Glycolic Acid for Skin – Benefits & Everything You Need to Know

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Glycolic acid is a water-soluble skincare treatment used to cleanse the skin, correct dullness, and effectively reduce the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and uneven skin tone. Over the years, glycolic acid has become one of the most talked-about alpha-hydroxy acids in the beauty industry.

There are many benefits to using glycolic acid. However, it is also essential to know when and how to use it best for your skin. The goal is to do more good than harm. We have created a glycolic acid guide to help you figure out how it works and how to incorporate it into your beauty routine.

Table of Contents

Quick Overview About Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid works by exfoliating the skin, making it an excellent acne treatment. With safe and calculated use, glycolic acid will clear your skin of acne breakouts. It’s a double-edged sword that will also clear away any evidence that they ever existed.

Ingredient Type:

  • Alpha-hydroxy acid
  • Chemical exfoliant
  • Keratolytic

Key Benefits:

  • Works as an exfoliant
  • Treats acne
  • Prevents aging
  • Treats hyperpigmentation

Who Should Use It:

  • Individuals with normal to Oily skin
  • Individuals with dry and highly sensitive skin (with caution)

Can Be Mixed With:

  • Salicylic acid
  • Hyaluronic acid
  • Vitamin C

Can’t Be Mixed With:

  • Retinol
  • Benzoyl peroxide
  • Manuel exfoliators and facial scrubs

Safety:

  • Pay close attention to the condition of your skin before and after use.
  • If you have dry skin, use it with caution.
  • If your skin is highly sensitive, use it with caution.
  • In case you suffer from cystic acne, use it with caution.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

What Is Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is the smallest molecule of alpha-hydroxy acids. The small size is what makes glycolic acid so powerful. Because glycolic acid molecules are so tiny, they can penetrate the skin’s pores deeply and exfoliate thoroughly. 

How Does It Work?

Glycolic acid works by increasing the speed of cell turnover. It dissolves bacteria and other things that hold skin cells together, giving dead skin cells the freedom to surface and fall off naturally.

Usually, an acne scar could take months to fade away completely. However, with proper use of glycolic acid, that time is cut in half or less. It is essentially an exfoliant that lowers the intensity and frequency of acne breakouts. 

Which Skin Type Is Glycolic Acid Suitable For?

Most people who suffer from constant breakouts and skin discoloration are excited to learn about the benefits of using glycolic acid. They rush to try it. However, it is vital to understand that glycolic acid is not suitable for everyone.

For example, if you already struggle with dry skin, glycolic acid could irritate your skin. Since glycolic acid is an exfoliant, it naturally dries out your skin. If your skin is already dry, glycolic acid can cause irritation and trigger acne breakouts.

Dry skin is just as susceptible to acne breakouts as oily skin if it isn’t kept in a healthy balance.

If you have sensitive skin, glycolic acid may not be a fit for you. Sensitive skin tends to positively respond to using fewer products that are more natural. Using any product with glycolic could trigger an uncomfortable irritation.

Glycolic acid is most suitable for normal to oily skin. Individuals with this type of skin tend to have more positive long-term results glycolic acid use.

However, it is still essential to understand that anyone with any skin type could experience side effects from glycolic use if not used correctly.

What Are the Benefits of Glycolic Acid?

Stimulates collagen growth

Glycolic acid stimulates dermal fibroblasts, which are cells located in the inner layer of the skin (dermis). When this happens, the production of collagen increases. The dermis is, in a sense, its own ecosystem. It has oil and sweat glands, hair follicles, blood vessels, and connective tissue.

Reduces wrinkles and fine lines

The increase in collagen production also produces the well sought-after side effect of diminishing fine lines and wrinkles. Glycolic acid is your genie in the bottle. You no longer need a cream for anti-aging, acne, and smoother skin. You have all these things with one simple product.

Enhances cell turnover

Glycolic acid enhances cell turnover because it works as an exfoliator. The easier it is for dead skin cells to shed, the better off your skin will be. Glycolic acid speeds up the process, giving you great results in less time.

Treats acne

Glycolic acid treats acne by unclogging pores and making it easier for the dead skin cells to surface naturally on their own. The more fluid and routine the process, the fewer acne breakouts individuals experience.

