Updated: Apr 7, 2021
What is it? Glycolic acid is a naturally-occuring, alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from the sugarcane plant. This “fruit acid” works by targeting the dull, dead skin cells trapped in the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the skin). This process helps to slough away dead skin and increase cellular turnover and collagen production, revealing a healthy, glowing complexion.
What does it do? Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliator, which means it is a great treatment for a range of skin care concerns: acne breakouts, wrinkles, the appearance of aging, and hyperpigmentation, to name a few. Since it targets the outermost layer of dead skin cells, this ingredient creates clear, even, and radiant skin.
How to use it? Glycolic acid is found in over-the-counter serums, creams, and cleansers. Whichever type of product you choose, you will want to gradually introduce it to your routine. This is because glycolic acid is a highly active ingredient, and can cause irritation if you use too much too quickly. Start by using the product every other night. After about two weeks, most skin types can tolerate glycolic acid nightly. However, if you have sensitive skin, you may want to continue limiting its use to every other night.
If you are using a more intensive glycolic acid-based treatment, such as a mask or a peel, it is best to limit frequency of use to once every two weeks.
Who can use it? Glycolic acid can generally be used by all skin tones and types, but introduce this ingredient with caution if you have sensitive skin or are prone to irritation.
Age is a factor as well. People as young as 11 years old can safely use lower concentrations of glycolic acid, but glycolic acid-based peels should be reserved for those who are 18 years or older.
Is it safe? This is a highly effective and safe ingredient when used properly. You should take care to check the label before trying out a new product - different products contain different concentrations of glycolic acid, and if the concentration is too high for your skin, you may experience irritation.
Over-the-counter products contain a glycolic acid concentration of about 8% to 30%. Medical-grade products tend to contain lower percentages of glycolic acid, as they are usually combined with other complimentary ingredients (for example, salicylic acid and lactic acid) to maximize results. That being said, glycolic acid-based treatments performed in-office by doctors - such as chemical peels - use significantly higher percentages (up to 70%).
Most importantly, no matter what your skin type is, glycolic acid will make your skin more sensitive to sunlight - it’s very important to apply sunscreen daily while using this ingredient! Additionally, you should pause your use of glycolic acid products during periods that you will be spending lots of time in the sun (like for a beach vacation).
Additionally, glycolic acid should be avoided while pregnant.
Is there anything else to know before using glycolic acid? If you have never used a glycolic acid-based product before, be aware that it is normal to feel a mild tingling sensation upon application. You should also be aware that as an exfoliating agent, this ingredient can dry out your skin, so a hydrator/moisturizer is a must!