Are you tired of having a product for breakouts, another to help with skin texture, and another for removing dead skin cells?

Well, you might not need to look any further because there’s one potent skincare ingredient that can help tackle all three of these concerns (and many more) on its own: glycolic acid. 

Glycolic acid is a skincare heavyweight found in toners, masks, peels, and exfoliating cleansers. 

But before you add glycolic acid to your skincare routine, let’s break down some of the most common questions about this skincare powerhouse.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble, odorless, and colorless alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) naturally occurring in sugarcane and certain fruits and beets. Glycolic acid is one of the most widely used AHAs in topical skincare products to help treat a variety of skin conditions or to improve skin texture and appearance.

AHA vs. BHA for Skin Care

AHAs and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are both found in a variety of skincare products, including

  • Cleansers
  • Toners
  • Scrubs
  • Peels
  • Masks
  • Moisturizers

Both of these acids provide deep exfoliation for the skin; however, AHAs help to peel away the surface of your skin, whereas BHAs get deeper into the pores to remove dead skin cells and excess sebum.

Other types of AHA include:

  • Citric acid, found in citrus fruits.
  • Lactic acid, made from lactose in milk
  • Malic acid, made from apple acids
  • Mandelic acid, derived from almonds
  • Tartaric acid, derived from grape extracts

Types of BHA include:

  • Salicylic acid, derived from the bark of willow trees
  • Citric acid – primarily an AHA, but some formulations are BHAs, too.

AHAs and BHAs provide similar skincare benefits; however, each ingredient can help achieve different skincare goals. AHAs may be the best if you’re looking for an all-inclusive treatment.

Glycolic Acid for the Skin

Glycolic acid isn’t anything new, but not everyone knows how effective this AHA can be as part of a skincare routine. 

Glycolic acid has a robust list of uses for the skin and may help solve some of your most pressing skin concerns.

How Glycolic Acid Works

Glycolic acid works as a chemical exfoliant by absorbing deep into the skin to dissolve dead skin cells and oils. Because glycolic acid has the simplest chemical structure and the smallest size of all the AHAs, it can dissolve the bonds that hold the skin cells together, helping your skin shed dead skin cells more quickly than it would on its own.

In addition, glycolic acid helps to stimulate the production of collagen, which helps the skin appear more firm, plump, and elastic. 

Glycolic Acid Benefits for the Skin

Glycolic acid provides many skin benefits, including:

  • Exfoliation. It helps the skin shed dead skin cells making pores appear smaller.
  • Hydration. It attracts and binds water to skin cells leaving the skin feeling plump while preventing it from drying.
  • Acne Treatment. It helps prevent blackheads, comedones, and inflamed acne by clearing out pores of dead skin cells and oil.  
  • Anti-Aging. It can reduce some visible signs of skin aging, including fine lines and wrinkles.
  • Sun Damage Correction. It helps fade dark patches caused by sun damage.
  • Improves Complexion. When used regularly, it can brighten the skin’s complexion.
  • Antibacterial. Recent research shows that specific concentrations can impede the growth of bacteria.

Risks and Side Effects of Glycolic Acid

Like any chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid comes with its risks and side effects, including

Skin Irritation. Some people, especially those with sensitive skin, may have reactions to products containing glycolic acid. Common skin irritations include

  • Itching
  • Redness
  • Inflammation
  • Swelling

If you experience a burning sensation when using a glycolic acid product, it is not a sign that the product is working. If burning or any other skin irritation symptom occurs, wash the product off and discontinue use.

Hyperpigmentation. Even though glycolic acid can effectively reduce hyperpigmentation, strong or irritating skin care products can also cause hyperpigmentation. 

If you are prone to hyperpigmentation, it’s important to use gentle, non-irritating exfoliants.

Sun Damage. Glycolic acid, and other AHAs, remove the top layer of skin cells exposing the more vulnerable cells underneath. So even though glycolic acid is used to reduce the signs of sun damage, it can make the new cells more susceptible to further sun damage. 

If you use skincare products containing glycolic acid or have a glycolic acid peel, it’s essential to wear sunscreen.

Strengths and Availability of Glycolic Acid

Depending on the results you want to achieve, there are many choices for glycolic acid products. 

Glycolic acid is in many over-the-counter (OTC) products, including:

  • Cleansers
  • Exfoliants
  • Toners
  • Serums
  • Moisturizers
  • Acne treatments
  • Face masks
  • At home peels

OTC glycolic acid products are typically found in strengths up to 10% with leave-on formulas providing the best results. OTC products will likely be enough to give you brighter, more healthy-look skin while also preventing breakouts and reducing fine lines.

One of my favorite medical-grade skin care lines containing glycolic acid and a retinoid is Skin Better AlphaRetTM Overnight Cream Face

Glycolic acid is also found in chemical peels up to 30% strength at many salons or skin spas. And a dermatologist can provide even stronger glycolic acid peels of up to 70% strength. Professional glycolic acid skin peels are a good option if you want to treat a specific skin condition such as sun damage, acne, pigmentation, or deeper wrinkles. Professional peels will provide excellent results quickly, but they can be more irritating.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Safely

Glycolic acid is generally very safe and effective for most skin types. But before you begin using a glycolic acid product, you should know a few things.

Always use sunscreen.

Glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, and you don’t want to undo all of the work your product has done. Always apply sunscreen as the last step of your skincare routine when using an AHA like glycolic acid.

Start slowly.

It is best to start with a low strength of glycolic acid, applying it three times per week for the first couple of weeks. If your skin appears smoother and shows no signs of irritation, you can slowly build up until you use it daily.  

Try one product with glycolic acid at a time.

One product in your skincare routine containing glycolic acid is usually enough to get the benefits you desire. Plus, by introducing one new product at a time, you’ll be able to identify if the product is irritating to your skin.

Should you try a stronger glycolic acid peel, you’ll likely start with a lower amount of glycolic acid to ensure your skin tolerates it well. But keep in mind that your skin may feel rough, but not irritated, after your first few treatments.

Even though glycolic acid is generally safe, it may not be well suited for everyone. I recommend consulting your dermatologist to ensure a product is right for you, especially if you have any ongoing skin concerns.

Heal Your Skin Inside and Out

Your skin’s appearance reflects your unique state of overall health, age, and environmental factors. Digging deeper to reveal what may be holding you back from achieving the healthy, glowing skin you desire can help you heal your skin from the inside out. 

Join me on a skin healing journey different from anything you’ve done before. Learn what the health of your skin may be saying about what’s happening inside your body.

Discover how you can get clear skin using my SkinClock Method.

Limited spots are available for upcoming sessions. 

Join my waitlist today and discover how to STOP your unpredictable breakouts…so you can finally have the youthful, radiant skin you desire! 

Functional Medicine Dermatology in Scottsdale, Arizona

Experience my full-body approach to skincare at the Arizona Wellness Center in Scottsdale, AZ. Call to schedule your functional medicine dermatology consultation today!