What Is Glycolic Acid? Everything You Need to Know About the Popular Exfoliator
One glance at your skincare collection and you’re bound to find a common ingredient. Glycolic acid is right up there with the big boys (aka hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid and azelaic acid) as being an essential for soft, glowing skin. We spoke to Dr. Hadley King, a board-certified dermatologist in New York and asked her to break down the ins and outs of the popular ingredient. Plus, we found 14 products to get you started on your exfoliating journey.
What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that exfoliates by penetrating the outer surface of your skin. It’s derived from sugar cane but can also be found in plants and fruits like beets, pineapples and grapes.
“AHAs dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead cells together on the surface of the skin so it will gently shed, revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath,” says Dr. King. It’s considered the most popular ingredient within the AHA family (with lactic acid, citric acid and acetic acid not far behind) and has one of the smallest molecular sizes, which makes it easier to break through dead skin cells without being too abrasive.
“AHAs are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin. In contrast, BHAs, which are oil-soluble penetrate into pores and are able to work on the surface of the skin, as well as inside the pores,” she explains.
What are the benefits of glycolic acid?
FYI, this chemical exfoliant is no joke. It checks off all the boxes when it comes to managing skincare concerns. Don’t believe us? Look at the list of benefits below.
- It fights acne. Glycolic acid is a must for acne-prone skin. Thanks to its antibacterial properties, the ingredient clears up pores so you can say goodbye to blackheads, whiteheads and future breakouts. “It can help to treat acne by exfoliating and removing keratin debris that could otherwise contribute to clogged pores,” Dr. King explains. Plus, while it’s cleaning up clogged pores, it minimizes their appearance as well. Sounds like a win-win to us.
- It improves skin texture. Since it's an exfoliant, expect dead skin cells to wash away and new ones to take its place. When used regularly, you’ll notice how AHAs improve your complexion and texture over time. Not only will it smooth fine lines and wrinkles, but it also firms and softens skin with continued use.
- It reduces hyperpigmentation. As mentioned earlier, glycolic acid improves dullness and brightens your skin by fading dark spots, acne scars and discoloration. The antioxidant properties work together to tackle hyperpigmentation. While glycolic acid won’t remove marks completely, it will improve their appearance and make them more subtle in the long run.
- It boosts hydration. Since AHAs are water-soluble, your skin will go from dry and patchy to plumped and moisturized for the rest of the day.
Is glycolic acid *actually* good for all skin types?
The potent exfoliant is great for normal, combination and oily skin. However, those with dry or sensitive skin might want to skip the ingredient because it can cause irritation and redness. (You may want to try lactic acid or polyhydroxy acid though; both are gentler options that are generally well-tolerated by sensitive skin).
OK, so how can I use glycolic acid in my skincare routine?
Glycolic acid is everywhere. The superstar ingredient can be found in cleansers, toners, peels, moisturizers and spot treatments. Chances are if you’re looking at the label of your favorite exfoliating product, glycolic acid will be at the top of the list.
If you’re a first-time glycolic acid user, we recommend that you start slow. Before trying any new ingredient (especially an exfoliating active like this one), you want to do a patch test to see if you have any adverse reactions to it. Once you’re in the clear, consider starting with a cleanser that has around 5 to 10 percent of the ingredient. Then, when you’re confident (and it hasn’t had any negative side effects), try a toner, moisturizer or serum instead. Just make sure you don’t use multiple glycolic acid-based products at once, which can be too drying.
One of the most popular uses of the ingredient is through chemical peels. Glycolic peels are stronger treatments that can quickly deliver brighter, healthier-looking skin. If you’re using an at-home peel, it's recommended to use 5 to 30 percent of glycolic acid. Anything more than that should be administered by a professional (aka a derm or an esthetician).
What should I avoid when using glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid and retinoids are head butting cousins. Whether you’re using Retin-A, Accutane or another exfoliating product, chances are your skin will not take well to combining too many of them at once. "Some people may not be able to tolerate glycolic acid if they're also using retinoids or salicylic acids—or the frequency may need to be reduced," says Dr. King. She also doesn’t recommend using the ingredient at the same time as vitamin C, niacinamide and other ingredients that are sensitive to your pH levels.
Got it. Is it OK to use glycolic acid every day?
According to Dr. King, it all depends on your skin type, the strength of the product you’re using and your environment. First timers should only use it 1 to 3 times a week (with a heavy emphasis on once a week for stronger peels and masks). Once your skin grows accustomed to the ingredient, you can slowly add it to your daily regimen. On that note, the best time to use glycolic acid is at night. Since it's a chemical exfoliant, it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun (and the last thing you want is a sunburn, hyperpigmentation or signs of premature aging creeping up).
