- Glycolic acid is a natural chemical exfoliant that can be found in a wide range of products, both over-the-counter and in professional offices.
- Glycolic acid may help treat a number of different cosmetic conditions, including acne, psoriasis, and hyperpigmentation.
- Though effective, glycolic acid does come with potential side effects that can cause discomfort or irritation to some users.
Glycolic acid is often used as a chemical exfoliant to improve the complexion, offering benefits like the reduction of scars and hyperpigmentation and treating acne. Depending on how it’s made, it can be made in gentle or strong formulations, and it’s found in a wide variety of skincare products and treatments.
What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) found in sugar cane, and is often referred to as a “fruit acid” even though today most of it is created in labs. It’s a powerful natural exfoliant, able to quickly remove the top layer of dead skin cells while simultaneously prompting firmness and plump skin by thickening deeper layers of the skin.
Glycolic acid is found in a wide variety of skincare products, including those available over the counter in face washes, creams, and toners, along with stronger solutions that are found in professional chemical peels.
Most over-the-counter products will contain concentrations of 10% of glycolic acid or less. Even with concentrations as low as 2% can be effective on sensitive skin types. In most cases, it’s recommended to choose products with concentrations of 7% or less if using it daily, and 10% if you’re using the product once per week in an at-home treatment.
Those with oily skin will typically be able to tolerate higher concentrations of glycolic acid more frequently than those with dry or sensitive skin. If redness or irritation occurs, it’s best to reduce the frequency of use or the concentration.
Most in-office procedures will use concentrations much higher, particularly in chemical peels.
Glycolic Acid Benefits
Glycolic acid has a number of well-documented benefits, whether it’s being used at a low concentration in an at-home treatment or it’s a key part of a chemical peel. It’s natural exfoliating and collagen-boosting properties can help treat or reduce the appearance of five different conditions that can impact the skin.
One of glycolic acid’s most well-known benefits is the ability to treat most kinds of acne, including blackheads and cystic acne. The acid is able to penetrate deeply, so not only does it exfoliate and remove the top layer of dead skin cells, but it can dissolve the sebum that would otherwise block pores and result in acne and blackheads.
Scarring can be difficult to cure, but glycolic acid is one treatment that can reduce the visibility of scars, including those that come from acne. By removing the top layers of skin, the glycolic acid allows the new, smoother layer of skin underneath to appear. It can also help to break up scar tissue, reducing the appearance and texture of the existing scar.
Discolored skin can be treated using glycolic acid, lightening freckles, sunspots, melasma, and hyperpigmentation. Studies have shown that even daily use of glycolic acid in low concentrations can reduce skin discoloration, though chemical peels with higher concentrations are typically more successful.
Signs of aging
Glycolic acid can reduce some signs of aging by reducing discoloration of age spots or sunspots. It may also help to reduce the appearance of fine links and wrinkles by stimulating collagen production, which leads to younger, plumper skin.
Psoriasis results in plaques of flaky, scaly skin that may be difficult to remove, though removing them can help medications for the treatment become more effective. Glycolic acid can be gentle enough on the skin that it doesn’t cause further irritation but can still weaken the connections between the skin cells, softening and removing the scales. Though the glycolic acid is more gentle than other types of acid-based treatments, it may burn or sting when used on psoriasis.
How to use glycolic acid
Glycolic acid comes in a number of different forms that are accessible both over the counter and through treatments in your dermatologist’s or aesthetician’s office.
Different options include:
- Cleansers, which are often used around three times per week to gently exfoliate
- Serums, which can be put onto a cotton ball and applied directly to the skin in a thin layer; you can apply the serum to your entire face or use it to only treat a problem area
- Peels, which are low-strength when used at home and prescription-strength when performed in a professional treatment; these will often contain the highest concentrations of glycolic acid, so should be used sparingly and for deep exfoliation.
When using glycolic acid, it’s important to start slow, and it may be a good idea to start with a low concentration. Though it is gentler than other exfoliants– including the widely used salicylic acid— it can still be harsh for some skin tones. Letting your skin adjust and finding the right frequency will be key. Start with once per week, and then work your way up from there unless otherwise recommended by your skincare professional.
Glycolic Acid Risks and Side Effects
Glycolic acid has a number of clear benefits, but it unfortunately does come with some risk of side effects.
The most common side effects are irritation, stinging, and burning upon application. Minor redness and irritation like flaky skin is common after use, especially if the concentration is too high or you had a professional chemical peel. Minor swelling or itching may occur, and the skin will always be more sensitive to the sun after use, so sunscreen will be important. You can use a daily moisturizer that contains SPF to be safe.
While glycolic acid is able to lighten the skin and reduce some existing discoloration, it’s also possible that the product could cause discoloration, too. It may lighten patches of skin in a way that you didn’t want, resulting in an uneven skin tone.
It’s important to follow the safety instructions on any products that you use, particularly when it comes to glycolic acid peels. If left too long on the skin, it can cause burns.
Those with sensitive skin, rosacea, and open wounds may not be suited to use glycolic acid, as it may irritate existing conditions. Those who are using prescription acne products also shouldn’t use glycolic acid, as it may interfere with medications they’re already taking.
Glycolic acid is one of the gentler acid-based exfoliants available, and it can be found in low concentrations in over-the-counter products or in higher concentrations when used for in-office professional chemical peels. It can help manage conditions like acne and psoriasis, and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation and fine lines.
Though effective, glycolic acid doesn’t come without its side effects and risks, so talk to your dermatologist before you add it to your skincare regimen just to be safe.
- 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
- Kostarelos, K., Teknetzis, A., Lefaki, I., Ioannides, D., Minas, A. (2000). Double-blind clinical study reveals synergistic action between alpha-hydroxy acid and betamesthasone lotions towards topical treatment of scalp psoriasis. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10877245
- 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/