Glycolic Acid 101

What It Is

Glycolic acid is an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) that is used for gentle exfoliation of the skin surface. It’s derived from cane sugar. It works by breaking down the cohesiveness of the outermost layer of skin, the stratum corneum, to reveal a newer and healthier skin layer that is smooth and more evenly toned.  It has the smallest particle size of all the AHAs, making it better able to penetrate the skin where it can stimulate the cells to produce more collagen. For this reason it is often considered the best and most effective AHA.


What It’s Used For

Glycolic acid has proven to be effective for acne, acne scars, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, and fine lines caused by photo-aging of the skin. Some studies have also shown that glycolic acid peels can increase the collagen thickness in the dermis, or deep layer of the skin, which leads to firmer skin.


My First Experiences With Glycolic Acid

I first learned about glycolic acid in 2014 during my dermatology clinical rotation in PA school. My preceptor, who was a PA, had beautiful glowing skin. She was recommending a cleanser to her patient. Probably a Neutrogena product with salicylic acid, which seemed like her go-to.

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA. I believe more people are familiar with this acid. We see it often on the shelf of cleansers at the grocery store. Many people use it for spot treatment as well. It’s very good at deep cleansing the pores, so it’s especially good if you have blackheads or whiteheads. As far as reducing fine lines or boosting collagen production, glycolic acid is better.

 The patient then asked my preceptor, “Well, what do you use?”

She had a haughty look on her face as she replied, “It’s a new product of ours that contains glycolic acid. It’s not available yet.”

Aha! I had learned her secret. I was very familiar with salicylic acid, but I had never heard of glycolic acid. I would search online for a cleanser that contained this glycolic acid that she speaks of. I was an expert online shopper (still am).

Thinking back, it wasn’t easy to find! It’s so prevalent nowadays that it’s hard to believe how difficult it was to find just a few years ago. I purchased a foam cleanser from an obscure website that contained this key ingredient that I was so desperately searching for. A brand I had never heard of. I have no idea where it shipped from.

I had some irritation the first few days. I felt a slight burn as I would apply the foam to my face.  It did subside after a short period. I noticed that my complexion appeared brighter and my acne improved, but nothing dramatic. Overall I was pleased with my discovery.

Since then, my range of glycolic acid use has definitely expanded. The next year I got my hands on a 50% glycolic acid chemical peel, and I felt confident in my ability to do this on my own. I did a ton of research, and I started with a milder AHA peel (lactic acid) first.

Now my skin really never peeled with this. Glycolic acid is a superficial peel, and many people do not experience peeling, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working. The appearance of my skin improved dramatically. I couldn’t wait for a week to pass so that I could do another peel.

I did begin to get some skin irritation, mostly redness around my nose and laugh lines. I kept using it on an almost weekly basis until I realized that I was over-doing it. I tended to that issue and I gave the glycolic peel a break.


How I Use It Now

I still use the glycolic peel once in a while, but no more than once a month, if even. What I prefer is using it in a toner after I cleanse. At first I would use Neutrogena Pore Refining toner, but now I am using Pixi glow tonic which contains 5% glycolic acid and lots of fruit extracts. It’s also alcohol-free (which is the reason why I ditched the Neutrogena one). Alcohol is very drying and I prefer a toner without it.


What About Peels?

Using the glycolic acid in a toner is very effective for me. It really has more of a cumulative effect on the skin. I do like to do a peel every so often though. I may do one every 3-4 months, if even.


How You Can Use Glycolic Acid

It can be difficult to figure out how to incorporate glycolic acid into your skincare regimen, especially if you are using other products, like a retinoid for example. The best way to go about this is to discuss the products you are using with your dermatology provider.

Sometimes you can just get a feel for how your skin reacts. I definitely had a point where I was doing too much, and I developed seborrhea of my face. Seborrhea results from over-activity of the sebaceous glands. This causes excessive secretion of sebum leading to oily skin that is often red or even crusty or scaly. For a while I really thought I had rosacea. Turns out, it was just good old seborrhea from doing too much. A little Head and Shoulders on my face and a little break from doing all the things (skincare things, that is) cleared it right up!


Final, Sort of Random Thoughts

I don’t recommend trying chemical peels at home. It can lead to burns if you do not use it correctly- trust me, I’ve been there! So unless you know what you’re doing (or truly think you do because you’re an overly confident PA student), it’s much better and safer to have it done in a medical office. Click here to learn more about chemical peels.

It’s important to stay out of the sun as much as you can for a week after a peel. If you use glycolic acid in other products, just be sure to wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher).

Using a retinoid daily for a few weeks prior to a peel can increase the effectiveness of the peel.

If you’re wanting to incorporate glycolic acid into your skincare routine and you’re not sure how to talk to your dermatology provider.  


My Favorite Glycolic Acid Containing Products