What Does Glycolic Acid Do For Your Skin? Dermatologists Explain.

It’s said to be great for clearing the skin, evening out skin tone and anti-aging, but does it work?

Glycolic acid is one of those ingredients you see on plenty of skin care labels. Brands like Chanel, Mario Badescu, Drunk Elephant and millennial favorite Glossier all sell products containing the ingredient, but how do you know if it’s right for you?

We wanted to find out all about this acid, a word that can seem a little intimidating at first. But once we learned more about it, it sounded like a pretty magical ingredient; it’s said to be great for clearing the skin, evening out skin tone and anti-aging, among other things. We spoke to dermatologists to find out about glycolic acid and whether we should be adding it to our skin care routines.

What is glycolic acid, anyway?

Glycolic acid, typically derived from sugar cane, belongs to the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) family ― along with malic and lactic acids ― and is a common ingredient in many skin care products. According to Loretta Ciraldo, board-certified dermatologist and co-creator of Dr. Loretta Skincare, glycolic is also the most popular and most studied AHA.

“Chemically, it’s a really nice, small molecule, which means when you put it on the skin, it can penetrate pretty readily,” she said, adding that dermatologists have been using it in their practice for decades. (For instance, chemical peels commonly use a glycolic acid solution.)

Its main function is to exfoliate the skin, or, as Ciraldo explained, it’s “ungluing dead cells from each other.”

It’s really great for acne-prone skin.

Ciraldo said that acne, “whether you’re talking about a little blackhead or a big acne cyst, if you look at it under the microscope on a skin biopsy, [it all] starts from dead cells getting plugged up within our pore.” And since glycolic helps to loosen those dead cells from each other, it can help reduce acne.

Dr. Melda Isaac, a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington, D.C., added that glycolic has the ability to really get down into the hair follicles and loosen up any built-up sebum and proteins that could otherwise lead to blackheads and breakouts.

Clockwise from left: Glossier Solution, out of stock at press time; Silk Therapeutics renewing peel, $70; Cane + Austen Retexture Pads, 10%, $60

It also has plenty of anti-aging benefits.

Those same dead skin cells that can stick together and clog pores, leading to acne, can also make our skin look less vibrant. As kids and teenagers, our cell turnover happens quite rapidly, but as we age, Ciraldo said, “we don’t shed our dead cells at as fast a rate as we did in our teens and 20s.”

Since glycolic acid works to get rid of those dead skin cells, at least on a microscopic level, “you get more vibrancy and luminosity,” Ciraldo said.

“You also lose some of the rough texture, so you get more skin smoothness,” she said. “Another benefit from the exfoliating is it helps with pigment.”

In simple terms, the extra pigment we get from old acne scars, age spots, sun damage or melasma is stored for weeks in our dead cell layer. What the glycolic does, then, is get “rid of a good amount of the stores of excess pigment,” helping to even out overall skin tone, Ciraldo said.

And as if it doesn’t already sound like a magical ingredient, glycolic acid has also been shown to stimulate collagen production, which will help reduce the appearance of fine lines, Isaac said.

Oh, and it also makes your other products absorb better.

As Isaac explained, the exfoliating properties of glycolic acid make it great for prepping the skin for other products.

“You’re going to get better absorption of other acne medications, like retinol, and other anti-aging products and antioxidants, like vitamin C and topical growth factors,” she said. “We even use it in office to prepare the skin for other types of procedures that we do.”

It also sets up your skin for better makeup application.

“It’s unbelievable how much nicer your makeup looks if you’ve got the great glycolic exfoliator for your skin,” Ciraldo said. “Everything goes on so much more smoothly.”

Chanel Le Weekend de Chanel, $115; Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial, $80; Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, $16

But not all all glycolic acid products are the same.

Glycolic acid, in various levels of potency, is found in a wide array of products, including cleansers, toners, creams, masks and peels. According to Isaac, the ideal percentage of glycolic acid for at-home use would be 8 percent to 30 percent, with 30 being what she called the “high normal.”

“Most face washes are somewhere between 8 to 10 percent. Creams can be 15 percent and be used daily. Home masks or peels can really be well-tolerated with safety up to a 30 percent concentration,” Isaac said, adding that dermatologists use solutions with as high as 70 percent glycolic acid for in-office treatments.

Along with the concentration of glycolic acid, individuals should also try to find products with low pH levels, Ciraldo said. Isaac agreed, noting that the most effective glycolic products will have a lower pH, which means they’re more acidic.

