Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid, commonly used to exfoliate the skin.

Written by
Carolina Mateus
Medically reviewed by
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If you've been on the hunt for an effective exfoliating product, you may have come across the name "glycolic acid."

Known for its ability to work deep within the skin to eliminate impurities, clear congestion and prevent dullness, glycolic acid is slowly but surely becoming a household name in skincare — and for good reason.

So, what can glycolic acid do for your skin? Is it suitable for all skin types? And how can you incorporate it into your skincare routine? Read as we answer these and many other questions about this incredible skincare ingredient.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid, commonly used to exfoliate and shed dead skin cells built up on the outermost layer of the skin to reveal a brighter, more radiant complexion.

Similar to other alpha hydroxy acids — think lactic, mandelic and citric acid — glycolic acid is naturally present in certain foods, namely beets, oranges, and sugarcane. However, the type of glycolic acid found in skincare and cosmetic products is typically made in a lab.

One thing that makes glycolic acid a unique skincare ingredient is its molecular weight.

It is actually the smallest size AHA, which is an advantage because it means it can more easily absorb into the skin and work its magic from deep within.

But what exactly is this magic we're talking about? Let's go through the many benefits of glycolic acid and find out.

What are the skin benefits of glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is an incredibly versatile ingredient and there is a lot it can do for your skin:

It hydrates the skin

Glycolic acid is a powerful humectant. It helps your skin to produce mucopolysaccharides and, as a result, it increases your skin's natural content of hyaluronic acid, effectively boosting hydration [1].

This moisturising effect also helps to maintain your skin barrier function and prevent damage that could lead to compromised skin.

It helps smooth fine lines and wrinkles

If your main skincare goal is to smooth ageing signs and improve your skin texture, glycolic acid is an ingredient you don't want to skip for two reasons.

Firstly, when absorbed into the skin, glycolic acid helps to loosen the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, sloughing them off to reveal a brighter, smoother, more youthful-looking complexion.

Plus, remember when we mentioned glycolic acid's ability to penetrate deep into the skin?

Well, one of the things it does while working on the skin's deeper layers is it stimulates collagen production.

Since collagen plays an essential role in maintaining skin elasticity — and since, as you age, your collagen production naturally slows down — using ingredients like glycolic acid to restore collagen can go a long way in keeping your skin as plump and bouncy as possible.

It helps treat hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation happens when your skin makes too much melanin, causing certain areas to look darker and leading to common skincare concerns like melasma, sun spots, freckles and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH).

Whichever type of hyperpigmentation you experience, applying glycolic acid can help even out your skin tone thanks to a process called melanin inhibition — which, in short, means it can suppress melanin production [4].

This, along with its ability to stimulate cell turnover, makes glycolic acid an effective ingredient for accelerating the fading of dark spots.

It helps treat acne

Thanks to its exfoliating benefits, glycolic acid eliminates impurities that could otherwise clog your pores and lead to breakouts.

If it's acne scars you want to target, glycolic acid can also be beneficial, as scarring classifies as a type of hyperpigmentation — and we already know how this ingredient works for achieving a more even complexion [2].

Does glycolic acid have any side effects?

As an AHA, glycolic acid can make your skin more susceptible to sun damage so it's important to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen, like Software's Daily Sun Defence SPF50+, every single day.

Glycolic acid can also cause redness, itching and inflammation, particularly if you opt for a product that is too strong or use it too often. We'll touch more on this soon.

Is glycolic acid good for all skin types?

Glycolic acid is suitable for all skin types, though it is often recommended for those with dry and normal skin.

As an exfoliating ingredient, it can irritate and dry out sensitive skin types.

If you do have sensitive skin, we recommend you:

  • Patch test prior to adding glycolic acid to your skincare routine
  • Incorporate it slowly and work your way up to every other day (or however often your skin can tolerate it)
  • Choose products with a lower concentration of glycolic acid
  • Moisturise your skin before you go to bed
  • Limit sun exposure and apply SPF every day

Doing all of this will help keep your skin properly nourished as you introduce this new acid into your regimen.

Glycolic acid vs salicylic acid: What's the difference?

Though they're both acids, these are different ingredients — mainly because glycolic acid is an AHA, while salicylic acid is a BHA.

This means that the first is water-soluble and can't get through the skin's natural oils, while the latter is oil-soluble and is able to penetrate the oil glands.

Glycolic acid is typically recommended for dry and normal skin types, while salicylic acid may be better for those with acne-prone or oily skin. These ingredients can also be used together, depending on your skincare goals.

What are the best ingredients to pair with glycolic acid?

We already know that glycolic acid is a powerhouse on its own — but paired with the right ingredients, it can provide even more benefits.

Consider trying it with:

  • Vitamin C. Glycolic acid and vitamin C are a winning combination because they have complementary actions: the first one eliminates dead skin cells, making way for the second to stimulate the cell renewal process for a brighter complexion.
  • Just keep in mind that for some people, vitamin C can cause dryness and irritation. If your skin is particularly sensitive, you may want to skip this pair and try the next one instead.
  • Hyaluronic acid. We've already mentioned that both glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid work wonders for moisturising the skin. So, what happens when you use them together? You guessed it — extra hydration.
  • Hyaluronic acid can also help to counteract the potential side effects of glycolic acid — like redness and irritation — thanks to its deeply nourishing benefits. The best part? Hyaluronic acid is great for all skin types, no exceptions.
  • Azelaic acid. Azelaic acid is commonly used for treating acne, clearing up redness and hyperpigmentation, and reducing skin inflammation.
  • According to research, using it with glycolic acid can help restore uneven skin tone, while also keeping blemishes under control [3].

We recommend you exfoliate first (using a glycolic acid product) and then apply the following products, so they can penetrate deeply into your skin and do their thing.

Is it OK to use glycolic acid every day?

It depends on what your skin can tolerate, as some products have a higher concentration of glycolic acid, meaning they're more aggressive on the skin.

Typically, products with a lower percentage of glycolic acid are OK for everyday use, whereas medical-grade treatments should be used around once a month.

If you're ever unsure whether your skin can handle a certain skincare ingredient, or how often you should use it for the best results, be sure to chat with your doctor or dermatologist.

How to add glycolic acid to your skincare routine

From glycolic acid cleansers to moisturisers and toners, there are countless ways for you to incorporate this super ingredient into your daily routine.

As mentioned throughout this article, when choosing the right product for you, you want to consider its concentration of glycolic acid and your skin's sensitivity, to get the best results while reducing the risk of skin irritation.

Of course, you also want to consider the skincare concern you're hoping to treat.

If you have acne-prone skin and want to eliminate breakouts at the source, our AHA/BHA Pimple Patches use microdart technology to deliver targeted ingredients into the heart of even the deepest pimples — and not just surface-level zits.

Thanks to the glycolic acid (and salicylic acid), these pimple patches eliminate pore-clogging dead skin cells and bacteria while stimulating collagen production.

Plus, they help reduce acne scarring too!

Those who know their skin can tolerate this ingredient well can also try a glycolic acid peel, either at home or, for a stronger effect, at the dermatologist.

Glycolic acid peels can go anywhere from 30% to 70% strength (compared to OTCs, which usually stay within the 10% strength), so it's a good idea to speak to a professional and make sure you don't put your skin through more than it can handle.

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