- Glycolic acid is an exfoliant agent used in toners to treat a variety of skin complaints.
- Toners with high concentrations of glycolic acid are best suited to those with oily or acne-prone skin.
- DIY glycolic acid toners can be made using simple household ingredients, such as sugar.
- Always start with a low concentration of glycolic acid toner before working up to a stronger one.
- Use sunscreen after applying a glycolic acid toner as your skin will be more sensitive to the sun.
Widely used in both professional treatments and commercial skin care products, glycolic acid is a potent ingredient known for its exfoliating effects on the skin. Glycolic acid toners are effective in treating a variety of common skin complaints including acne, fine lines, texture irregularities and hyperpigmentation.
Due to its potency, it’s important to understand the mechanisms of glycolic acid, and how to use it safely and effectively within your routine.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid belongs to a group of chemicals known as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), also referred to as fruit acids. AHAs are widely used by dermatologists within treatments to exfoliate the skin and promote the regeneration of fresh, healthy, skin cells.
Glycolic acid is typically derived from sugar cane, although it is present within common household foods such as apples, yogurt and vinegar.
Professional chemical peel treatments regularly use glycolic acid in high concentrations of up to 70%. Much weaker concentrations (2–7%) can be found in various at-home skin care products, such as toners.
Glycolic acid in toners
Glycolic acid is the most commonly used AHA, due to its small molecular size and water solubility. This allows it to easily penetrate the skin more effectively than other acids.
When used in toners, it sloughs away dead skin cells, helping to unblock clogged pores. Over time, this will result in an even, brighter-looking complexion.
Benefits of Glycolic Acid Toners
Glycolic acid toners are a beneficial step in your routine if you are seeking to treat skin issues such as acne, scarring and hyperpigmentation.
Bacteria is a known trigger for acne breakouts, aggravating the skin and causing red, inflamed pimples to emerge. Glycolic acid has been shown to have antibacterial effects when used to treat acne – reducing the risk of breakouts and infection. It also helps reduce the excessive amounts of oil that often presents with acne.
Severe acne breakouts often lead to scarring of the skin. Glycolic acid has keratolytic properties, which means it is able to break down the skin’s outer layers, reducing the thickness of scar tissue.
Milia are small white bumps that appear under the skin and are often mistaken for whiteheads. Unlike whiteheads—formed by built up sebum—milia comprise hardened keratin, a protein that aids in maintaining your skin’s structure. They typically appear around the eyes and upper cheeks.
Milia are difficult to remove at home without causing damage and scarring, as they are located under the skin. If milia have become a concern for you, a glycolic acid toner will help clear them away.
As glycolic acid works by sloughing away dead skin cells and increasing the rate of cell turnover, the hardened keratin rise up to the surface of the skin over time. This will allow them to be extracted more easily.
If your skin has a flushed or red appearance, you may have a common condition known as rosacea. Other symptoms can include a stinging sensation and visible blood vessels on the face.
Stress, hot water and certain skin care ingredients are attributed to flare-ups of rosacea – although these triggers will vary between individuals. Research has shown that glycolic acid has the potential to provide anti-inflammatory benefits, while also reducing the appearance of rosacea.
Darker patches of skin or discoloration on the face and body are known as hyperpigmentation. Age, sun damage and acne breakouts are all potential causes for this skin condition.
Glycolic acid has been shown to be effective in reducing the appearance of hyperpigmentation by speeding up the process of skin cell regeneration. Over time, darker areas of the face will begin to fade with the use of a product containing glycolic acid.
How to Choose a Glycolic Acid Toner
AHAs can be harsh on the skin, especially when first starting this treatment. When selecting a glycolic toner, you may want to opt for one that provides additional calming ingredients. Tasmanian pepper berry and aloe vera are popular toner ingredients that help soothe any irritation caused by exfoliating ingredients.
Glycolic acid strength
It is important to check the strength of AHA toners, due to their powerful exfoliating effects. Commercial toners containing glycolic acid will state the concentration of the formula on the packaging.
It is advisable to choose lower concentrations if you are a first time user or if you have normal and combination skin, as you may find that the effects may be too harsh and drying. Oily and acne-prone skin types are more likely to have a higher tolerance toward stronger glycolic acid formulas.
|Strength (%)||When to use|
|2-3%||A low concentration that can be used on normal, combination, oily and acne-prone skin types. |
May be used twice a day.
Will slowly fade hyperpigmentation and brighten your complexion.
|5-7%||A relatively low concentration suitable for daily use on normal and oily skin types.|
Will gradually improve skin texture and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and scarring.
Should be used once per day.
|30%||A relatively high concentration suitable for oily and acne-prone skin.|
Offers more immediate results than weaker concentrations.
Use only once per week.
Who should avoid glycolic acid toners?
