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Comprehensive Guide: Benefits, Working Mechanism, Application, Best Products, and Precautions of Glycolic Acid

Last updated: Aug 2023
In this article:

Benefits of Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient in skincare products due to its numerous benefits for the skin. Derived from sugarcane, this alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) offers a wide range of advantages, including:

  • Exfoliation
  • Skin Brightening
  • Acne Treatment
  • Reduction of Fine Lines and Wrinkles
  • Improvement of Skin Texture


One of the primary benefits of glycolic acid is its ability to exfoliate the skin effectively. With its small molecular size, glycolic acid penetrates the outer layer of the skin, breaking down dead skin cells and removing impurities. Regular use of glycolic acid exfoliators can lead to smoother, brighter, and more radiant skin. To incorporate glycolic acid into your skincare routine, opt for facial cleansers or toners that contain a safe concentration of glycolic acid, around 5-7%.

Skin Brightening

Glycolic acid is also renowned for its ability to brighten the skin. By exfoliating the top layer of the skin, glycolic acid helps reduce the appearance of dark spots, uneven skin tone, and discoloration. This acid stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, which leads to a more youthful and luminous complexion. Consider using glycolic acid peels or serums to achieve a brighter and more even-toned complexion.

Acne Treatment

For individuals struggling with acne-prone skin, glycolic acid can be a game-changer. Its exfoliating properties help unclog pores and prevent the formation of acne-causing bacteria. Additionally, glycolic acid helps regulate sebum production, reducing oiliness and preventing future breakouts. To treat acne, choose spot treatments or face masks containing glycolic acid. However, it's essential to start with a low concentration, gradually increasing it as your skin adjusts to avoid any potential irritation.

Reduction of Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Glycolic acid is known for its anti-aging properties. By gently exfoliating the skin and stimulating collagen production, it helps reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Regular use of glycolic acid can enhance skin elasticity, improve firmness, and diminish the signs of aging. Incorporate glycolic acid creams or serums into your nightly skincare routine to reap these benefits.

Improvement of Skin Texture

Last but not least, glycolic acid can significantly improve the overall texture of your skin. By removing dead skin cells and encouraging cell turnover, it reveals smoother and softer skin. Those struggling with rough or bumpy skin texture can benefit greatly from incorporating glycolic acid into their skincare routine. Use glycolic acid-based exfoliating pads two to three times a week to achieve smoother and more refined skin.

In conclusion, glycolic acid offers a multitude of benefits for the skin, including exfoliation, skin brightening, acne treatment, reduction of fine lines and wrinkles, and improvement of skin texture. By incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine, you can achieve a healthier, more radiant complexion. However, it's essential to start with a low concentration of glycolic acid and gradually increase it, keeping an eye on your skin's tolerance. Consult with a dermatologist if you have any concerns or specific skin conditions.

How Glycolic Acid Works

Glycolic acid, derived from sugar cane, is a powerful skincare ingredient that is highly effective in treating a range of skin concerns. Its small molecular weight allows it to penetrate deep into the skin, where it can work its magic. In this guide, we will delve into five key factors that contribute to how glycolic acid works and its benefits for the skin.

Chemical Structure of Glycolic Acid

  • Glycolic acid belongs to the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) family.
  • Its small molecular structure enables it to effectively exfoliate the outer layer of dead skin cells, revealing a fresher, brighter complexion underneath.
  • With regular use, this exfoliation helps to diminish the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.

Penetration into the Skin

  • Thanks to its low molecular weight, glycolic acid can penetrate deeply into the skin.
  • This characteristic allows it to target the deeper layers of the epidermis, where it stimulates collagen production and enhances cellular turnover.
  • By reaching these deeper layers, glycolic acid helps to tackle stubborn skin concerns more effectively.

