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Glycolic Acid Essentials: When, How, and Why to Use It

Skincare products with glycolic acid are incredibly popular, given their ability to gently exfoliate the skin and decrease the appearance of wrinkles. But what is glycolic acid, and what are the best ways to use it for your skin? Here’s everything you need to know to get the best results.

Glycolic acid

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid belongs to a group of naturally occurring acids called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Citric acid, lactic acid, and malic acid also belong to the AHA family and are often used in cosmetic and skincare products because of their pore-cleaning properties. Natural glycolic acid is found in foods like sugarcane, cantaloupe, and blueberries. The glycolic acid found in most skincare products is synthetically produced.

Natural glycolic acid is found in foods like sugarcane, cantaloupe, and blueberries

Glycolic acid is the smallest acid of the AHA group, which allows it to quickly and easily penetrate the skin. When used on your skin, glycolic acid acts as a gentle exfoliant by breaking down dead skin cells, oil, dirt, and debris that can accumulate in your pores. When your pores get clogged, pimples and acne can result.

How does glycolic acid work?

What does glycolic acid do to your skin and how does it work?

Glycolic acid is one of the most commonly used AHAs for dermatological and cosmetic treatments because of its ability to help remove dead skin cells and dirt from your skin’s surface.

Glycolic acid works as an exfoliant by removing old cells from the surface of the skin, which helps promote new skin turnover. In this way, glycolic acid can help enhance your existing hygiene routine and support your body’s natural cleaning processes.

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When applied to the skin, glycolic acid has been shown to increase the proliferation of keratinocytes, which are part of the outermost layer of your skin (epidermis) and act as a protective layer from the environment. Glycolic acid also increases your skin’s moisture, which can be helpful if you suffer from dry or flaky skin. Glycolic acid also helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

The benefits of glycolic acid

With regular use, glycolic acid can improve the appearance of your skin

In general, glycolic acid products offer some desirable skincare benefits when used correctly.

  • Mild chemical peels using glycolic acid help remove the outermost layers of skin, which can temporarily reduce the appearance of wrinkles or fine lines.
  • Glycolic acid is also used as an effective treatment against many forms of acne when applied as a chemical peel in a clinical setting.
  • With regular use, glycolic acid can improve the appearance of your skin, enhancing its tone and color by reducing the look of dullness or scarring and smoothing out its appearance.
  • Glycolic acid can result in easier makeup application due to increased skin smoothness and absorption.

Now that you know some of the benefits of glycolic acid, you should also be aware of some of its side effects.

The side effects of glycolic acid

Depending on the concentration of glycolic acid in your skincare product, you may experience mild tingling when you apply it to your skin. If you feel stinging or burning, you should rinse your face with water and discontinue use until you speak with your doctor or dermatologist. Other side effects can include:

  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Itching
  • Skin discoloration

Another possible side effect of glycolic acid is that it increases your skin’s photosensitivity, increasing your risk of sunburn. Remember to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays by applying sunscreen before going outside.

Is glycolic acid safe to use if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding? Studies about cosmetic procedures during pregnancy and breastfeeding suggest that chemical peels with glycolic acid concentrations between 30 and 70 percent don’t penetrate the skin deeply enough to cause concern. Talk to your doctor or dermatologist if you’re using products that require a prescription or are undergoing any cosmetic procedures.

What cosmetic products may contain glycolic acid?

A bottle of glycolic acid

There are hundreds of skincare products on the market that contain formulas with different concentrations of glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid products sold in drugstores typically have lower concentrations, while products or treatments available at clinics will have a higher concentration.

Cleansers

A glycolic acid face wash acts as a cleanser to help rid the skin of impurities. Cleansers may come in a cream, foam, or liquid formula or as glycolic acid pads that can be wiped directly on the skin without water. Cleansers can also act as glycolic acid exfoliators, which help remove deeper layers of dirt and build-up.

Creams and lotions

Glycolic acid creams and lotions can be used to help moisturize the skin, especially after using a cleansing or toning product.

Serums

Serums containing glycolic acid are typically applied after your skin has been cleansed and can be left to be absorbed by the skin with or without moisturizer.

Masks and peels

Glycolic acid masks and peels are left on the skin for some time before being removed. Mild peel products are readily available in stores, while medium peels (that remove deeper layers of skin) are only available at clinics. When applied by a skincare professional, some glycolic acid peel benefits include a deeper exfoliation, which can have longer-lasting effects than over-the-counter products.

How to use glycolic acid for your skin

A woman uses glycolic acid peel

Skincare experts typically recommend treating clean skin with glycolic acid in the evening. For products that don’t need to be washed off (like serums and lotions), you should only apply as much as can be absorbed by your skin in less than one minute. To get the full effect, apply the product evenly across the whole face rather than just in trouble spots.

You might notice results immediately, or it may take several days or weeks to see any changes. As with any cosmetic product, be sure to read the label and follow the manufacturer’s directions for use.   

Glycolic acid and acne-prone skin

As mentioned above, glycolic acid chemical peels are a common treatment for people with acne. A study evaluating the effectiveness of chemical peels made up of a 70 percent glycolic acid solution showed that the procedures were highly successful in treating comedogenic acne.

If you suffer from hormonal acne, you may still find some relief with glycolic acid skincare products or treatments. Depending on the severity of your acne, you may need to consult with your doctor or dermatologist about what products or treatments are right for you. 

When is the right time to start using glycolic acid?

Women in their 30s tend to take an interest in using glycolic acid products as they begin to experience the unique combination of acne and wrinkles. Glycolic acid can be used anytime in adulthood; however, you may want to try different formulations as your skin ages and changes.

If you’re starting a new skincare routine, it’s best to start with low levels (10 percent or less) of glycolic acid and work your way up as necessary. Examine your skin regularly and speak with your doctor if you have any concerns about the effects of glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid is one of the best wrinkle-fighting products on the market. Now that you know everything there is to know about glycolic acid skincare, the only thing left for you to do is try it for yourself!

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