If you have broken or peeling skin, you should wait until it is healed before attempting to use glycolic acid in your routine.
If you are already using a strong acne treatment such as benzoyl peroxide, adding a glycolic acid toner into your routine may excessively dry out your skin.
How to Apply Glycolic Acid Toners
When planning a daily skin care routine, it’s important to use your skin care products in the right order to maximize their efficiency. Toners should be used as a second step of your routine, to clear away any remaining oil and residue left after using a cleanser.
Apply a glycolic acid toner using a cotton pad or cotton ball, adding a few drops of the toner solution without overly soaking the cotton. Begin by gently sweeping the toner from the center of your face outward toward your chin, cheeks and forehead. Avoid contact with your lips and the eye area, as they are more sensitive and prone to irritation.
Keep the time spent applying your toner to a minimum. Prolonged contact with glycolic acid can leave your skin feeling irritated.
It is normal to experience a slight tingling sensation when applying AHA toners, however if this worsens during application then you should immediately rinse your face.
After applying a glycolic toner, follow up with a nourishing moisturizer. This will not only hydrate your skin, but also soothe any redness or irritation caused by the glycolic acid.
Safety and Side Effects
AHAs have strong effects on the skin and should be introduced slowly into your daily regime. Begin with toners that contain a low concentration of glycolic acid before graduating to stronger products. By doing this, it will allow your skin to build up a tolerance and avoid any potential irritation.
Do not use other AHAs or beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs)—such as lactic and salicylic acid—on the same day as your glycolic acid toner. If you feel you need to use a combination, alternate these treatments on different days.
The side effects of glycolic acid include a stinging sensation and redness. If you experience any of these, rinse the product off with cool water and discontinue use.
The use of glycolic acid increases your sensitivity to the sun. It is essential that you apply sunscreen or a hydrating moisturizer containing an SPF of 30 and above to prevent sunburn. Sun damage contributes to premature aging and hyperpigmentation – so it is important you keep your skin protected and limit sun exposure.
You may experience a breakout when adding glycolic acid to your regime for the first time. This is not always a sign of an allergic reaction – it can be your skin adjusting to a new product.
As previously mentioned, AHAs work by clearing away dead skin cells, increasing the turnover rate for new cells. This causes impurities deep within the skin to be brought to the surface, resulting in pimples and blackheads.
It can take a few weeks for your skin to adjust to a new product. If your acne worsens or does not clear within this time, then an allergy to an ingredient is likely to be the cause of your breakout.
Homemade Glycolic Acid Toner Recipes
Homemade glycolic acid toners are an alternate option to commercial products. A benefit of DIY toners is that you can use minimal ingredients, which can be useful if you are concerned about the great amount of ingredients found in commercial toners.
Sugar and honey toner for acne
It’s important to select unrefined sugars to use as a natural source of glycolic acid; processed ingredients sometimes lose their natural benefits.
- 2 tablespoons of unrefined sugar
- 2 tablespoons of honey
- 1 cup of water
Stir ingredients together until the sugar dissolves and all ingredients are combined.
Brown sugar, yogurt and green tea toner for oily skin
Brown sugar and yogurt are both good sources of natural glycolic acid. Research into green tea has shown that it may help to reduce sebum production, which is beneficial for those with oily skin.
- 2 tablespoons of muscovado sugar
- 1 tablespoon of plain yogurt
- 1 green tea bag
- 1 cup of water
Steep the tea bag in hot water; cool. Add sugar and yoghurt; stir until combined.
Sugar and chamomile toner for normal and dry skin
This mild DIY toner will help cleanse and calm the skin. Chamomile is a soothing ingredient used in skin care products that can provide anti-inflammatory benefits.
- 2 tablespoons of unrefined sugar
- 1 chamomile tea bag
- 1 cup of water
Seep the tea bag in hot water; cool. Add sugar stir until combined.
Glycolic Acid Toner Alternatives
Lactic acid is an alternative AHA often used to improve uneven skin tones and textures. The only major difference between glycolic and lactic acid is their molecular size. Lactic acid molecules are slightly larger, meaning it won’t penetrate as deeply into the skin and will provide a milder exfoliation.
Additionally, salicylic acid is used as a chemical exfoliant to reduce the appearance of blemishes. Belonging to a group of chemicals known as BHAs, it is best suited to clearing out impurities from clogged pores.
If you have acne, fine lines, hyperpigmentation or scarred skin, glycolic acid toners are an effective treatment. By adding a toner to your skin care regime, you can expect a brighter complexion and smoother skin texture over time.
Improper use of AHA toners will lead to irritation; therefore, it is important to gradually build up your skin’s tolerance to these potent exfoliators. Best suited to oily and acne-prone skin, those with dry and sensitive skin types should avoid glycolic acid toners altogether.
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