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Glycolic acid is an example of an acne-fighting acid. This alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is derived from sugarcane and can help those with frequent breakouts or other skin concerns.
Don’t go scavenging the aisles for glycolic acid just yet. There’s a lot to consider, including how much to use and if it’s right for your skin. Keep reading to find out more.
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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 results in less “gunk” that clogs the pores. This includes dead skin cells and oil. With less to clog the pores, the skin can clear, and you’ll usually have fewer breakouts.
Glycolic acid can also affect the outer skin barrier, helping it retain moisture instead of drying your skin out. This is an advantage for acne-prone skin, because many other topical anti-acne agents, like salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, are drying.
Glycolic acid is available in several forms, including over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription treatments. These include:
- face washes
- 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.
There are a few things to remember when using glycolic acid.
First, glycolic acid is an example of chemical exfoliation. While it’s not as fast as a scrub, the acid can penetrate deeper and produce greater exfoliation over time.
So you likely won’t need to exfoliate with scrubs when also using glycolic acid. Your face may feel too sensitive otherwise.
Speaking of sensitivity, 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.
Common reactions to glycolic acid include:
- 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’re more sensitive to sun when they use glycolic acid. Using a daily sunscreen can help reduce sun exposure risks.
If you have a darker skin tone, talk with your dermatologist about glycolic acids and the best uses for you.
Most people can use glycolic acid safely. However, 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 amount of peeling glycolic acid causes usually depends on 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
This isn’t to say more is better (it’s not). Lower percentages can be less irritating and 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 dermatologist oversight.
A dermatologist knows how long a 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 are some examples:
- Peel pads. These can be used up to a few times weekly. Consider the Bliss That’s Incredi-Peel Spa-Strength Glycolic Resurfacing Pads.
- Serum. The L’Oreal Paris Revitalift 10% Pure Glycolic Acid is said to help improve skin tone, and it also has some acne-fighting potential.
- Spot treatment. When you have a blemish (or blemishes), try the Clean & Clear Advantage Mark Treatment, which combines glycolic and salicylic acid to treat pimples.
- Toner. Applied nightly, The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution can provide mild exfoliation to help reduce acne.
Glycolic acid isn’t the only acid in town. There are several other AHAs and natural acids that manufacturers use in their products. Here’s a look at them.
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. Instead, it’s used to improve skin softness.
Lactic acid is a natural 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
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that cosmetic manufacturers harvest from tree bark.
The difference between BHAs and AHAs is oil and water.
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.
A 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 in excess. They have the potential to dry out your 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
- skin roughness
These different 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’re considering a glycolic acid peel. These are higher concentrations of glycolic acid that may offer greater results in terms of exfoliation, but they require a knowledgeable professional.
According to a
Some skin types and even skin shades may be inappropriate for glycolic acid peels due to risks for irritation and hyperpigmentation.
Want to learn more? Get the FAQs below
What does glycolic acid do to your face?
Glycolic acid can break the bonds between the outer skin layer and the one below it.
Dina D. Strachan, MD, a board certified dermatologist with Aglow Dermatology, says it can help shed dead skin cells, making it an exfoliant. Strachan notes other benefits include collagen growth stimulation and hydration.
Is it OK to use glycolic acid every day?
Richard Bottiglione, MD, a board certified dermatologist and the founder of Dermatologist’s Choice Skincare, says this depends on the concentration of what your skin can tolerate. He says daily use is often beneficial for anti-aging and acne-fighting benefits, but everyone is different.
“You can determine how often and the concentration you want to use based on the results you desire and your skin’s tolerance to the non-neutralized glycolic,” Bottiglione suggests.
Can I use vitamin C with glycolic acid?
Bottiglione says it’s OK to use vitamin C with glycolic acid.
“If your skin gets a little red or [irritated]… add some moisturizer [and] don’t use glycolic for a few days,” he says.
The irritation should clear up within a few days.
Is glycolic acid good for dark spots?
Bottiglione says glycolic acid may help improve the appearance of dark spots. That said, sometimes, people experience dark spots after applying glycolic acid, particularly individuals with darker skin tones.
Opting for products with lower concentrations of glycolic acid and sticking to one or two products containing the ingredient can help mitigate this side effect.
Glycolic acid is a multitasking skin care ingredient that can help fight acne and improve your skin’s appearance. Due to concerns about irritation, it’s best to talk with a dermatologist before you start using it.
Starting with lower percentage formulations can help your skin adjust and reduce irritation risks.