- Glycolic acid has properties that exfoliate the skin, encourage new cell growth, and improve moisture retention, making it a strong potential acne treatment.
- It comes in many different forms, including cleansers, creams, gels, and face masks; all work to varying degrees.
- In addition to treating and preventing acne, glycolic acid may also reduce the appearance of acne scars.
Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (or a “fruit acid”) that’s commonly used in skin care products for its exfoliation, regenerative, and moisture-retaining qualities, all of which can help it to treat acne in some patients.
Glycolic acid can come in multiple forms, all of which can be used to treat acne though to varying degrees of efficiency based on the individual.
How Glycolic Acid Treats Acne
Using products containing glycolic acid can result in numerous benefits that each help to treat acne in different ways.
The primary benefit of glycolic acid for acne is exfoliation. The acid is able to penetrate the skin deeply to remove dead skin cells, preventing them from mixing with sebum to later clog pores and cause acne. Clear pores result in clearer skin, and can help eliminate blackheads as well as pimples and other inflammatory forms of acne.
As glycolic acid removes the surface layer of skin to reveal new, younger skin underneath, it also encourages new skin growth. Faster skin cell turnover can help prevent clogged pores and keep your skin looking healthy while also reducing the appearance of acne scars.
The last major factor that allows glycolic acid to treat acne is allowing the skin to have an improved ability to retain more moisture. While some people worry about having too much moisture or oiliness resulting in acne, you want better moisture retention, as it actually prevents the overproduction of oil that can contribute to or cause breakouts.
Can it be used on active pimples?
Glycolic acid can be used on active pimples to dry them out and help them clear up faster. That being said, glycolic acid should not be used on pimples that have been popped or otherwise have resulted in an open sore, as it can cause burning.
Efficacy of glycolic acid for acne
Glycolic acid can be an effective treatment option when it comes to managing and preventing different types of acne. One study found that 45% of participants believed that glycolic acid was more effective than salicylic acid and placebos, and only 12% reported no improvement at all.
How long does it take to work?
The amount of time it may take for glycolic acid to treat your acne depends heavily on the individual and the concentration of glycolic acid that they’re using. It may take anywhere from one to two months, for example, to see significant results from at-home cleansers, creams, or gels, though some may notice a difference in as little as one week. Professional grade peels, on the other hand, will typically work much faster and can show results in around one or two weeks.
Keep in mind that glycolic acid– like all acne treatments— may seem to make your acne worse before it gets better. Breakouts after starting new treatments are common, which occur when the skin “purges.” This is actually a sign that your new treatment is working, pushing all the clogged pores and blackheads to the surface. This can last several weeks, depending on the treatment.
Glycolic acid vs salicylic acid
Glycolic and salicylic acid are two ingredients commonly used in both in-office and over-the-counter acne treatments. There are a few key differences between the two:
- Salicylic acid can penetrate deeper into the skin than glycolic acid. This is because glycolic acid is water soluble, meaning it only penetrates the surface layers of the skin, while salicylic acid is oil soluble.
- Glycolic acid is more effective at encouraging the skin to retain moisture, in addition to offering exfoliating properties.
- Glycolic acid offers more skin-brightening benefits.
- Glycolic acid may be gentler on the skin than salicylic acid, though people with sensitive skin types should proceed with caution when it comes to testing both.
- Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid as opposed to an alpha hydroxy acid.
Does it work on acne scars?
If you want to treat acne, prevent breakouts from happening, and treat acne scars all at once, glycolic acid can be a strong choice. Since it can encourage new skin cell growth and remove the top layer of dead skin cells, it can help to reduce the appearance of scars while brightening the complexion overall.
A recent study found that a single application of a deep chemical peel using glycolic acid reduced the appearance of scarring in all participants, and continual use of even at-home products can help fade most acne scars.
How long do the results last?
If you’re trying to treat acne– as opposed to just trying to fade acne scars– then you’ll need ongoing treatment in order to maintain your results. Results may last up to one week without additional use of glycolic acid, though they likely won’t last beyond that if you’re using at-home products.
In-office chemical peels can give you results for anywhere from one to two months for lighter peels, two to six months for medium peels, or even years if you receive deep peels.
Glycolic acid products and treatments for acne
There are a number of different types of glycolic acid products that can be used to treat acne, all of which can have varying concentrations of glycolic acid that determine their efficacy and potential for side effects:
- Cleansers are one of the more common at-home glycolic acid products, which can be used to wash your face with once per day. When you’re first starting out, it’s best to use it only once every three days so that you can give your skin time to adjust. Typically, cleansers contain glycolic acid concentrations of around 8-10%.
- Toners, which are a liquid solution that can be applied via a cotton pad or used as a spray. Toners are typically used to restore balance in the skin’s ph, and will typically have a low dose of glycolic acid.
- Creams and gels are applied topically to the skin, and are often combined with other moisturizers or hydration-boosting ingredients to help the skin absorb it fully and increase the skin’s hydration overall. Creams typically contain low concentrations of glycolic acid (around 5-8%), while gels typically contain slightly higher concentrations (typically ranging from 8-10%.
- At-home peels are applied around once per week or once every other week for just two to three minutes before they’re washed off. Because of this, they often contain higher concentrations of glycolic acid, which may range from 10-20%.
- Professional chemical peels are conducted in-office by a healthcare provider or esthetician, and they vary in strength. They all will require some recovery time. Light chemical peels may start at around a 20% concentration, while deep chemical peels can use a concentration of up to 70%.
Risks of Using Glycolic Acid for Acne
Glycolic acid is generally safe for most people to use, but it can cause some side effects in certain individuals.
The most common side effects associated with using glycolic acid for acne-prone skin are irritation, redness, and dryness or flaking. This can occur even with products using the lowest concentrations, so it’s important to start slow. Use low concentrations of glycolic acid, and start by using them only once every few days to give your skin time to adjust and to assess its reaction.
Both medium and deep chemical peels also have recovery times, and may require pain medication to tolerate the peel both during and after the procedure. It’s important to weigh the downtimes and side effects when considering whether a chemical peel is right for you.
If you’re using any other products or prescriptions for acne, there’s a chance that they won’t mix well with glycolic acid. Talk to your dermatologist about potential interactions, and when in doubt, test a small amount of the new product on a patch of skin to watch for potential reactions before adding it to your full skin care routine.
Can glycolic acid be used with benzoyl peroxide?
Glycolic acid can interact with other treatments that you’re using to manage acne. Benzoyl peroxide is typically one of them, and using the two in conjunction can help the benzoyl peroxide to penetrate deeper and offer moisture-retention qualities.
That being said, both have redness, flakiness, and dryness as potential side effects, which patients may have a heightened risk of experiencing if using both together.
Glycolic acid can be an effective treatment when it comes to managing and preventing acne, as well as reducing the visibility of acne scars. It’s ability to exfoliate, offer increased moisture retention, and encourage new skin cell growth can help to treat and prevent acne, though it may have side effects for some people. Those with sensitive skin should take extra precaution, but everyone should start with low concentrations and work their way up when adding glycolic acid to their skin care regimen.
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- Sharad, J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy– a current review. Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigative Dermatology. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240/
- Stokes, B. (2014). Is glycolic acid safe and effective in the treatment of mild to moderate acne? PCOM Physician Assistant Studies Student Scholarship. digitalcommons.pcom.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1194&context=pa_systematic_reviews