Glycolic Acid Skin Benefits

Why Your Skin Needs Glycolic Acid

Applying product

We got an email from a reader named Bev who wrote in the following question:

What is glycolic acid and where can I get it? Is this something I can make up at home?

We're glad Bev asked this question because glycolic acid is a great ingredient to incorporate into your skin care regimen, and the origins of the ingredient are interesting. 

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a natural ingredient derived from sugar cane, though it is now often made synthetically.

It falls into a set of molecules known as AHAs, or Alpha Hydroxy Acids. According to dermatology expert Dr. Heather Brannon there are 5 different types of glycolic acids:

  • 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, and it has a reputation of being one of the safest alpha hydroxy acids as well.

Glycolic Acid Skin Benefits

Glycolic acid is an exfoliator, which means that it safely removes the outer layer of dead skin cells on your skin, bringing fresh, new skin to the surface of your skin. Glycolic acid is a great exfoliator for anyone looking to reveal younger looking skin, but it is much more than anti-aging product. Glycolic acid can also help lighten discoloration of the skin, such as sun spots or age spots, and can even help those with acne-prone and blackhead-prone skin.

It's important to note that you should always wear sunscreen, even more so when you're using AHA's like glycolic acid, as your skin is more susceptible to sunburn when you use facial acids.  Also, unless otherwise indicated or instructed glycolic acid should be used in the evening not in the morning.

Glycolic Acid Products

Glycolic acid products comes in many different forms: cleansers, serums, moisturizers, eye creams and facial peels.

When you read a product's ingredient list, as you should always do, glycolic acid should be listed in the "active ingredients" section, above the product's full list of ingredients. Many times it will also appear as a percentage. Some skincare experts believe that products such as serums and creams with less than 10% strength don't really give your skin the benefits glycolic acid is known for, so make sure you look at the percentage.

Combining glycolic acid products is okay to do, too, such as a 3% facial cleanser paired with a 10% serum.

Check out my favorite brands of glycolic acid skincare products available on 

Glycolic Acid Facial Peels:

  • 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% concentration of glycolic acid, and it only needs to stay on your skin for 2-3 minutes. These are often called "lunchtime peels" because they can easily be done during your lunch break and have little downtime.
    The word "peel" makes the treatment sound harsh, but it's actually quite gentle. You'll feel some tingling, but there's no burning, redness, peeling or discomfort. Check out this video that shows New York City-based Dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz doing an in-office glycolic peel in less than 5 minutes from start to finish.
  • At-Home Peels: The benefit of doing an in-office peel is the higher concentration of glycolic acid, which ultimately leads to better results, but those results aren't cheap. While we stand by in-office procedures, at least for your first treatment so you can see how your skin reacts, there are some at-home glycolic acid peels you can do yourself. Here are some potent peels with higher percentages of glycolic acid:

Can I Make My Own Glycolic Acid At Home?

An Internet search for glycolic acid facial peel recipes will bring up some options, but we recommend an in-office procedure or using a trusted product line instead of doing this yourself. We're all for DIY face masks, but with chemical exfoliation, sticking with a fully-licensed dermatologist or line of products provides safe, guaranteed results each time.

Updated by Hanah Tetro