One last thing...
Glycolic acid has been deemed safe and beneficial to use in your skincare routine. The multifunctional ingredient not only fights acne, but it also reduces hyperpigmentation and improves the overall appearance of your skin. However, as with all skincare ingredients, it’s important to note that if any irritation occurs, stop using it and consult with a dermatologist.
Now, here are a few of our favorite glycolic acid products to get you started on your exfoliating journey.
Best Glycolic Acid Products:
1. Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser
The perfect introduction to glycolic acid starts with a gentle cleanser. This two-in-1 has AHAs (glycolic acid and lactic acid), hyaluronic acid and blueberry extract to wash away any buildup, makeup or oil. One pump is all you need to clean away impurities and leave behind hydrated, plumped skin.
2. Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
If you have combo or oily skin, try this cleanser weekly for a deeper wash. Thanks to the glycolic acid, the foaming formula removes any build up and leaves your skin looking bright and feeling refreshed.
3. Facetheory Clarifying Cleanser C2
This AHA-BHA blend will make sure you get the deepest clean possible. It features four percent glycolic acid, one percent lactic acid and two percent salicylic acid for clearer pores and it reduces redness for people with acne-prone skin.
4. Alpha-H Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment with Glycolic Acid
Your bedtime routine isn’t complete without an exfoliating treatment.The core ingredients in this formula (glycolic acid, licorice root extract and silk proteins) soothe skin, boost moisture and improve dullness with just five drops of the product. Use it every other day for best results.
5. Tula Skincare Get Toned Pro-Glycolic 10% Resurfacing Toner
When you combine glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid together, expect a smoother and more hydrated complexion. The added probiotic and prebiotics in the formula balance your skin’s microbiome so you have healthier skin overall.
6. Saturday Skin Pore Clarifying Toner 10% Glycolic Acid + Pore Control Complex
Want to minimize and clear up pores? Look no further than this $30 pick. The toner has three key ingredients (glycolic acid, witch hazel and sodium PCA) that exfoliate and hydrate your skin so you can officially say goodbye to redness and blemishes.
7. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
The Ordinary is a fan (and PureWow) favorite and this $9 toner is one of our top picks in the line. The budget friendly buy packs seven percent glycolic acid to provide mild exfoliation and improve uneven skin tone without causing irritation.
8. L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum
If your main focus is hyperpigmentation, this glycolic acid-based serum may be your solution. The potent formula will reduce dark spots and brighten your complexion. Add it to your daily routine after cleansing and watch for the glowing results over time.
9. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
The all-star lineup of ingredients in this serum is no joke. First, you’ll find the brand’s signature AHA blend of glycolic, tartaric and citric acid. Then, add our BHA fave—salicylic acid—and raspberry fruit extract and you have a night serum that checks all of the boxes. A drop or two is all you’ll need to reap the benefits. Plus, it’s a great spot treatment for any dark spots or budding blemishes.
10. Ren Clean Skincare Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask
This gentle mask features a powerhouse duo of AHAs (glycolic acid and lactic acid) to improve your skin’s texture. The natural fruit-derived acids remove dead skin cells so dullness, hyperpigmentation and acne are out of the question. Leave it on for a few minutes, rinse and see the results for yourself.
11. GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid Overnight Glow Peel
If you’re ready to try an at-home peel, this GOOPGLOW one is a must. Packed with 15 percent glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid and Australian kakadu plum, the brightening peel pad exfoliates and hydrates skin with every swipe across your face.
12. Bliss That’s Incredi-peel Glycolic Resurfacing Pad
The 10 percent glycolic acid in this peel pad is just what you need during your nightly skincare routine. Just wipe one over clean skin and let the ingredient improve your skin’s tone and texture. Plus, the individual packets make it easy to toss in your bag for on-the-go treatments.
13. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
This daily peel is a PW favorite. Why? The AHA/BHA combo (aka glycolic, salicylic and lactic acid) troubleshoots all your skincare concerns. From hyperpigmentation to breakouts and dullness, your skin is in good hands.
14. Urban Skin Rx Clear Complexion Acne Serum + Spot Treatment
A serum and a spot treatment in one? Yes, please. The benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid mix improves the appearance of any acne, fine lines or wrinkles. Just place a pea-sized over any problematic areas and it will reduce any irritation or redness.