Reverses free radical damage

Studies have found that glycolic acid has antibacterial properties and anti-antioxidants. As such, glycolic acid improves the overall appearance of your skin. It not only reduces swelling and scars from acne but also helps reverse free radical damage. Combine that with collagen stimulation, and you have taken years off of your skin. You will look more youthful and vibrant no matter your age.

Heals hyperpigmentation

The increase in cell turnover speeds up the healing process. Acne scars will fade much faster. Did you know that hyperpigmentation is at its darkest on the surface of your skin? When you think about it, it makes sense. The surface layer of the skin is what became bruised. Not to mention, it is what soaks up the sun in the summer and the dry cold air in the winter. It is the most vulnerable. As the top layer peels off, you see brighter skin over time.

Evens out and brightens the complexion

The process of exfoliation is what makes glycolic acid so crucial to the health of your skin. It minimizes all imperfections, resulting in fresh, sunkissed, smoother, and brighter skin.

Glycolic outperforms other acids for overall skin health. Check out the chart below.

How to Incorporate Glycolic Acid into Your Skincare Routine?

It is essential to understand that you have choices when it comes down to using glycolic acid. There are several ways to incorporate it into your skincare routine. The first way is to use a glycolic acid cleanser.

The following way to add glycolic acid into your morning routine is by using it as a toner. You can also use creams, moisturizers, serums, masks, and chemical peels containing small amounts of glycolic acid.

Lastly, there are body lotions and washes that produce the same effect.

How to Apply Glycolic Acid?

Because glycolic acid causes dryness to the skin, it is essential to not overuse it. People with routinely dry skin might not want to use glycolic acid as part of their daily skincare treatment.

When you first begin using glycolic acid, it is crucial to take your time. We understand the excitement around all the benefits of this product. However, it is vital to understand how your skin will react to it before completely committing to it.

Patch Test

We recommend starting with a patch test. A patch test is your saving grace when using glycolic acid. It can save you from possible severe side effects such as acne breakouts and rashes.

Those with highly sensitive and dry skin need to do a patch test first. Just think about it. We are trying a brand new product that’s considered a very strong exfoliate. So, We shouldn’t go headfirst into the deep end if we don’t know how to swim yet.

We don’t know how our skin will respond to it. We may only have a guess. With that said, a patch test protects us from extreme, unforeseen adverse effects. We definitely understand the struggle that many of us face when it comes down to our skin.

The desire to jump in headfirst and to get results fast makes sense. But as with most skin products aimed at giving us the results we seek, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Start by applying a small amount of glycolic acid to a small area on your face. If you have no adverse side effects within one day, it’s safe to take the next step. The next step is to apply a thin layer of your glycolic acid product to your entire face.

Not an Everyday Product

Glycolic acid is a product where less is more. Using too much too often is a sure-fire way to irritate your skin and cause the onset of breakouts and even aging. To get the best results from glycolic acid, exfoliate no more than two times per week.

Also, ensure that the two days that you exfoliate are not back to back. For example, if you exfoliate on Monday, wait until Thursday or Friday to do it again.

For example, if you exfoliate on Monday, wait until Thursday or Friday to do it again. Overuse of the product is going to cause you to experience the symptoms you were trying to avoid.

Only use a pea-sized amount of the product. Gently rub it on your entire face and rinse off. Scrubbing can also ignite irritation. Glycolic acid molecules are so small and robust that they can penetrate your pores and gently exfoliate without needing to be scrubbed in.

Glycolic Acid in Products

As mentioned before, you can find glycolic acid in many products. These are the things to look out for in each of the product types.

Cleansers

Many cleansers contain glycolic acid. One thing to look out for is cleansers that require you to leave the product on your face for a certain amount of time. Glycolic acid Is working the second it hits your face. The longer you leave it on, the higher your chances are of experiencing irritation. Look for a cleanser that is simply applied then washed off.

Toners

Using a glycolic acid toner is a great way to touch up your skin and remove excess oils. However, it is important to look for toners explicitly created to avoid irritation because you cannot simply wash them off.

