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Dr. Alpana Mohta Ranka, MD, DNB, IFAAD, is a dual-board-certified dermatologist with over 90 research publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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Glycolic Acid for Skin: All You Need to Know (2024)

Updated: 14 hours ago

If you're on a quest for flawless skin, you've likely come across the skincare superstar, Glycolic Acid. This potent ingredient has gained immense popularity for its remarkable benefits.


In this comprehensive guide, we'll penetrate deep into the world of glycolic acid, revealing its secrets, benefits, and how to incorporate it into your skincare routine. As a dermatologist, I have seen the benefits of using this skincare wonder firsthand. First, let's cover a few basics.

 

Table of Contents

 

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. It's renowned for its small molecular size, which allows it to penetrate the skin effectively.


Remember the rule of thumb, the smaller the molecular size, the easier it is for the ingredient to penetrate your skin.


This acid is a game-changer for skin health, thanks to its exfoliating and rejuvenating properties.


How Does Glycolic Acid Benefit the Skin?

The last sentence of the previous paragraph already hinted at what we'll be talking about here.

1. Exfoliation at its Best

Glycolic acid is a gentle exfoliator that breaks the bonds between the cells present in the topmost layers of our skin (the epidermis), which are responsible for uneven skin texture and clogging of pores. By virtue of these properties, glycolic acid sloughs away dead skin cells, leaving your skin looking fresh and radiant. The removal of dead skin cells also unclogs pores, reducing the risk of acne, blackheads, and whiteheads.


2. Collagen Production

Apart from exfoliating the upper layers of skin, glycolic acid also acts in the deeper layers of the skin, where it forms zones of controlled micro-wounds. When these micro-wounds heal, there is stimulation of cells producing collagen and elastin in the dermis (a deeper layer of skin present under the epidermis).


Collagen is like a scaffold for the skin responsible for keeping our skin taut and free from wrinkles. Elastin, on the other hand, gives our skin its stretchability, recoil, and elasticity. By stimulating the production of these two proteins, glycolic acid reduces the appearance of fine lines, crinkles (shallow wrinkles formed on our face when we emote), and wrinkles.


3. Improved Skin Texture and Tone

Glycolic acid works wonders on uneven skin texture and hyperpigmentation. While exfoliating the layers of skin, it also exfoliates off pigment-laden skin cells like pigmented keratinocytes (the most abundant cells in the epidermis), and melanocytes (cells in which the pigment melanin is formed).


Additionally, research has also found that glycolic acid directly inhibits the enzyme responsible for the formation of melanin. By these mechanisms, glycolic acid helps in clearing skin hyperpigmentation and dark spots with consistent usage over 3-4 months.


Different Forms of Glycolic Acid Products

Glycolic acid can be found in various skincare products, such as:

  • Creams: They have lower concentrations of glycolic acid and, therefore, can generally be suitable for all skin types. However, the point to note is that the amount of time to see results will be more than that of other products. On the whole, creams are a great choice if you want a no-frills product that can be used every day. Do you want to know more about glycolic acid creams? Head over to my article to learn how glycolic acid creams are so easy to use.

  • Serums: With typically moderate concentrations of glycolic acid, they strike a balance between potency and gentleness. Serums are well-suited for a variety of skin types, making them a popular choice among skincare enthusiasts. While you may not experience rapid results compared to stronger treatments (like peels), glycolic acid serums are perfect for those seeking gradual improvement in skin texture, tone, and overall radiance. Incorporating them into your daily regimen is convenient, offering consistent exfoliation and the potential for long-term skin benefits without the need for a specialized skincare routine.

  • Toners: Toners infused with glycolic acid bring a refreshing and lightweight option to your skincare arsenal. These toners typically contain lower concentrations of glycolic acid, making them a suitable choice for a broad range of skin types. They play a vital role in promoting even skin tone and gently exfoliating the skin's surface. While the results may take a bit longer to manifest compared to stronger treatments, glycolic acid toners offer a simple and convenient way to incorporate this powerful ingredient into your daily skincare routine. Plus, the refreshing feeling of toner application can be invigorating for your skin.