The pH level isn’t always listed on product labels, but some terms you can look for are “low pH” or “medical grade pH.” Ciraldo’s ideal is a 10 percent glycolic with a pH of 3.5, and both she and Isaac agreed that a product with 10 percent glycolic is safe for daily use.

Using a 10 percent glycolic acid product regularly will offer the same kind of benefits you’d see if you went to your dermatologist for a higher-concentration peel on less frequent occasions, Ciraldo said.

Who should be using it?

“The nice thing about glycolic acid is that it’s good for almost every skin type, except very sensitive skin patients and patients with rosacea,” Isaac said, noting that those with sensitive skin may find it too irritating. She also said that as long as a person has some natural oil production, they should be fine.

Some people have raised questions about whether glycolic acid is safe to use on darker skin tones, but Isaac said it’s generally OK, though there could be some risk for pigmentation if someone uses a formula that’s too strong and irritates their skin.

In terms of age, glycolic acid products can pretty much be used from the teenage years onward.

“Preteens can use them very safely for blackhead busters, even 11- or 12-year-old kids can use them as basic cleansers,” Isaac said, before stressing that she would not use something like a 30 percent glycolic peel on individuals in that age range.

“But for someone in their 20s, 30s and above, if they want to do an at-home glycolic peel, I think that would be anyone 18 and above,” she said.

How often should I use it?

When asked how often one should be treating their skin with glycolic acid, Ciraldo said, “The best answer I like to give is, use it as often as you can tolerate it.”

“What I mean by that is, it really depends on skin type, sometimes your age, all of this. The only sort of caveat is, don’t be using it if you’re skin is feeling a little sensitive,” Ciraldo said, adding that you should also avoid using glycolic acid if your face is feeling irritated or the skin is peeling.

She suggested incorporating it into your routine a few times a week, and if you’re seeing desired results, keep it up with that same frequency. If you want to have increased benefits, Ciraldo said, you can “probably start to use it every night” after about one or two weeks.

Isaac added that different products can be used at different frequencies.

“Somebody can use a face wash with 7 to 10 percent glycolic acid every day. And then for face creams with up to a 15 percent glycolic, they could use it once daily. If they’re going to be doing more of a mask or a peel, I would say maybe once every other week,” she said. “I don’t think you should need it more than that.”

What about the negative effects? Is there anything to watch out for?

Isaac and Ciraldo agreed that the glycolic acid products available for at-home use are quite safe and effective. The main thing you should keep in mind is that glycolic products make your skin more sensitive to sunlight.

“I would not have people using glycolic acids regularly if they’re not going to be good with sun protection and they’re a lifeguard, or they’re working at the pool or they’re out on the beach,” Isaac said.

Ciraldo even suggested skipping the glycolic altogether if you’re going to be outside and exposed to the sun for extended periods of time. Alternatively, she said, you could apply your glycolic before bed. However, your skin will still be a little more sensitive to sun the next morning, which means sunscreen is a must. (As always.)

Glycolic acid, as with any type of exfoliator, can dry out the skin. To counter that, Ciraldo suggested looking for products that contain moisturizing ingredients, which will help offset the acid’s effects. You can also apply your regular moisturizer after using a product with glycolic in it.

Glycolic acid products can also cause a slight tingling ― not burning ― sensation when applied. (If you check the product label, it will likely tell you as much.)

“Tingling is one thing, burn is another,” Ciraldo said. “If you’re feeling a tingle, some people describe it as pins and needles, [or] a little itch, any of that you can sometimes get from glycolic. But, if at any point you feel like your skin is feeling a bit of a burn, almost like you’ve gotten a little sunburn feeling, that is too much.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified salicylic acid as an alpha-hydroxy acid. It is a beta-hydroxy acid.

The Skincare Routine of 5 Top Dermatologists
The One Who Loves Drugstore Cleansers(01 of 05)
Ranella Hirsch, a board-certified dermatologist in Boston