Creams & Moisturizers

Many glycolic acid creams and moisturizers contain lower glycolic acid levels that are suitable for every day. We still recommend working up to using it every day to protect your skin.

Serums

Serums tend to mix glycolic acid with salicylic acid for intense resurfacing overnight. While this may sound like a concoction that will cause irritation, many serums add fruit extract to help soothe the skin. Keep an eye out for the fruity extracts for the best results.

Masks

Glycolic acid masks can be an excellent alternative for weekly use. However, ensure that you follow the directions and do not leave the mask or longer than intended. Also, have a soothing moisturizer to use when you’re done.

Body Products (Lotions and washes)

Lotions and body washes are great options for using smaller amounts of glycolic acid. They give you the results you want while using smaller concentration amounts. We still recommend working up to using it daily.

Chemical Peels

Glycolic acid peels are known for minimizing pores and removing pimples (blackheads and whiteheads) from the skin.

What Can I Mix with Glycolic Acid?

It’s safe to mix glycolic acid with hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid, vitamin C, hydroquinone, and even kojic acid. When looking for the best glycolic acid product, ensure it contains humectants – products that retain moisture.

They are your saving grace for avoiding excessive drying.

What Not to Mix with Glycolic Acid?

You cannot mix glycolic acid with retinoids. Avoid glycolic acid products that contain niacinamide and lactic acid because they will interfere with the pH balance of your skin. This combination can cause more irritation and faster aging.

Side Effects of Glycolic Acid

Possible side effects of glycolic acid use include swelling, itching, burning, peeling, excessive dryness, acne breakouts, and skin rashes. Always work up to using glycolic acid products to increase your chances of avoiding these symptoms.

Safety Tips

Before you apply glycolic acid to your skin, make sure you follow these dos and don’ts!

DOs

  • Limit the time it has contact with your skin.
  • Perform a patch test to make sure your skin can handle the product.
  • Wear sunscreen to avoid irritation and further drying.
  • Work up to using the product more to protect your skin.
  • Use non-comedogenic moisturizer after.

DON’TS

  • Use retinol and a glycolic acid product on the same day.
  • Scrub product into skin.
  • Use if your skin is severely dry or sensitive.
  • Use on open wounds.
  • Don’t use more than directed because you believe you will get better results faster.

Frequently Asked Questions

FAQ About Glycolic Acid

Before using glycolic acid on your skin, make sure you have all the answers to your questions.

Is Glycolic Acid Safe for My Skin?

Glycolic acid is not for everyone. We recommend glycolic acid for individuals with normal to oily skin types. If you have dry and highly sensitive skin, it is best to exercise caution when using glycolic acid products.

Start with a patch test and monitor how your skin reacts to it over the next 24 hours. If you don’t experience any symptoms, begin to work your way up to using the product according to directions.

How Long Does It Take to See Results from Glycolic Acid?

The amount of time that it takes for each person to see results from glycolic acid will be different. However, it is safe to say that many individuals begin to see results after 1-2 months of use.

The best way to see results sooner is to be consistent with the application. Also, remember to follow the directions and not use the product more than intended to avoid irritation.

Is It OK to Use Glycolic Acid Every Day?

It is typically not OK to use glycolic acid every day. Most glycolic acid products are suitable for a maximum of two uses per week.

However, we are moving into the age of glycolic acid lotion, body washes, toners, creams, and moisturizers. These products are formulated for safe daily use. It is our recommendation to still work your way up to using daily products every day.

It is the best way to protect your skin from any adverse effects of the product.

What Percentage of Glycolic Acid Should I Use?

The glycolic acid percentage that you use depends on how often you use it. If you use a product intended for 1-2 times per week application, the concentration can be up to 30%.

If you use a daily product, the concentration will be 8-15%. As such, many facial washes have either 10% of glycolic acid or less. You may find some creams and serums to have up to 15% glycolic acid.

Does Glycolic Acid Cause Sun Sensitivity?

Glycolic acid can cause sun sensitivity because it causes your skin to shed its top layer of damaged, hyperpigmented skin. The new layer of skin may be sensitive to sunlight.