Cellular Turnover

  • Glycolic acid aids in cellular turnover, which is the process of shedding dead skin cells and replacing them with newer ones.
  • As we age, this process slows down, resulting in dull, rough skin.
  • By accelerating cellular turnover, glycolic acid promotes the shedding of dead skin cells, revealing smoother and more youthful-looking skin.

Collagen Stimulation

  • Collagen, a protein that provides structure and elasticity to the skin, naturally decreases as we age.
  • Glycolic acid helps stimulate collagen production by increasing the expression of collagen-related genes in the skin cells.
  • This stimulation leads to plumper, firmer skin, reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

pH Level and Concentration

  • The effectiveness of glycolic acid is influenced by its pH level and concentration in skincare products.
  • Typically, a pH level between 3 and 4 is ideal for glycolic acid formulations to maintain its efficacy.
  • Moreover, higher concentrations of glycolic acid in products may provide more significant results but can be harsh on the skin.
  • It is advisable to start with lower concentrations and gradually increase usage to allow your skin to acclimate.

Protection from Sun Exposure

When incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare routine, it is important to note that it can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Therefore, always wear broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to protect your skin from harmful UV rays.

Choosing the Right Concentration for Your Skin Type

Choosing the right concentration of skincare products is essential for achieving optimal results without causing any harm to your skin. It is important to consider your skin type and any specific concerns you may have.

  • If you have sensitive skin, start with a lower concentration to minimize the risk of irritation.
  • If you have resilient skin and want intensive results, a higher concentration may be suitable.

Consulting with a dermatologist can help determine the best concentration for your needs.

Frequency of Use

The frequency of using skincare products is a crucial factor for maintaining the natural balance of your skin and avoiding irritation. Pay attention to the instructions provided with the product and gradually introduce it into your skincare routine.

Consulting with a skincare professional can help determine the appropriate frequency of use for specific products.

Combining with Other Skincare Ingredients

Using multiple skincare products is common, but it is important to be cautious when combining different ingredients. Certain combinations may cause unwanted reactions or diminish the effectiveness of the products.

Do some research or consult with a dermatologist to ensure the combination of products you use is safe and effective.

Patch Testing

Before incorporating a new skincare product, perform a patch test. Apply a small amount to a discreet area of your skin and wait 24-48 hours to observe any potential adverse reactions.

Discontinue use if you experience redness, itching, or irritation during the patch test.

Potential Side Effects

While skincare products are generally safe and effective, it is important to be aware of potential side effects. These can vary depending on the specific product and ingredients used.

Common side effects may include temporary redness, dryness, or mild irritation. Severe allergic reactions are possible, although rare. If you experience significant or prolonged adverse effects, discontinue use and consult with a dermatologist promptly.

Best Glycolic Acid Products

Glycolic acid is a powerhouse ingredient when it comes to skincare. Known for its exfoliating and brightening properties, it is perfect for anyone looking to improve their skin texture, fade acne scars, or get rid of dullness. If you're looking to add a glycolic acid product to your skincare routine, here are the best options in different categories:

Glycolic Acid Toners:

  1. Pixi Glow Tonic: This cult-favorite toner contains 5% glycolic acid, making it gentle enough for daily use. It helps to refine the skin's texture and leaves a radiant glow.
  2. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution: A budget-friendly option, this toner contains a higher concentration of glycolic acid to target stubborn skin concerns. It effectively exfoliates and improves skin clarity over time.

Glycolic Acid Cleansers:

  1. Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser: This foaming cleanser gently exfoliates and removes impurities, leaving the skin feeling refreshed and renewed. It suits all skin types and helps to reveal a smoother complexion.
  2. Alpha-H Triple Action Cleanser: This multi-tasking cleanser combines the power of glycolic acid with soothing cucumber extract. It helps to remove makeup, unclog pores, and refine the skin's texture.

Glycolic Acid Serums:

  1. Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum: This potent serum is formulated with a blend of glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids. It exfoliates dead skin cells, brightens the complexion, and minimizes the appearance of fine lines and pores.
  2. Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant: With 8% glycolic acid, this lightweight gel exfoliant promotes a more even skin tone while also unclogging pores and revealing smoother skin.

