Glycolic Acid Skin Benefits

All About Skincare's Star Ingredient

Applying product

Glycolic acid is widely touted as a standout skincare ingredient that effectively addresses issues such as dull appearance, wrinkles, pimples, blackheads, lines, and oiliness. It's one of the more recent product innovations to hit the skincare scene, and if its popularity is any indicator, it's not going anywhere anytime soon.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

In its earliest incarnation, glycolic acid was a totally natural ingredient derived from sugar cane. These days, however, manufacturers often make it synthetically. Regardless of the manufacturing method, glycolic acid falls into a category of effective active compounds known as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). According to dermatology expert Dr. Heather Brannon, these acids come in five different types:

  • Glycolic acid, from sugar cane
  • Lactic acid, from milk
  • Citric acid, from oranges and lemons
  • Malic acid, from apples and pears
  • Tartaric acids, from grapes

Glycolic acid is the most commonly used alpha hydroxy acid, owing to its reputation as one of the safest and most effective. Its molecules are the smallest among the AHAs, so it's able to penetrate skin better and be absorbed readily.

It works by actually destroying the bonds between old skin cells, freeing them so they can be sloughed off. This might sound scary and counterproductive, but it's actually quite beneficial.

Glycolic Acid Skin Benefits

Glycolic acid is an exfoliator, which means that it safely removes the outer layer of dead skin cells. In this way, it helps accelerate your skin's renewal process, bringing fresh, new skin to the surface on a regular basis when used routinely. This can help your skin look younger and dewier, with a glow that arises from increased circulation and faster cell turnover.

It's much more than anti-aging product, though; glycolic acid also helps lighten discolorations such as sun and age spots. It can even help skin that's prone to blackheads, whiteheads, and acne by keeping pores clear of old skin that tends to clog them and cause problems.

A Note of Caution

Wearing sunscreen is always essential, but it's even more important when you're using AHAs like glycolic acid. They make your skin a bit more susceptible to sunburn because, in simple terms, it's new and tender.  

Also, unless your esthetician, physician, or package insert directs you otherwise, you should use glycolic acid in the evening, not in the morning. This gives it time to work during a period when you don't need to wear sunscreen and for your skin to recover before you tackle your new day.

Glycolic Acid Products

Glycolic acid products come in many different forms: cleansers, serums, moisturizers, eye creams, and facial peels, to name a few.

When you read a product's ingredient list, as you should always do, glycolic acid should appear in the "active ingredients" section, above the product's full list of ingredients.

Often, it also appears as a percentage. Some skincare experts believe that products with an AHA concentration of less than 10 percent aren't strong enough to deliver the full benefit of glycolic acid, so make a point of determining the percentage.

You can combine glycolic acid products to amplify and maintain their individual benefits; for example, you can pair a 3-percent facial cleanser with a 10-percent serum. Use your skin as your guide.

Well-regarded product lines to try at home include  Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid Collection and  Reviva Labs Glycolic Acid Skin Care.

Glycolic Acid Facial Peels

Peels are a step up from daily-use products and can jumpstart the effects of glycolic acids.

  • In-office peels: Glycolic acid peels done in a dermatologist's office are a quick and effective way to rejuvenate the skin. Dermatologists use a 30- to 40-percent concentration of glycolic acid, and it needs to stay on your skin for only two or three minutes. These are often called "lunchtime peels" because they can be done easily during your lunch break and have a little downtime.
    While the term "peel" makes the treatment sound harsh, it's actually quite gentle. You'll feel some tingling, but there's no burning, redness, or discomfort. This video shows New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz doing an in-office glycolic peel in less than five minutes from start to finish.
  • At-home peels: The benefit of doing an in-office peel lies in the higher concentration of glycolic acid, which ultimately leads to better results—but these come at a steep price. If you're trying to pinch pennies and would like to see how your skin reacts before committing to an in-office peel, try an at-home glycolic acid peel that you can do yourself. A few potent peels with decent percentages of glycolic acid include  Brazilian PeeliQ Natural Glycolic Acid Peel Kit, and Yeouth Glycolic Acid Peel 

DIY Glycolic Acid Peel Recipes: Yes or No?

An internet search for glycolic acid facial peel recipes will bring up some options, but an in-office procedure or trusted product line is far safer (and probably more effective) than attempting to concoct a peel yourself. DIY facials and masks have their place, but when it comes to chemical exfoliation, sticking with the tried and true is more apt to yield safe, reliable results.