Her skin issue: Dryness. "I have really sensitive skin, and I'm just getting back into using a retinoid because this is the first time in 10 years I haven't been pregnant, trying to get pregnant or nursing," says Hirsch. (Experts recommend avoiding vitamin A derivatives like retinoid and tretinoins during pregnancy and nursing.) "I'm only using it every third night right now, and I'm peeling like crazy." That means her medicine cabinet is filled with ultra-hydrating products to help counteract that dryness and irritation. "You don't need a ton of stuff, but I probably play around with different products more than other people do." Her RoutineMorning1. Hirsch cleanses with a basic cleanser, "usually something you can find at the drugstore" she says. The three in her rotation right now: Neutrogena Fresh Foaming Cleanser, First Aid Beauty Face Cleanserand Dove Beauty Bar Sensitive Skin. 2. She applies sunscreen, and, yes, she really does use it every day. "My skin is basically translucent," she says, so she only uses products with SPF 30 or greater. Her three favorite sunscreens: Shiseido Ultimate Protection Lotion WetForce for Sensitive Skin and Children, EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum SPF 46 (she likes to mix this untinted sunscreen into her BB cream for protection and coverage) and La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid. She also frequently borrows Babo Botanicals Nutri-Soothe SPF 15 Lip Treatment from the diaper bag. Night1. She cleanses again, usually with the same cleanser she used that morning. 2. Every third night, she applies a prescription retinoid called Refissa ("the gentlest retinoid you can get," she says) to address aging-skin concerns like fine lines and pigmentation. But every night, she puts on a double dose of skin soothers: first, Skinceuticals Hydrating B5 Gel, then First Aid Beauty Ultra Repair Cream. "When I finish up the Repair Cream, I'm going to swap it for Fresh Elixir Ancien," she says, a hydrating face oil that also minimizes wrinkles. Extras"Every now and then, if I'm feeling motivated, I'll use a moisturizing mask or an eye treatment like Shiseido Benefiance WrinkleResist24 Pure Retinol Express Smoothing Eye Mask," she says. Or she'll apply a bit of Peter Thomas Roth Oilless Oil Purified Squalene Treatment, another, you guessed it, hydrator.
(credit: Photo: Courtesy of Ranella Hirsch)
The One Who Can Relate to Your Breakouts(02 of 05)
Angela Lamb, MD, an associate professor of dermatology at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New YorkHer skin issue: Oil, which leaves her with blemishes. "I use acne products twice a day," Lamb says. "On the upside, people with oily skin also tend to look younger." (Gotta love that positive attitude.) That being said, she's starting to notice the signs of time on her face, so anti-aging products are now a priority. Her RoutineMorning1. Lamb starts by cleansing with La Roche-Posay EffaClar Gel Purifying Foaming Gel Cleanser or M-61 Power Cleanse. 2. After applying a prescription acne medication, she uses either La Roche-Posay Effaclar Mat Oil-Free Mattifying Moisturizer ("when I'm feeling really oily") or Dermalogica Intensive Moisture Balance. If her skin seems dry in the a.m., she'll switch to a heavier moisturizer, like SkinCeuticals Emollience. Here's what's not in her daily morning routine: sunscreen. (Try to contain your horror). "The only time I'm outside during the day is early in the morning when I walk to work, so I get very minimal sun exposure," she says. Plus, "I'm a darker-skinned black woman, so I don't feel as wedded to the sunscreen recommendations that I make to patients who don't have my complexion." Night1. She washes with the same cleanser, but this time, she uses a Clarisonic Miabrush to really get the grime of the day out of her skin. 2. Lamb applies a pea-sized amount of a topical prescription retinoid to her face, which targets both wrinkles and acne. "I always follow that up with one of the thicker moisturizers from my morning routine, either the Dermalogica or the Skinceuticals," she says. 3. In the past year, Lamb has started noticing unwelcome changes around her eyes. "I've been getting Botox on my forehead and around my eyes every six months for the past 10 years, but that doesn't help with under-eye bags, which is what I'm seeing in the mirror now." Eye cream has become a part of her daily routine—her favorite is RéVive Moisturizing Renewal Eye Cream, though sometimes she'll do an eye mask like Sisley Eye Contour Mask instead. "You want something with good moisturizers, so it can plump up the area under the eye and reduce the appearance of bags." ExtrasA couple of times a week, Lamb will use the M-61 Fast Blast 2-Minute Vitamin C Facial Mask in the shower, and occasionally she'll also use her Clarisonic to exfoliate with Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant. Both help give her skin a little glow, she says. (credit: Photo: Courtesy of Angela Lamb)
The One With the Minimalist Routine(03 of 05)
Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at George Washington University School of Medicine, and the founder and director of Capital Laser and Skin Care in Chevy Chase, MarylandHer skin issue: Rosacea, which means her skin "gets red, sensitive and breaks out sometimes," she says. Gentle anti-inflammatory products help keep it under control. Her RoutineMorning1. Tanzi uses the same cleanser she's used for 15 years—Donell Cream Wash. "It's gentle enough for patients to use after laser procedures, so it's great for my sensitive skin." 2. "I follow up my cleanser with a little antioxidant serum, SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic," she says. "It's anti-inflammatory, and it also layers well under sunscreen." 3. Makeup with built-in sunscreen is the last thing Tanzi applies before she walks out the door. Specifically, Colorscience Sunforgettable Brush-on Sunscreen SPF 30. "It goes on like a pressed powder, has a little color to it and you can touch it up throughout the day," she says. "I put one in every bag I own." Night1. She washes with Donell Cream Wash again, then applies an eye cream with peptides to promote collagen production and smooth out wrinkles (her go-to is Alastin Restorative Eye Treatment). 2. Next comes the anti-aging treatment. "I'm a big proponent of layering a retinol under a glycolic acid product, or doing them on alternate nights if your skin can't handle retinol every night," says Tanzi. She chooses to layer them. Her retinol product is iS Clinical Pro-Heal Serum Advance+, "just a couple of drops for the whole face." Finally, her moisturizer, Epionce Renewal Facial Cream, has glycolic acid to lessen fine lines and wrinkles. (credit: Photo: Courtesy of Elizabeth Tanzi)
The One Who's All About Anti-Aging(04 of 05)
Anne Chapas, MD, the founder and medical director of Union Square Laser Dermatology in New YorkHer skin issue: Minimizing the signs of aging. In addition to consistent sunscreen use and topical retinoids, "I've had noninvasive radiofrequency tightening treatments and dermal fillers regularly over the last few years to address concerns like eye bags and sagging skin," says Chapas. "I also really like laser resurfacing, which removes damaged skin cells and replaces them with new ones." Her RoutineMorning1. After she gets out of the shower, Chapas applies Neocutis Micro Firm Neck & Décolleté Rejuvenating Complexto her neck and chest to firm the area and reduce the appearance of "dreaded neck lines," she says. 2. Next, she washes her face with a mild cleanser like Cetaphil Gentle Skin Cleanser, then uses antioxidant-rich SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic, "which not only provides some SPF," she says, "but it also helps undo sun damage like discoloration." 3. She follows up that serum with Restorsea Renormalizing Serum, which exfoliates to help even out pigmentation, and tops it all with SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense on her T-zone to unclog and minimize pores. 4. At some point before she leaves the house, Chapas also puts on EltaMD UV Clear Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 46. "It can go anywhere in the routine because physically blocking sunscreens, like this one, don't have to be absorbed into the skin to be effective," she says. Night1. After washing her face with Cetaphil again, Chapas applies SkinMedica Retinol Complex 0.5 to reduce fine lines and even out skin tone. 2. The morning's chest-and-neck cream gets a second use, this time as Chapas's nightly moisturizer. (credit: Photo: Courtesy of Anne Chapas)
The One Who's Serious About Makeup Removal(05 of 05)
Jessica Wu, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at University of Southern California Keck School of MedicineHer skin issue: Eczema, which means she's careful about using overly drying products or cleansers that might strip the natural oils off her skin, which can lead to flare-ups. Her RoutineMorning1. "I don't always cleanse in the morning," says Wu. "Usually I just splash my face with lukewarm water in the shower, but if I'm feeling oily, I'll wash with Bioderma Micellar Water." 2. Next, Wu uses Robin McGraw Revelation OMG Is This Really Me Serum [disclosure: Wu recently became the chief medical advisor for Robin McGraw Revelation], which she applies anywhere she's starting to notice crepey-ness and fine lines—under the eyes, on the smile lines and the upper lip, in particular. 3. Sunscreen isn't an everyday must for Wu, because "I leave for the office before the sun is up and I'm there until 7 p.m." But on the weekends, she uses the Vichy Ideal Soleil Stick SPF 50+. "It's waterproof and doesn't budge," she says. Night1. Wu wears foundation and eye makeup daily, so the first thing she does at night is use the Bioderma Micellar Water to take everything off. "I get five round cotton pads, soak them with the water, then use the first two to take off my eye makeup, then the third and fourth to take off the rest of my makeup, and I use the fifth pad as a toner. It leaves my skin soft and clean but not stripped," she says. 2. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Wu applies a thin layer of a prescription tretinoin called Renova. "It stimulates collagen production and helps control my oil and monthly hormonal breakouts," she says. ExtrasOnce a week, Wu does a deeper cleanse using Cerave Hydrating Cleanser and a konjac sponge like the Boscia Cleansing Sponge. "You can also find them at your local Asian food store for about $2," she says. Then, every two to three weeks, if her skin is really dry or she feels an eczema flare coming on, she'll apply the hydrating SK-II Facial Treatment Mask. (credit: Photo: Courtesy of Jessica Wu)

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