want to try the other, make sure to give your skin a long break between stopping an active ingredient and introducing a new one so that it can adjust accordingly without becoming irritated.
Glycolic acid can only be combined with other exfoliating acids if a product contains a cocktail of different acids.
This is because products that contain multiple acids are specifically formulated with low concentrations of the active ingredients so that they work together without causing irritation,
On the other hand, products that contain a single exfoliating acid are usually formulated with a higher strength of the active, which shouldn’t be layered with another exfoliating product in the same routine as it will most likely lead to irritation and can severely damage the skin.