How to Use Glycolic Acid in Your Skin Care

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) made from sugar cane. It is one of the most widely used AHAs in skincare products.

AHAs are natural acids that come from plants. They consist of tiny molecules that are very easy for your skin to absorb. This makes them ideal for smoothing fine lines, improving skin texture, and other anti-aging uses.

This article takes a closer look at what glycolic acid is and how it can help your skin. It also includes tips on how to choose the right product for you and how to use it safely.

Mature woman at beauty spa
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How Glycolic Acid Works

Glycolic acid has the smallest-sized molecules of all the AHAs. This allows glycolic acid to absorb into the skin and exfoliate it even better than other AHAs.

Glycolic acid works by speeding up cell turnover. In other words, it dissolves the bonds that hold skin cells together. In effect, your skin is able to shed dead skin cells more quickly than it would on its own.

Glycolic acid triggers your skin to make more collagen as well. Collagen is the protein that makes skin firm, plump, and elastic. It also gives your bones and connective tissues their strength.

Your skin makes less collagen as you age. Collagen is also destroyed when you spend too much time in the sun. Using glycolic acid each day can help prevent the breakdown of collagen.

What It Does for Your Skin

Glycolic acid is a very popular treatment for many reasons, including:

  • Anti-aging: It smooths fine wrinkles and improves the skin's tone and texture.
  • Hydration: It plumps the skin and prevents it from getting dry.
  • Sun damage: It fades dark patches caused by sun damage and protects collagen from the sun.
  • Complexion: It brightens the skin when used regularly.
  • Exfoliation: It prevents ingrown hairs and makes pores appear smaller by helping the skin shed dead skin cells.
  • Acne: It cleans out pores to prevent comedones, blackheads, and inflamed breakouts.

Although many sources claim glycolic acid gets rid of scars, this is one thing it simply can't do. Glycolic acid can lighten dark patches left by acne or other wounds. It may also soften the look of raised scars and pitted scars, but it will not make them go away.

A better treatment for scars is either a professional strength glycolic acid peel or a different scar treatment altogether.

Recap

Glycolic acid consists of tiny molecules that skin absorbs very well. It protects collagen and helps your skin shed dead skin cells. This process smooths and brightens your skin, keeps your pores clean, and prevents ingrown hairs and acne.

Where You Can Find It

If you're looking for glycolic acid, you have lots of choices. This skincare darling can be found in many over-the-counter (OTC) products.

Try your local drug store, market, or skin spa. You will find plenty of cleansers, masks, toners, and moisturizers that contain glycolic acid. OTC glycolic acid products tend to come in strengths of up to 10%.

For stronger treatments, glycolic acid is also found in chemical peels. Light duty glycolic acid peels up to 30% strength can be done by an esthetician at the salon or skin spa. Stronger peels of up to 70% can be had at the dermatology office.

Even though glycolic acid is made from sugar cane, the sugar you buy at the store is not quite the same. Rubbing your face with sugar can exfoliate the skin and leave it feeling smoother. But it's not going to give you the same results as glycolic acid treatment.

Choosing the Right Skin Treatment

The glycolic acid treatment you choose depends a lot on your skin type and what your end goals are. OTC products with glycolic acid might be enough to give you brighter, more healthy-looking skin. They might also be enough to prevent breakouts and reduce fine lines without the need for stronger pro peels.

Professional skin peels are a good option if you want to treat a specific skin issue. For example, professional peels can help with sun damage, dark spots, acne, or deeper wrinkles. They will give you greater results more quickly. But because these peels contain higher percents of glycolic acid, they carry a greater risk of irritation.

When choosing any glycolic acid treatment, the percent of glycolic acid it contains is just one factor to think about. The product's pH is the other. The more acidic a product is, the stronger and more effective it will be on your skin despite how much glycolic acid it contains.

Granted, most skincare products only list the percent of glycolic acid used. They are not required to list the pH, which makes it a bit harder to compare products.

Recap

OTC skin care products contain up to 10% glycolic acid and are a good option for daily skincare. Pro peels contain up to 70% glycolic acid. They can quickly reduce stubborn acne, deep wrinkles, and sun damage but are more likely to bother your skin.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Safely

In general, glycolic acid is very safe for your skin and works well. To keep your skin safe, though, there are a few things to know before using glycolic acid.

First and foremost, you must wear sunscreen whenever you are using glycolic acid treatments. Like all AHAs, glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. You don't want to undo all the good your glycolic acid is doing, nor do you want to end up sunburnt.

Allow your skin to get used to glycolic acid. If you are using an OTC product, start off by applying it just three times per week for a week or so. If your skin isn't red or irritated, try using it four times a week for a week or two.

Keep slowly building up use this way until you're able to use it every day. If at any point your skin becomes irritated, give your skin a rest before trying again.

For in-office or in-salon peels, you will likely start off with a lower amount of glycolic acid. If your skin tolerates that well, you will most likely be bumped up to higher strengths for your next peels.

Your skin may feel a bit rough after your first few treatments. This is normal and just means that the glycolic acid is working. Unless your skin is irritated, keep using your glycolic acid product. You should slowly start to see smoother, more healthy skin.

Don't use glycolic acid, even OTC products, if you are currently using topical retinoids, like Retin-A (tretinoin) or Differin (adapalene), Accutane (isotretinoin), or any products that rapidly exfoliate the skin.

Most importantly, if you're under a dermatologist's care, make sure you get their OK before using any glycolic acid product or having a peel done.

Summary

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that comes from sugar cane. As it absorbs into the skin, it promotes cell turnover. This makes glycolic acid a great exfoliant that gives the skin a healthier, more glowing look.

Glycolic acid is a common ingredient in many OTC and professional skin care products, especially anti-aging products. It also supports collagen production, protects the skin against sun damage, and prevents pores from getting blocked.

If you need any help choosing a glycolic acid product, your dermatologist can help you do so.

A Word From Verywell

Glycolic acid OTC products and professional peels have been around a long time. They have a safe track record and are known to work wonders for the skin. Most skin types can use them without much trouble.

If you have very sensitive skin, you may want to stick with wash-off glycolic acid products like cleansers. These are less likely to bother your skin than leave-on glycolic acid treatments. They also allow your skin to build up a tolerance in a way that doesn't bother your skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does glycolic acid do to your face?

    Glycolic acid works to exfoliate the skin, speed up cell turnover, and boost collagen production. Glycolic acid helps to clear pores, smooth fine wrinkles, improve skin tone, fade dark patches and sun damage, and hydrate skin for a more youthful appearance.  

  • Is it safe to use glycolic acid everyday?

    Not at first. Glycolic acid can irritate your skin, and it may take a while for your skin to get used to it.

    Start by applying it three times a week. If your skin isn’t red or irritated, apply it four times the following week. Slowly increase the number of days you use glycolic acid as your skin begins to tolerate it. 

    If your skin starts to become irritated at any time, take a break from using glycolic acid until the redness and irritation clear. 

  • Does glycolic acid treat scars?

    No. Despite marketing claims, there is no scientific evidence to support the use of glycolic acid to eliminate scars. Glycolic acid may help soften the appearance of scars, but it will not make them disappear.

  • What should you know before using glycolic acid?

    Glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. It is essential to wear sunscreen outdoors when using glycolic acid. 

    Do not use topical retinoids and glycolic acid at the same time. Avoid using other products that rapidly exfoliate the skin while using glycolic acid. 

    If you currently see a dermatologist, talk to them before using any products that contain glycolic acid. 

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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