Conventional exfoliants increasingly seem old-fashioned, as the popularity of at-home chemical exfoliation increases. Of the wide range of acids now available, many are kind enough to exfoliate with at home, and glycolic acid is one of the most popular.
Glycolic acid is a peeling agent and a powerful exfoliant. It removes the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal brighter, fresh skin under the surface.
Here, we’ll explain what glycolic acid is, the beauty benefits associated with it, how to use this potent ingredient, and any negative consequences.
Glycolic acid is an AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) that can be chemically engineered or extracted from plants including sugarcane, sugar beet, pineapple, melon, and grape plants.1
As glycolic acid is a highly concentrated acid, it’s frequently used in at-home exfoliating treatments; most popularly in chemical peels.
Glycolic acid has many beauty-boosting benefits, including:
Glycolic acid is the smallest naturally occurring AHA, which means it’s better at penetrating lower layers of the skin to revitalise cells than other AHAs, including lactic acid.2
Skin imperfections can be caused by bacteria on the skin.3 Glycolic acid is a potent antibacterial agent and can, in some cases, reduce the appearance of blemishes.4
High levels of collagen within the skin produce a youthful look, but, unfortunately, collagen production decreases as we age.5 When topically applied, glycolic acid stimulates certain parts of the skin to support collagen production and skin firming, all while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.6
Glycolic acid is one of the active ingredients used in dermatologists’ chemical peels. However, it’s not possible for many of us to visit the dermatologist once a month. Instead, you can find glycolic acid in many commercially available beauty products, including cleansers, acid toners, face masks, and peels for home use.
Dermatologists advise that you use an acid toner irregularly. Once a week is perfect, as otherwise, you can damage your skin via over-exfoliation with a harsh active ingredient.7 Always use an AHA alongside an SPF, as active acids increase your propensity for sun damage.
Glycolic acid peels administered by dermatologists have been known to cause side effects.8 These may include darkened skin, increased skin sensitivity, and cold sores amongst individuals who had already experienced the infection.9
If you have sensitive skin, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea, consult a dermatologist before trying a glycolic acid treatment.10
For more information on glycolic acid, check out our guide to using acids in skincare.
Last updated: 23 February 2021
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3780801/ 4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6017965/ 5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583892/
6 https://www.glamour.com/story/glycolic-acid-what-does-it-do 7 https://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/beauty/skincare/g33441466/best-glycolic-acid/ 8 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240/ 9 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240/#b21-ccid-6-281