There are certain power ingredients that tend to echo in the world of beauty. And these days, it’s rare to speak to a derm or walk down a skincare aisle without hearing or seeing something about the exfoliating, radiating glory that is glycolic acid. But what exactly is this magic molecule, and does it really live up to the hype?
From how it works to how to incorporate it into your routine, read on for everything you need to know about glycolic acid (and check out our cheat sheet to learn about more ‘holy grail’ acids that will get you glowing in no time).
What is glycolic acid?
Simply put, glycolic acid is a colorless, odorless, highly water-soluble molecule (or, more specifically, alpha-hydroxy acid) derived from sugarcane.
“Of the alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid is the smallest molecule with the least complex chemical structure, which allows it to more easily penetrate the outer layers of the skin and get to work,” explains Jeffrey Fromowitz, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in Boca Raton.
What does glycolic acid do?
According to Dr. Fromowitz, glycolic acid works by aiding the dull and outer layers of the skin in exfoliation, making for brighter, healthier, and more hydrated skin underneath. “It dissolves the connections between the cells that make up the stratum corneum (the skin’s outer layer) and increases skin cell turnover,” he explains.
As a product, glycolic acid can improve acne and help correct pigmentation problems. Dr. Fromowitz points out there is also evidence that suggests regular use of glycolic acid can help improve fine lines and wrinkles. “As it penetrates into the skin’s surface, it activates fibroblasts, which are the cells in the skin that produce collagen,” he explains. Translation: It’s an anti-aging powerhouse.
How often should you use glycolic acid?
As for how to incorporate glycolic acid into your routine, Dr. Fromowitz suggests starting with a wash to reap the benefits, while limiting contact exposure. “Those with sensitive skin should start slowly, perhaps using a wash only a couple days a week and building up from there,” he adds, noting that side effects can include redness, skin sensitivity, dryness, and itchiness.
After a few weeks without irritation, you should be set to increase your frequency. “If daily use is still tolerated well and you’d like to address other skin concerns, you can potentially add in a topical leave-on product that has glycolic acid as an ingredient.”
Can you use glycolic acid with retinol?
As with most acids, Dr. Fromowitz cautions this is one area where it’s not wise to play chemist. “You want to be careful not to combine AHA products with other acids or exfoliating products such as retinol, benzoyl peroxide, or salicylic acid. You should take care if you are treating acne with prescription products that contain Retin A.” If you still have questions, it’s best to seek advice from a trained professional (such as a dermatologist) who can assess your routine and prescribe the best products and formulas for you.
What should you look for in your glycolic acid products?
Glycolic acid can be found in a range of products and formulas, from washes to serums to creams.
“You want to look for well-formulated products from well-known brands,” advises Dr. Fromowitz. “They will contain different percentages of active ingredients. Opt for lower concentrations in the beginning to allow the skin to adjust and minimize irritation. Lower concentrations also tend to be better for daily use.”
Dr. Fromowitz says you’ll also want to keep your skin type and condition in mind. “If your skin is on the oily side, you might want to start with a serum. if your skin is on the dry side, a cream formula may be the best option.”
As for product picks, Dr. Fromowitz has become a fan of Glytone for well-formulated, affordable glycolic acid products. “The Skinmedica HA5 line also has good science behind the ingredients so the results are predictable and dependable,” he recommends.
Curious to give glycolic acid a try? Shop our favorite glycolic acid serums, toners, peels, and face washes below.
Best Glycolic Acid Products for Skin
Best Glycolic Acid Face Wash: Sobel Skin Rx 27% Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser
Recommended for all skin types, this gentle yet potent cleanser from Sobel Skin works hard at removing makeup, dirt, and oils, while exfoliating skin for improved texture.
Best Glycolic Acid Toner: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
The Ordinary has made a name for itself by offering budget-friendly products with high-end results. This toner in particular was created to help improve congestion, while targeting signs of aging for a clean, youthful glow.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum: L’Oreal Revitalift 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum
This serum from L’Oreal is another accessible glycolic acid pick that punches above its price tag. Scoop up the plant-derived formula to help clear pores and improve your complexion (studies show brighter, smoother results in as little as one week).
Best Glycolic Acid Peel: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel
Can’t make it in for a professional peel, or perhaps you just want to extend your appointments? Opt for these beauty editor-loved pads from Dr. Dennis Gross, which have achieved cult status for their ability to rewind and redefine.
Best Glycolic Acid Night Serum: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
Turn back time as you snooze with this popular night serum from Drunk Elephant. While a custom AHA blend works to resurface, antioxidants rehydrate and soothe parched and irritated skin.