  • Cleansers: They offer a practical and fuss-free way to integrate this AHA into your daily cleansing routine. These cleansers typically contain lower concentrations of glycolic acid, ensuring they are suitable for most skin types, including sensitive ones. While they may not deliver immediate results, consistent use of a glycolic acid cleanser can provide gentle exfoliation and help maintain a clear complexion over time. Cleansers are especially convenient for individuals who prefer a minimalistic approach to skincare, as they can replace your regular cleanser without adding extra steps to your daily regimen.

  • Peels: For those looking for a more intensive glycolic acid treatment, glycolic acid peels are a potent option. These peels contain higher concentrations of glycolic acid and are typically administered by skincare professionals. While they may not be suitable for sensitive skin, glycolic acid peels offer a quicker route to noticeable results. These treatments can address a wide range of skin concerns, including fine lines, wrinkles, acne scars, and uneven skin tone. However, caution is essential when using glycolic acid peels to prevent over-exfoliation, and it's advisable to start with lower concentrations and gradually increase as your skin becomes accustomed.

Each product type serves a unique purpose, catering to different skin needs.


Choosing the Right Glycolic Acid Product

Selecting the right glycolic acid product depends on your skin type. Here are some guidelines to help you make the best choice:

  • For Oily Skin: Opt for a glycolic acid cleanser to control excess oil.

  • For Sensitive Skin: Choose a milder glycolic acid serum with a lower concentration.

  • For Mature Skin: Consider a glycolic acid peel for intensive anti-aging benefits.

How to Incorporate Glycolic Acid into Your Skincare Routine

Introducing glycolic acid into your routine requires care and patience. Here's a step-by-step guide:

  1. Patch Test: Always start with a patch test to ensure your skin can tolerate glycolic acid.

  2. Gradual Introduction: Begin using glycolic acid products once or twice a week and gradually increase frequency as your skin adjusts.

  3. Sunscreen is a Must: Glycolic acid increases sun sensitivity, so daily sunscreen is non-negotiable.

Glycolic Acid Myths and Misconceptions

There are several myths surrounding glycolic acid. Let's debunk some of the most common ones with evidence-based information:

  • Myth: Glycolic Acid is Harsh - In reality, glycolic acid can be gentle when used correctly.

  • Myth: It's Only for Wrinkles - Glycolic acid benefits various skin concerns, not just aging.

  • Myth: Dark Skin Should Avoid It - Glycolic acid can be suitable for all skin tones with the right precautions.

Potential Side Effects and Safety Precautions

While glycolic acid is generally safe, it can cause side effects, such as redness and peeling. To minimize risks:

  • Follow product instructions closely.

  • Use sunscreen daily.

  • Discontinue use if severe irritation occurs.

FAQs About Glycolic Acid


Q: Can I use glycolic acid with other acids like salicylic acid?

Yes, you can use glycolic acid with other acids in the same skincare routine, but never at the same time. For example, if you are going to use glycolic acid at night, use salicylic acid in the morning. Otherwise, you can use glycolic acid and other acids on alternate nights or as part of skin cycling. Regardless of your preference, always take caution while adding other active ingredients to your skincare routine, and consult a dermatologist prior to initiation.


Q: How long does it take to see results?


Results vary, but you may notice improvements in texture and tone within a few weeks.


Q: What can you mix with glycolic acid?

You can safely use glycolic acid with hyaluronic acid, azelaic acid (in lower strengths up to 10%), and kojic acid.


Q: What should not mix with glycolic acid?

You should not mix the following ingredients with glycolic acid under any circumstances (unless you want to end up with a bad skin burn!)

  1. Retinol

  2. Vitamin C

  3. Niacinamide

  4. Salicylic acid

  5. Other AHAs like lactic acid and malic acid

Glycolic Acid Alternatives

If glycolic acid isn't suitable for your skin, consider alternatives like lactic acid, mandelic acid, or hyaluronic acid, depending on your specific needs.


Conclusion

Glycolic acid is a skincare powerhouse offering a multitude of benefits for various skin types and concerns. With the right knowledge and precautions, you can unlock its potential to achieve healthier, more radiant skin. Remember, consistency and patience are key on your journey to skincare success.

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