It is another reason that we recommend using glycolic acid in your nighttime routine instead of in the morning. Also, wear non-comedogenic sunscreen to protect your skin from sun sensitivity further.

Can You Use Glycolic Acid and Niacinamide?

It’s best not to use niacinamide and glycolic acid together. Both products have natural and favorable benefits, and they can enhance your skincare routine.

However, the difference lies in their pH levels. Niacinamide has a higher pH level than glycolic acid. Your skin easily absorbs glycolic acid, but it takes longer to absorb niacinamide because of the higher pH.

Can You Use Vitamin C and Glycolic Acid Together?

You can use vitamin C and glycolic acid together. As mentioned before, start with a patch test and increase use to ensure that your skin can handle both products together.

Vitamin C has a higher pH than glycolic acid, meaning that it will not absorb as well. If using these two products together, be sure to use a humectant moisturizer.

Can I Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol?

We recommend that you do not use retinol and glycolic acid products together. Glycolic acid and retinol work in a similar way. Using both products at the same time can be very harsh on your skin.

It may be safe to use both products on the same day but at different times. However, that depends on how well your skin can tolerate that. Try using both on the same day and wait 24 hours to see how your skin reacts to it.

Can You Use Glycolic Acid with Salicylic Acid?

You can use glycolic acid with salicylic acid. Proceed with caution. If your skin can tolerate using both, you have a match made in heaven for your skin routine. Salicylic acid works by treating existing acne breakouts.

It’s an oil-soluble substance that digs deep into your pores to remove pore-clogging bacteria that causes acne. Glycolic acid unclogs the outer and dermis layers of the skin.

Both work together to unclog the pores on the outer and inner layers of the skin.

Can You Use Glycolic Acid with Hyaluronic Acid?

You can definitely use glycolic acid with hyaluronic acid. It is another match made in heaven for your skin routine. Not to mention, you can use them both at the same time.

While glycolic acid exfoliates your skin, hyaluronic acid helps lock in moisture. Using both together can enhance collagen production and limit the symptoms of drying that can result from glycolic acid.

They work together to heal your skin as well as undo free radical damage.

Is Glycolic Acid Good for Acne?

Glycolic acid is perfect for acne because it prevents your pores from clogging up with acne-causing bacteria. As you continue to use it, you will discover that the intensity and frequency of your acne breakouts become minimal.

You should reap these benefits as long as you use it as directed and pair it with a good moisturizer. If you start to feel symptoms of irritation, lower the frequency and how much glycolic acid you are using to prevent further irritation.

Do Dermatologists Recommend Glycolic Acid?

Dermatologists do recommend glycolic acid. In fact, you can even go to your dermatologist to receive a glycolic acid treatment.

If you are looking for a glycolic acid treatment above 30 percent concentration, you should see your dermatologist.

The reason being is that glycolic acid treatment with over 30 percent concentration can cause hyperpigmentation and inflammation. These treatments will take roughly 3 to 4 weeks to heal completely.

Can You Apply AHA and BHA Together?

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid, and salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid. You can use these two substances on the same day if your skin can tolerate them. For example, you might want to apply a glycolic acid cleanser with a salicylic acid lotion.

As a general rule, be sure to patch test and slowly work your way into doing this regularly. If you feel any irritation from using both products, lower how much and how often you’re using them.

Can Glycolic Acid Burn Your Skin?

Glycolic acid can burn your skin. If you are using glycolic acid with a lower concentration, you may feel tingling. More potent glycolic acid treatments such as peels that you would typically see your dermatologist for may burn your skin.

The burn could take place during the treatment as well as after while you are healing. Overall, as long as you use glycolic acid as directed and carefully, burning is not a symptom that you should experience.

Why Does Glycolic Acid Make My Skin Tingle?

It is normal to experience tingling of the skin when you use glycolic acid. The glycolic acid molecules are so small that they can penetrate the dermis layer of your skin.

Not to mention, it has a very low pH which enhances its ability to absorb. Tingling is a usual symptom of glycolic acid use. However, please ensure that the tingling is not causing irritation and that it’s not intense.

