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Everything You Need to Know About Glycolic Acid

Updated: Jan 17

Unless you live under a rock, which we doubt you do, there is a high chance that you have seen glycolic acid at least once on your feed! If you haven’t, that’s fine too. Learn how this multi-purpose product works and how beneficial it would be for you to introduce this skincare active to your beauty regimen!

What is Glycolic Acid?

A Glycolic Acid toner from The Ordinary in the palm of Habiba's hand.

Glycolic acid, a derivative of sugar cane, chemically exfoliates the skin by dissolving dead skin cells and oils. It belongs to a category of chemical exfoliants known as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and its large molecular structure makes it capable of dissolving the bonds that hold dead skin cells together on the topmost layer of the skin.

Using glycolic acid means there is no need for you to scrub your skin harshly, with things like harsh scrubs, brushes, etc, however, like most chemical exfoliants, if used a little too often, it could be harmful to your skin, causing irritation or mild skin damage.

This skincare ingredient is not new to the skincare industry. According to Dr. Vicki Rapaport, a Beverly Hills-based board-certified dermatologist, “Glycolic acid put skin care on the map in the 90s. it was the first ingredient that was either incorporated into a take-home cream or done in a peel that did anything without breaking the bank or requiring anesthesia.”

Glycolic acid alongside other AHAs is known to improve skin texture, tone, and general condition. Other AHAs include lactic acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid.

What Does Glycolic Acid Do For Your Skin?

There is probably one question running through your mind right now: what does glycolic acid do? Although this question might seem very basic, it needs to be asked. According to several dermatologists, glycolic acid has several benefits for the skin and can be used in numerous ways. Let’s have a look at how to use this AHA.

A Glycolic acid toner from the skincare brand The Ordinary

Benefits of Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid, a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), is a naturally occurring substance derived from sugar cane. In recent years, it has gained significant popularity in skincare routines due to its numerous benefits for the skin. Here are some of the most noteworthy advantages of incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare regimen:

Fights Acne:

Glycolic acid acts as an exfoliant, helping to unclog pores and reduce the build-up of dead skin cells that can lead to breakouts. By accelerating the skin's natural cell turnover process, glycolic acid can prevent pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads, making it an effective solution for those with acne-prone skin.

Reduces Fine Lines and Wrinkles:

Aging and frequent sun exposure can result in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Glycolic acid promotes collagen production, a protein that helps maintain skin's elasticity. With regular use, it can help diminish the appearance of these age-related imperfections, granting a more youthful complexion.

Fades Hyperpigmentation:

Hyperpigmentation refers to the darkening of certain areas of the skin due to an excess of melanin. This can be caused by factors such as sun damage, hormonal changes, or acne scars. Glycolic acid works by accelerating the skin's exfoliation process, thereby lightening these dark spots over time.

Glycolic acid generally improves the texture and radiance of the skin. By sloughing off dead skin cells, it reveals the fresher, brighter skin underneath. This results in a smoother, more luminous complexion.

Enhances Product Absorption:

By removing the outermost layer of dead skin cells, glycolic acid can improve the efficacy of other skincare products. With this barrier gone, serums and moisturizers can penetrate deeper, making them more effective.

Minimizes Large Pores:

Over time, pores can become clogged with dirt, oil, and dead skin cells, making them appear larger. Glycolic acid helps in cleaning out these pores and tightening the skin, leading to a refined skin texture.

Improves Skin's Moisture Content:

Glycolic acid has been shown to increase the skin's hyaluronic acid levels, a molecule that can hold 1000 times its weight in water. This can lead to better skin hydration and a plumper appearance.

Addresses Keratosis Pilaris:

Commonly known as "chicken skin," keratosis pilaris is characterized by small, rough bumps on the skin. Glycolic acid can help smoothen these bumps by exfoliating the skin and reducing the build-up of keratin.

Common Uses of Glycolic Acid

Several studies have revealed that glycolic acid can be used in several ways and in different forms. Find out how to use glycolic acid in a way that will elevate your skin and make your regimen a lot more effective.

Applying a glycolic acid toner unto a cotton pad.

Glycolic Acid For The Armpit:

Glycolic acid is a game changer for the armpits. Not only does it tackle body odor concerns, but it also helps reduce the impression of dark underarms. Glycolic acid for armpits “…helps exfoliate the top layer of cells, where most of the time, darker pigment lays,” Dr. Viera says.

Glycolic Acid For The Scalp:

Glycolic acid can enhance scalp health. Dr Shirazi, a board-certified dermatologist based in La Jolla, California, explains it clearly. “Glycolic acid… is an exfoliant that works to shift dead skin cells from the outer layer… and allows for the scalp to renew itself, therefore enhancing the overall health of the scalp and hair… It is a moisture magnet, boosting hydration and your natural supply of hyaluronic acid.”

Glycolic Acid For The Face:

According to research, glycolic acid can address several skin concerns, including acne, UV damage (sunspots, hyperpigmentation), fine lines and wrinkles, and warts. It does this by exfoliating the very top layer of skin cells and boosting collagen production to support skin moisture.

How Often Should You Use Glycolic Acid

The frequency with which you should use glycolic acid largely depends on its concentration, the specific product formulation, your skin type, and your skin's tolerance to acids.

Here's a general guideline on how often to use glycolic acid:

Low Concentration (Up To 2%)

Suitable for daily use. Products like cleansers and toners often contain glycolic acid at this concentration. However, if you're new to glycolic acid, it's wise to start using it every other day and gradually increase the frequency as your skin builds tolerance.

