Skin Care Ingredient Focus: Glycolic Acid

Written by Tatiana Sousa, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist on March 30, 2021 No Comments

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble exfoliant which works wonders in the fight against acne and aging. This skin care ingredient will help cleanse and minimize pores, smooth skin, and even tone. Learn more about how glycolic acid works, and how and why you should be using it.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is in the family of alpha hydroxy acids, or AHAs. This organic molecule is found naturally in sugar cane or citrus fruits, and is the smallest of all the AHA molecules. Because of its small size, glycolic acid is able to penetrate deeply into the skin for very effective exfoliation.

Glycolic acid exfoliates by breaking up the bonds which hold dead skin cells together, allowing them to shed more easily. One of the most popular forms of AHAs, it’s also among the most researched and offers nearly guaranteed results.

Skin Care Benefits of Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid’s primary function is as an exfoliant. That said, exfoliation via AHAs improves skin’s appearance in the following ways:

Acne Fighting

Acne is caused by the buildup of dead skin cells and other debris which clog pores and trap bacteria at the skin’s surface. By separating dead skin cells from each other and allowing them to shed, glycolic acid cleanses pores and prevents sebum and other acne-causing agents from accumulating.


The shedding of dead skin cells is a natural process that happens on its own, but this process slows as we age. Glycolic acid helps skin appear more youthful by speeding exfoliation and stimulating skin cell turnover. As new cells form and rise to the surface, collagen production is triggered, giving skin a youthful and fuller appearance.

Skin Tone Evening

Glycolic acid evens skin tone by exfoliating the outer layer of skin cells which hold the pigment of our sun damage, acne scars and melasma. The newer, more youthful cells that are revealed are more even in tone.

Skin Smoothing

Glycolic acid promotes vibrancy by smoothing the skin’s surface through exfoliation. Not only does this make skin look freshers and younger, but it helps prep skin for the application of other products, including makeup.

Acne medications and anti-aging products absorb more efficiently after skin is treated with glycolic acid. Make up goes on smoother, and colors appear more luminous.

Forms of Glycolic Acid in Skin Care

As the most common AHA on the market, you can find glycolic acid in the following skin care products:

  • Cleansers
  • Toners
  • Creams
  • Masks
  • Peels

How and When to Use Glycolic Acid

As with any new skin care product, glycolic acid should be introduced slowly, especially if you have sensitive skin. Test first on a patch of skin other than your face, then add the product to your facial skin care routine slowly over time.

Over the counter products typically contain active ingredient concentrations of anywhere from 8-15%. Your aesthetician may have access to peels containing up to 30% glycolic acid, while your dermatologist can treat you with peels containing up to 70% active ingredient.

Cleansers and toners or other daily use products should contain no more than 10-15% glycolic acid. Masks or at-home peels can be safely tolerated at higher percentages because they’re used less often.

In addition to the percent active ingredient, the pH of your product matters. Skin care products with a lower pH are more acidic and thus more potent.

Potential Side Effects

As the most studied AHA, glycolic acid is proven safe to use. However, it does make your skin more sensitive to the sun. Even if you’re only using glycolic acid products at night, apply sunscreen in the morning if you’ll be outdoors.

As with all exfoliates, glycolic acid has the potential to strip skin of its natural oils and be overly drying or irritating. If this is happening to you, choose products with a lower concentration, or use your products less frequently.

While some tingling is normal when applying glycolic acid, a burning sensation, greying of your skin, or skin that flakes right away when the product is applied are all signs of overuse and may lead to permanent damage.

Is Glycolic Acid Recommended for All Skin Types?

Glycolic acid is safe for all skin types and recommended for anyone with at least a moderate level of oil production. Those with rosacea or very sensitive skin may want to avoid this chemical exfoliant, as it can cause drying or further redness.

If acne or aging is a concern, there’s no reason not to incorporate this flexible, common ingredient into your routine. Use it as tolerable, up to twice daily. If for any reason, you’re not seeing the results you’d expect with glycolic acid, it may be time to discuss prescription-only options with your dermatologist.

Tatiana Sousa, MD

Dr. Tatiana Sousa is a board certified dermatologist who completed her undergraduate degree in biology at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. She earned her medical degree and completed her internal medicine internship at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, TX. Dr. Sousa went on to complete her dermatology residency at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, where she served as chief resident in her final year.

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