- Glycolic acid is a natural chemical exfoliant that can be found in a wide range of over-the-counter products and in-office professional treatments
- This acid can effectively treat several skin concerns including acne, hyperpigmentation and psoriasis
- While effective, glycolic acid can cause a number of mild side effects such as dryness, redness and irritation
Glycolic acid is prized for its exfoliative qualities and can effectively improve the quality of skin in a number of ways. It is available in a wide variety of skin care products such as cleansers, toners, serums, moisturizers and peels. Depending on your skin type, needs and goals, you can choose among gentle or more stronger formulations.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
Derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that offers multiple benefits via two modes of action – as a humectant and a powerful exfoliant.
It loosens the connections between skin cells to encourage exfoliation and promote skin cell turnover. It draws moisture within the skin to deeply hydrate and plump skin, and inhibit the formation of new lines.
Most over-the-counter (OTC) glycolic acid skin care products will have concentrations ranging from 2% to 10%. For professional in-office procedures such as chemical peels, concentrations of 20%–70% are typically used.
Glycolic Acid Benefits
Glycolic acid has a number of well-documented benefits, no matter the treatment or strength. It’s natural exfoliating and collagen-boosting properties can treat a number of skin concerns to revitalize and improve the appearance of skin, and support skin health.
Glycolic acid can play a central role in acne treatment and prevention. As a natural exfoliant, it promotes a peeling effect by loosening the bonds of skin cells on the outermost layer of skin, in addition to sloughing off dead skin cells and excess oils. These actions reduce the appearance of acne lesions, prevents new ones from forming and promotes a smooth, even appearance.
Of equal importance is that this acid is an antibacterial that can kill Cutibacterium acnes (formerly Propionibacterium acnes), the bacteria associated with inflammation and acne formation.
One study examining glycolic acid and acne concluded that a concentration as low as 0.2% was effective against this skin disorder. Of note is that this lower concentration would also reduce the risk of any potential side effects.
Lastly, many topical acne medications have a strong drying effect on skin, which can lead to irritation and diminish the efficacy of a medication. Glycolic acid can counteract the drying effect by restoring lost moisture.
Glycolic acid may be best known for its anti-aging benefits. Of all the AHAs, it has the smallest molecular size to deeply penetrate the skin and stimulate collagen production which densifies and strengthens skin. At the surface level, it effectively smooths fine lines and wrinkles, and brightens the complexion.
Dark spots, age spots, postinflammatory hyperpigmentation and sun-damaged skin can all be lightened with glycolic acid, but most successfully with a medium (30%) to full-strength (70%) peel. As damaged discolored cells are lifted from the skin, they are replaced by new healthy cells for a more even-toned, rejuvenated appearance.
While scars are notoriously difficult to treat, glycolic acid peels have been shown to successfully reduce the appearance of scars (including raised atrophic acne scars) after several treatments. One study demonstrated that treatments with a 70% medium peel provided superior results compared to a 15% glycolic acid cream.
By removing the top layers of skin, the glycolic acid reveals a new, smoother layer of skin beneath. It can also help break up scar tissue which reduces the appearance and texture of the existing scar.
Psoriasis is a chronic disease that has no cure, but it can be controlled with the right therapy. It is a result of a buildup of skin cells which present as red, itchy scaly patches.
Glycolic acid can soften and exfoliate scales to significantly reduce thick plaques of skin and ease redness; this improves the appearance of skin and reduces discomfort.
How to use glycolic acid
To see how your skin reacts, for daily use, opt for a low concentration of 2%–5%; 10% for a once per week at-home treatment. If it is well tolerated, you can then go on to a higher percentage.
It’s important to follow the instructions carefully for any glycolic acid skin care products, particularly when using peels; they can cause burns If left too long on the skin.
Avoid using more than one product with glycolic acid in your skin care regimen as this will likely lead to irritation.
Those with oily skin will usually be able to tolerate higher concentrations 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.
Glycolic acid is available in various OTC skin care products as well in professional grade formulas and medium to deep peels in-clinic.
Different options include:
- Cleansers which can be used several times a week to gently exfoliate; best for sensitive or dry skin as the solution is on the skin for only a brief period of time
- Toners to clear away dead skin cells and debris to allow for better absorption of skin care products
- Serums can be applied to problem areas or over the entire face at night, as this is when the skin regenerates
- Peels, which can be purchased in low strengths for home use, or high-strength professional peels for more dramatic results; the outer layers of skin peel off, effectively treating wrinkles, lines, hyperpigmentation and scars
Glycolic Acid Before and Afters
Glycolic Acid Risks and Side Effects
Glycolic acid is considered to be safe and well tolerated even with higher concentration peels. However there are several common side effects including tingling, erythema (redness), stinging, burning and irritation. Some swelling may occur following professional peels.
In some instances, blistering can occur as well as allergic reactions.
It is important to apply a hydrating serum or moisturizer after using a chemical exfoliant. Your skin will also be more sensitive to the sun; apply an SPF of 30 or higher to protect your skin when outdoors, even under cloudy conditions.
Glycolic acid is not recommended for those with rosacea or open wounds. If you are using OTC or prescription acne products, check first with your care provider as there can be adverse reactions including hyperpigmentation to scarring.
Glycolic acid is a time-tested effective treatment for multiple skin concerns. It is available in varying strengths and found OTC and at professional grade strengths.
This acid can rejuvenate the skin through the power of deep exfoliation to target fine lines and wrinkles, age spots and sun damage. It also stimulates collagen production to provide a more youthful appearance.
Glycolic acid can gently remove plaque psoriasis, clear acne lesions and reduce the appearance of scars and hyperpigmentation.
To reduce the risk of skin irritation, opt for a low-concentration product and work your way up to a higher strength once your skin is accustomed to the product.
- Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013;6:281-288. Published 2013 Nov 11. doi:10.2147/CCID.S34029
- Valle-González ER, Jackman JA, Yoon BK, Mokrzecka N, Cho NJ. pH-Dependent Antibacterial Activity of Glycolic Acid: Implications for Anti-Acne Formulations. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):7491. Published 2020 May 4. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-64545-9
- Feldman SR, Chen DM. How patients experience and manage dryness and irritation from acne treatment. J Drugs Dermatol. 2011 Jun;10(6):605-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21637901/
- Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. Published 2018 Apr 10. doi:10.3390/molecules23040863
- Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941867/
- Erbağci Z, Akçali C. Biweekly serial glycolic acid peels vs. long-term daily use of topical low-strength glycolic acid in the treatment of atrophic acne scars. Int J Dermatol. 2000 Oct;39(10):789-94. doi:10.1046/j.1365-4362.2000.00076.x
- Jacobi, A., Mayer, A. & Augustin, M. Keratolytics and Emollients and Their Role in the Therapy of Psoriasis: a Systematic Review. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb) 5, 1–18 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13555-015-0068-3
- Perić S, Bubanj M, Bubanj S, Jančić S. Side effects assessment in glicolyc acid peelings in patients with acne type I. Bosn J Basic Med Sci. 2011;11(1):52-57. doi:10.17305/bjbms.2011.2624
- Nikalji N, Godse K, Sakhiya J, Patil S, Nadkarni N. Complications of medium depth and deep chemical peels. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2012;5(4):254-260. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.104913