Medium Concentration (5% To 20%)

These can be used 2-3 times a week, depending on skin tolerance. They are commonly found in serums and at-home peels.

Higher Concentration (20% To 30%)

These are often found in weekly peels or treatments. They should be used less frequently, such as once a week or every other week, especially if you're not accustomed to strong exfoliants.

Professional Peels

Very high concentrations (typically above 30%) are used in dermatological settings for chemical peels. These are done infrequently, with significant spacing between sessions to allow the skin to recover.

Safety Tips With Glycolic Acid

A glycolic acid 7% toner solution from the skincare brand The Ordinary

Patch Test

Before starting any new glycolic acid product, it's advisable to do a patch test to check for any adverse reactions.

Sun Protection

Using glycolic acid makes your skin more susceptible to UV rays. Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen in the morning, even if you're staying indoors.

Pay Attention To Your Skin

If your skin becomes red, irritated, or starts peeling excessively, you might be over-exfoliating. In such cases, reduce the frequency of use and consult a dermatologist if irritation persists.

Combining With Other Actives

If you're using other active ingredients in your routine (like retinol, vitamin C, or other acids), ensure you space them out or alternate days of application to prevent over-irritating your skin.

Lastly, as individual skin needs and sensitivities vary, it's always a good idea to consult with a dermatologist or skincare professional to find the optimal frequency that works best for your skin.

How To Incorporate Glycolic Acid Into Your Skin Care Routine

Like the other AHAs, excessive use of glycolic acid could result in skin irritation and UV damage. This is because it removes the top layer of your skin and makes the skin more vulnerable to sun damage. While sunscreen could address these concerns, it would be better to incorporate glycolic acid into your nighttime skin routine. Here’s how!

Nighttime Routine with Glycolic Acid

Here are some of the ways you can incorporate glycolic acid into your nighttime skin routine.

Glycolic Acid As A Face Wash:

Face wash with glycolic acid usually has a lower concentration of acid, so it is completely safe to use every night. This should be the first step in your nighttime skin routine.

Glycolic Acid As A Toner:

Just like the glycolic acid face wash, a glycolic acid toner is safe to use every day because it has a lower concentration of acid. It should be used after face wash or cleanser. Use a small cotton pad and spread the toner to your entire face, avoiding the sensitive eye area.

Glycolic Acid As A Mask:

A glycolic acid peel or mask has a higher concentration of acid, so is not safe for daily use. It can be used once or twice a week and applied as the first step of the nightly skincare routine.

Products That Can Be Paired With Glycolic Acid

Here are some of the products you can safely use alongside glycolic acid.

Glycolic Acid and Niacinamide

Niacinamide, or vitamin B3, is a powerful antioxidant that can address various skin concerns, from reducing inflammation to lightening dark spots and strengthening the skin's barrier. When used with glycolic acid they can complement each other's effects, leading to brighter, smoother, and more resilient skin.

Glycolic Acid and Retinol

Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is a gold standard in anti-aging, helping to boost collagen production, increase cellular turnover, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. When combined, glycolic acid and retinol can offer enhanced skin rejuvenation benefits, revealing a more youthful and radiant complexion.

Glycolic Acid and Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that not only brightens the skin but also combats free radicals and helps with collagen production, leading to firmer and more youthful-looking skin. When paired, glycolic acid and vitamin C can amplify each other's skin-brightening effects, offering a revitalized and luminous complexion.

Glycolic Acid and Hyaluronic Acid

Hyaluronic acid is a hydration powerhouse, drawing moisture into the skin and holding it there, leading to a plumper and more moisturized complexion. When combined, glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid create a harmonious balance of exfoliation and hydration. The exfoliation from glycolic acid allows for the deeper penetration of hyaluronic acid, maximizing its moisturizing benefits.

FAQs on Glycolic Acid

What Does Glycolic Acid Do?

Glycolic acid chemically exfoliates the skin by removing the very top layer of dead skin cells.

Is Glycolic Acid an AHA?

Yes, it is. Other AHAs include lactic acid, malic acid, and mandelic acid. They help improve skin texture by smoothing fine lines, unblocking and cleansing pores, and exfoliating the skin.

Is Glycolic Acid Safe For Pregnant Women?

Glycolic acid is safe to use during pregnancy. However, products with lower concentrations of acid (5% or less) are best for pregnant women.

Is Glycolic Acid an Exfoliant?

Yes, it is. It chemically exfoliates the skin by getting rid of the very top layer of dead skin cells.

Is Glycolic Acid Good For Dry Skin?

Yes, it is. This acid helps exfoliate and fight skin dryness!

Can Glycolic Acid Be Used With Retinol?

Yes, it can. According to experts, it would be best to use glycolic acid in the morning before sunblock, and retinol as part of the nighttime routine, since it is photosensitive.

How Often Should I Use Glycolic Acid?

The frequency with which you should use glycolic acid largely depends on its concentration, the specific product formulation, your skin type, and your skin's tolerance to acids. A guideline below:

  • Low Concentration (Up To 2%). Suitable for daily use.

  • Medium Concentration (5% to 20%): 2-3 times a week.

  • High Concentration (Above 20%): Suitable for once a week.

  • Professional Peels (30% and above): Used in the presence of a dermatologist with significant spacing between each session.


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