Glycolic acid peels are considered an excellent treatment method to help manage hyperpigmentation. A glycolic acid peel can cause hyperpigmentation.

It is always in your best interest to take all necessary precautions to lower the risk of experiencing hyperpigmentation. Do this by consulting your dermatologist for the best advice on which chemical peel to use.

The chemical peel you use could be one from your nearest beauty supply store or a high concentration treatment performed by your dermatologist.

Is Glycolic Acid Good for Acne Scars?

Glycolic acid is great for acne scars. The dark layer of hyperpigmentation is on the surface layer of your skin. Glycolic acid causes this layer of skin to shed dead skin cells revealing lighter, brighter, smoother skin.

Regular use of glycolic acid will speed up the healing process of your hyperpigmentation. You will notice the skin lightening within a month in some cases.

Does Glycolic Acid Help with Pores?

Glycolic acid can minimize the appearance of large pores because it unclogs your pores and assists in dead skin cell removal.

Some women experience larger pores at specific points in their menstrual cycle and may want to try glycolic acid. Using glycolic acid around these times will help keep your pores clean and prevent the onset of a hormonal acne breakout.

Is Glycolic Acid Good for Aging Skin?

Glycolic acid is excellent for aging skin because it reverses free radical damage. It also causes dead skin cells to peel and shed, which reveals new beautiful, ageless skin.

The glycolic acid heals your skin from all the things that cause damage, such as the sun, acne scars, wrinkles, and fine lines. Using it as directed is a surefire way to achieve ageless skin.

Does Glycolic Acid Cause Purging?

Glycolic acid can cause purging. If you have acne-prone skin and you begin using glycolic acid, you may notice purging. It results from the glycolic acid causing the dead skin cells to surface as a part of its natural healing process.

Glycolic acid opens up clogged pores and essentially cleans them out.

In some cases, you may see a development of acne. Such an outbreak may result from the glycolic acid pushing out acne-causing bacteria and dead skin cells out of pores that are not completely open yet.

What Is the Difference Between Glycolic Acid and Lactic Acid?

Glycolic acid and lactic acid are alike in the fact that they both are alpha-hydroxy acid. They provide similar benefits. However, glycolic acid is the more potent of them both.

If you are one whose skin cannot tolerate glycolic acid, lactic acid is something you should try. It is better suited for individuals who have severely dry and sensitive skin.

What Is the Difference Between Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid?

The difference between glycolic and salicylic acid is what makes them a match made in heaven. Glycolic acid prevents acne by unclogging pores down to the second layer of the skin or dermis.

Salicylic acid treats current acne by exfoliating those pores, helping to clear out any acne-causing bacteria. Together, they treat existing acne and prevent future acne.

What Is the Difference Between Glycolic Acid and Retinol?

Glycolic acid and retinol are both alpha-hydroxy acids. Glycolic acid aims to clean out the surface and dermis level of the skin. Retinols enhance healthy cell regeneration.

However, it is vital to understand that healthy cell regeneration can also lower the frequency of acne breakouts and cause hyperpigmentation to fade.

Can Glycolic Acid Lighten Your Skin?

With regular and directed use of glycolic acid, you will notice your skin lightening. It is especially true for individuals who have hyperpigmentation. With time, you will see your complexion lightening up and your acne scars fading.

Glycolic acid is a fantastic treatment to add to your skincare regimen. If your skin can tolerate it, you will reap the benefits of healthy, smooth, and acne and scar-free skin. Be sure to always practice safety measures when beginning a glycolic acid product.

The Takeaway

Glycolic acid is a fantastic treatment to add to your skincare regimen. If your skin can tolerate it, you will reap the benefits of healthy, smooth, and acne and scar-free skin. Be sure to always practice safety measures when beginning a glycolic acid product.

Start with a patch test. If you don’t have any symptoms from that, move on to using it slowly until you reach the point where you’re using it as directed. Cheers to you and the positive results you get from glycolic acid.

Judy Rose

Hi, it’s Judy!

I’m a passionate skincare specialist and writer. I have more than 7 years of experience as a beauty, fashion, and lifestyle writer and editor, and I’m extremely passionate about what I do.