Glycolic Acid Peels:

  1. The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution: This highly concentrated peel is a cult-favorite amongst skincare enthusiasts. It contains glycolic acid along with other exfoliating and clarifying ingredients. It helps to improve skin texture and minimize the appearance of blemishes and wrinkles.
  2. Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel: These pre-soaked pads provide a professional-grade peel at home. With a blend of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids, they effectively exfoliate and reveal a brighter and more radiant complexion.

Glycolic Acid Moisturizers:

  1. Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment: Although primarily lactic acid-based, this treatment also contains some glycolic acid. It helps to resurface the skin, tighten pores, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
  2. Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Solutions Moisturizer: This lightweight moisturizer contains 10% glycolic acid to help refine the skin's texture and restore a youthful glow. It also helps to improve uneven skin tone and minimize the appearance of fine lines.

Remember, when incorporating glycolic acid products into your skincare routine, it's essential to start slowly and patch test first, especially if you have sensitive skin. Additionally, always wear sunscreen during the day to protect your skin from potential sun sensitivity.

Sun Sensitivity

  • Use Sunscreen: Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher at least 15 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if sweating or swimming.
  • Seek Shade: Limit direct sun exposure, especially between 10 am and 4 pm when the sun's rays are strongest. Seek shade under a tree, umbrella, or wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face.
  • Wear Protective Clothing: Cover up with lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that covers your arms and legs. Opt for darker colors, which provide more protection against harmful UV rays.

Avoiding Contact with Eyes and Lips

  • Wear Sunglasses: Choose sunglasses that provide 100% UV protection to shield your eyes from harmful rays. This will also help prevent eye strain and damage from excessive sun exposure.
  • Use Lip Balm with SPF: Apply a lip balm with a high SPF to protect your lips from drying out and getting sunburned. Look for a product that provides both UVA and UVB protection.

Limitations for Sensitive Skin Types

  • Patch Test: Before trying any new skincare products, perform a patch test on a small area of skin to check for any adverse reactions. Wait 24 hours to ensure no redness, itching, or inflammation occurs.
  • Choose Gentle Formulations: Look for skincare products that are specifically designed for sensitive skin. These should be fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, and free from harsh chemicals or dyes that could trigger a reaction.

Consulting with a Dermatologist

If you have any concerns about your skin or require personalized advice, it is always recommended to consult with a dermatologist. They can assess your skin type, provide expert guidance, and recommend suitable products or treatments tailored to your specific needs.

Considerations for Pregnancy and Breastfeeding

  • Avoid Harmful Chemicals: Stay away from products containing retinoids, salicylic acid, and hydroquinone, as they may pose a risk to your baby. Instead, opt for natural and organic skincare alternatives.
  • Stretch Marks Prevention: Moisturize your growing belly and breasts with a gentle, fragrance-free moisturizer to help prevent stretch marks. Consult with your healthcare provider for suitable products.
  • Nursing-Friendly Products: Use breastfeeding-safe skincare products that won't harm your baby if they accidentally come into contact with your skin.


Everyone's skin is unique, and it's crucial to find what works best for you. These precautions and guidelines will help you make informed choices and care for your skin effectively, ensuring you stay protected and healthy.


  1. Glycolic acid is a naturally derived alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) commonly found in skincare products.
  2. It helps exfoliate the skin by removing dead skin cells and promoting new cell turnover.
  3. Regular use of glycolic acid can improve skin texture, reducing the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.
  4. It can also unclog pores, helping to prevent acne breakouts and improving overall skin clarity.
  5. Glycolic acid can increase the effectiveness of other skincare products by enhancing their penetration into the skin.
  6. It is important to start with low concentrations of glycolic acid and gradually increase usage to avoid irritation.
  7. Sunscreen should be applied when using glycolic acid as it can increase sun sensitivity.