- Glycolic acid is generally safe for most people to use in low concentrations, making it a common ingredient in many cosmetic products.
- It’s an effective exfoliator that also offers moisture-retention benefits while encouraging new skin cell production.
- These benefits enable glycolic acid to help treat numerous conditions and cosmetic concerns, including signs of aging, acne, and skin discoloration while coming in multiple different forms.
When it comes to ingredients that you’ll most commonly find in skin care and cosmetic products, glycolic acid is near the top of that list.
Glycolic acid can offer numerous benefits for the skin, including improved moisture retention, exfoliating properties, skin brightening, and the encouragement of new skin cell growth.
These benefits have been proven to have high effectiveness over multiple decades of studies, and can help to treat conditions like acne, hyperpigmentation, and signs of aging.
How glycolic acid works
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (aha), meaning it’s a water-soluble “fruit” acid that’s able to penetrate the surface layer of skin. It’s a powerful but relatively gentle exfoliator, allowing it to break up the surface layer of dead skin cells and remove them. This reveals newer, younger skin underneath, which is smoother and looks healthier.
Glycolic acid speeds up the skin cell turnover process, encouraging your skin to create more collagen, resulting in plumper, younger-looking skin overall.
1. It leaves a smoother, healthy complexion
When glycolic acid is penetrating the surface layer of the skin, it encourages moisture retention while simultaneously stimulating collagen production while breaking up and removing the top layer of dead skin cells.
As it’s removing the surface layer of skin, the collagen and elastin is resulting in plumper, healthier, and more hydrated skin. The texture of your skin will improve, becoming smoother, and your skin can even develop a healthy, radiant glow while removing dullness.
Glycolic acid is effective for an improved complexion, making it a common ingredient in resurfacing treatments.
If you’re already using other resurfacing treatments, however, talk to your dermatologist before adding glycolic acid to your skin care regimen, as it may be too rough combined with other exfoliators.
2. It’s got strong anti-aging potential
As we get older, our collagen production naturally decreases, which plays an important role in how we age. Increased collagen production, therefore, will result in plumper skin, which can reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Since glycolic acid also has strong skin lightening abilities, it’s also effective in helping to reduce age and sun spots.
Glycolic acid is often safe to use with most other anti aging products.
3. It can reduce scarring and discoloration
As the glycolic acid removes the top layer of skin cells and encourages rapid skin cell turnover, it’s causing newer, younger skin tissue to form. While this is happening, the lightening effects of glycolic acid will help reduce the appearance of discoloration that’s still there.
Glycolic acid’s efficiency will depend on the concentration and frequency of use. Consistent use of low-concentration products long-term can be effective, but the most effective option will be in-office chemical peels with higher concentrations.
4. It’s can treat acne
Since glycolic acid exfoliates the skin and removes the top layer of dead cells, unclogging pores that otherwise may have mixed with sebum and caused acne blemishes to develop. The moisture-retention benefit is also an advantage; if your skin gets too dry, it may result in an overproduction of oil, which in turn can trigger breakouts.
If you’re already using other acne products, be careful when adding glycolic acid to your regimen, as it may result in redness, irritation, dryness, or skin flaking. While benzoyl peroxide is safe to use in most cases, other products may not work well together. In general, glycolic acid is safe for acne-prone skin.
5. It may prevent keratosis pilaris
Keratosis pilaris is a relatively common skin condition that causes small, red or skin-colored bumps on the arms and legs that result as a build-up of keratin.
Glycolic acid can be used to treat keratosis pilaris because it’s able to remove dead skin cells and prevent clogged follicles, both of which contribute to the condition.
For best results, consider mixing a 10% concentration of glycolic acid with a 5% concentration of salicylic acid.
6. It prevents ingrown hairs
Glycolic acid’s powerful exfoliation will keep all of your pores unclogged, and it will help clear your hair follicles, too. As a result, this can prevent ingrown hairs that could otherwise happen when a follicle is inflamed or clogged, so using a glycolic acid solution or cream on areas where you’re most likely to get ingrown hairs can be a good choice.
Glycolic acid can help prevent ingrown hairs caused by clogged follicles, but it may not be able to get rid of them entirely. Waxing and epilating, for example, may still result in ingrown hairs.
Glycolic acid products
There are multiple types of products containing glycolic acid. Some may offer a relatively pure glycolic acid solution, with only ingredients like water or rubbing alcohol mixed in. Others will contain glycolic acid as only one of several active ingredients.
When choosing a glycolic acid product for yourself, there are multiple options to choose from:
- Cleansers. Cleansers containing glycolic acid can be used daily or once every few days, and are often used for long-term gentle treatments. Most cleansers will be designed specifically as face wash and can be used to treat other areas of the body if needed, though some body washes are available, too.
- Toners. Toners are applied directly to the face after washing to balance the skin. They typically contain low doses of glycolic acid, and typically shouldn’t be used after a glycolic acid cleanser.
- Creams and gels. Creams will contain moisturizing benefits (capitalizing on that moisture-retention ability), but both are applied topically. You can use them once per day or every three days depending on the strength of the concentration.
- At-home masks. It’s common to find at-home masks and peels that contain glycolic acid alongside other ingredients, including salicylic acid. These should be used no more than once per week for a deeper treatment.
- In-office chemical peels. Light, medium, and deep chemical peels should be administered in office by a healthcare professional, and they range dramatically in the strength of concentration being used. They are incredibly effective and are your best option for antiaging and scar-reducing benefits, but both medium and deep peels involve recovery time.
Benefits vs side effects
Glycolic acid clearly has numerous benefits, including the fact that it’s gentle and safe for most people, it’s easily accessible and found in a large number of products, and that it’s relatively affordable in most cases.
That being said, it’s not without side effects. Though it’s safe for many people with sensitive skin to use, some still experience redness, irritation, or discomfort. In some cases, dryness and skin flaking can also occur even when using low concentrations of products containing glycolic acid.
Glycolic acid may make your skin more sensitive to the sun exposure and sun damage, so make sure you’re using a moisturizer that contains sunscreen daily, especially after a professional chemical peel.
The higher the concentration, the more likely you are to experience side effects. Professional grade chemical peels commonly result in side effects like burning sensations, redness, and potentially even swelling of the face or eyes. The deeper the peel you choose, the more pronounced the side effects will become.
Who should avoid glycolic acid?
Though it’s safe for most people to use, there are some who should avoid using glycolic acid:
- People with rosacea, as the glycolic acid may result in increased redness or discomfort.
- Those with dry skin, as it may result in increased dryness and flaking.
- People already using acne prescriptions, as it may interact with the treatments you’re already using; talk to your dermatologist first before adding glycolic acid to your skin care regimen.
Glycolic acid clearly has numerous benefits that make it a strong choice for an all-in-one product in many skin care regimens. Since it may result in side effects, however, especially in those with dry or particularly sensitive skin types, you’ll want to start with low, infrequent use of products containing it to start with. This will allow you to assess your skin’s reaction and give it time to adjust.
- Erbagci, Z., Akcal, C. (2000). Biweekly serial glycolic acid peel vs. long-term daily use of topical low-strength glycolic acid in the treatment of atrophic acne scars. International Journal of Dermatology. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11095203
- Funasaka, Y., et all. (2001). The efficacy of glycolic acid for treating wrinkles: analysis using newly developed facial imaging systems equipped with fluorescent illumination. Journal of Dermatology Sciences. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11514125
- National Center for Biotechnology Information. (n.d.) Glycolic acid. pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Glycolic-acid
- Sharad, J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy– a current review. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigative Dermatology. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240/