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Glycolic acid is an example of an acne-fighting acid. This alpha hydroxy acid that’s derived from sugarcane can help those with frequent breakouts and a number of other skincare concerns.

Don’t go scavenging the aisles for glycolic acid just yet. There’s a lot to consider about glycolic acid, including how much to use and if it’s right for your skin. Keep reading to find out more.

When applied to the skin, glycolic acid works to break the bonds between the outer layer of skin cells, including dead skin cells, and the next skin cell layer. This creates a peeling effect that can make the skin appear smoother and more even.

For people with acne, the benefit of glycolic acid is that the peeling effects results in less “gunk” that clogs the pores. This includes dead skin cells and oil. With less to clog the pores, the skin clears and you usually have fewer breakouts.

Also, glycolic acid can affect the outer skin barrier, helping it retain moisture instead of drying your skin out. This is an advantage for acne-prone people because many other topical anti-acne agents, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, are drying.

Research has found that glycolic acid has antibacterial and antioxidant activity, which can also help improve your skin’s appearance when you have acne. Glycolic acid can also thicken skin by stimulating collagen growth.

Glycolic acid is available in several forms, including over-the-counter and prescription treatments. These include:

  • face washes
  • lotions
  • peels
  • serums
  • skin care pads

Traditional wisdom is to start small, unless your dermatologist directs otherwise. You may wish to try a glycolic acid cleanser to see if your skin can tolerate glycolic acid.

A few things to remember. First, glycolic acid is an example of chemical exfoliation. While it’s not as fast as a scrub, the acid can penetrate more deeply and produce greater exfoliation over time. All this is to say — you likely won’t need to exfoliate with scrubs while also using glycolic acid. Your face may feel too sensitive otherwise.

Speaking of sensitive, you also don’t need to use multiple glycolic acid-containing products. Consistent use of one product with occasional spot treatments is often enough to keep your skin clear. Sometimes, your dermatologist may recommend a stronger, in-office peel, but this isn’t always the case.

Glycolic acid isn’t for everyone. Some people have reactions to glycolic acid that can include symptoms such as swelling, itching, and burning sensations. Those with dry or sensitive skin types may find glycolic acid is too irritating for their skin.

In addition to these concerns, some people find they are more sensitive to sun when they use glycolic acid. Using a daily sunscreen can help reduce the sun exposure risks.

If you have a darker skin tone, talk to your dermatologist about glycolic acids and its best uses for you. Most people can use glycolic acid effectively, but sometimes the acid can irritate darker skin tones and cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation or dark spots. Using lower concentrations and refraining from using too many glycolic acid-containing products can often reduce this risk.

The depth to which glycolic acid causes peeling often depends upon the concentration. For example, a 1 percent glycolic acid solution affects the pH level of three layers of skin, while a 10 percent solution can penetrate 10 to 20 layers, according to a 2018 journal article.

This isn’t to say more is better (it’s not). Lower percentages can be less irritating and therefore more skin-friendly. You may find topical preparations that range from 1 percent up to 10 percent (usually reserved for spot treatments or a rinse-off peel only).

There are sources on the internet that sell higher percentages of glycolic acid, sometimes as much as 30 or 40 percent. These are medical grade peels, and you shouldn’t use them without a dermatologist oversight. A dermatologist knows how long the peel should stay on and if it’s right for your skin in the first place.

If your skin tolerates glycolic acid well, you can try a topical product. Here’s some examples:

  • Peel pads. These are usually used every other day, then sometimes every day if your skin isn’t too sensitive. One to try is the Bliss That’s Incredi-peel glycolic resurfacing pad.
  • Serum. This 10 percent glycolic acid L’Oreal Paris Revitalift is marketed for improving skin tone, but also has acne-fighting potential.
  • Spot treatment. When you have a blemish (or blemishes), try Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Mark Treatment, which combines both glycolic and salicylic acid to treat pimples.
  • Toner. Applied nightly, The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution can provide mild exfoliation to reduce acne.

Glycolic acid isn’t the only acid in town. There are several other alpha hydroxy acids and natural acids skin care manufacturers use in their products. Here’s a look at them:

Hyaluronic acid

Hyaluronic acid is what doctors call a humectant. This acid attracts water to the outermost layers of skin to help them look and feel more hydrated. This acid isn’t an exfoliator like glycolic acid is, but is instead used to improve skin softness.

There are some issues with the pH of glycolic acid affecting how well the skin absorbs hyaluronic acid. If you’d like to use both of these acids, you may wish to use hyaluronic acid in the morning and glycolic acid at night.

If you put both on at the same time, your hyaluronic acid application isn’t likely to be effective.

Lactic acid

Lactic acid is a natural alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) made from acids that milk produces when it sours. This acid works similarly to glycolic acid because it promotes exfoliation by dissolving bonds with dead skin cells.

Lactic acid’s molecules aren’t as small as glycolic acid. Therefore, it may not penetrate the skin as well as glycolic acid.

However, lactic acid is typically less irritating to the skin than glycolic acid, according to an article in the journal Molecules. If you have more sensitive skin, lactic acid may be the exfoliator of choice for you.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that cosmetic manufacturers harvest from tree bark.

The difference between beta and alpha hydroxy acids is oil and water. Alpha hydroxy acids are water soluble, so water can neutralize them if you experience burning or discomfort when applied. Beta hydroxy acids are oil-soluble. As a result, they can penetrate into an oil-filled pore to reduce buildup.

Salicylic acid is especially effective on very oily skin and when you have blackheads in addition to acne pimples. Both glycolic and salicylic acid can be effective acne fighters.

The final word on acids

While there are lots of acids and active ingredients (such as retinol) available to improve skin cell turnover, it’s important not to use them to excess because they dry out the skin.

Salicylic acid and glycolic acid can pair well together as spot treatments. But retinol and glycolic acid may be too drying for most people.

In addition to acne, dermatologists use glycolic acid to treat the following skin conditions:

  • age spots
  • hyperpigmentation
  • melasma
  • scars
  • skin roughness

These different potential uses make glycolic acid a versatile ingredient for those seeking to improve their skin’s appearance.

If you have acne, especially more severe forms like cystic acne, it’s a good idea to check with your dermatologist first before using glycolic acid.

This is especially true if your doctor already has you using prescription products, including antibiotics. It’s possible the combination of glycolic acid and other products could do more harm than good by making your skin produce too much oil, further clogging your pores.

You should also see your dermatologist if you are considering a glycolic acid peel. These are higher concentrations of glycolic acid that may offer greater results in terms of exfoliation, but require a knowledgeable professional.

According to a 2013 review of multiple studies, glycolic acid peels of between 30 and 70 percent can improve the appearance of acne and acne scarring.

Some skin types and even skin shades may be in appropriate for glycolic acid peels due to risks for irritation and hyperpigmentation.

Glycolic acid is a multitasking skincare ingredient that can help you fight acne and improve your skin’s appearance. Due to concerns for irritation, it’s best to talk to your dermatologist before you start using it.

Starting with lower percentage formulations can help your skin adjust and reduce irritation risks over time.