glycolic acid

Glycolic Acid: What You Need to Know for Skincare

Glycolic acid is a compound that exfoliates the skin by dissolving oils and dead skin cells. Due to its properties, it’s a popular and effective ingredient in many skin care products.

But is it right for your skin?

Let’s find out.

Related: Chamomile Skin Benefits

What Is Glycolic Acid?

You can find glycolic acid naturally in sugarcane, beets, and various fruits. It’s a compound that is colorless and odorless in its pure form.

Many pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies use glycolic acid in their products to help improve skin appearance and texture or to treat skin conditions.

However, the glycolic acid found in these products typically comes from a laboratory setting.

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)—a group of ingredients commonly found in skin care products, including:

  • Citric acid
  • Lactic acid
  • Malic acid

Properties and Benefits of Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid has various beneficial properties:

  • It’s an exfoliant. Glycolic acid is an exfoliant, removing the outer layer of oil and skin cells by dissolving them. And unlike other exfoliants like brushes and face scrubs, it does not require harsh scrubbing.
  • It’s a humectant. Glycolic acid is a humectant that can attract and bind water to your skin cells, locking in moisture.
  • It’s antibacterial. One study found that glycolic acid can also inhibit bacterial growth at specific concentrations.
  • It promotes anti-aging. The compound can also reduce some things that cause signs of aging, including sun damage. It also helps increase hyaluronic acid and collagen in the skin, which gives it structure and elasticity.

The skincare benefits of glycolic acid include:

Treating Acne

A study researched the effects of glycolic acid face peels on 80 women with acne, and the results were excellent.

The researchers found that the face peels significantly and quickly improves various types of acne, especially comedonal acne, which is the most common, occurring when your pores get clogged with dead skin cells and oils.

Looking for the solution to your acne problem? A glycolic gel peel might be the answer.

Minimizing Sun Damage

Exposure to sunlight and UV rays can cause skin damage that produces visible signs, including:

  • Wrinkles
  • Sunspots
  • Hyperpigmentation

This damage is called photoaging.

A recent study shows that glycolic acid is effective for treating sun-damaged skin, and another one shows that it can protect against UVB rays and prevent photoaging.

Reducing Lines and Wrinkles

Over the years, our skin loses its elasticity and plumpness, resulting in wrinkles and fine lines. This process is natural, and it’s not something you need to treat for health reasons, but many of us would prefer fewer lines and wrinkles.

Glycolic acid can help. A study from 2020 found that glycolic acid can:

  • Increase your skin’s levels of hyaluronic acid to help keep it moisturized
  • Stimulate collagen production — the main protein in your skin
  • Increase keratinocyte and fibroblast proliferation rates, helping your skin repair and regenerate
  • Improve your skin’s elastin quality — the substance that promotes skin elasticity

Clearing Warts

Warts often occur due to viruses; they’re hard, small growths on the skin.

One study found that a 15% glycolic acid treatment helps flatten and normalize warts in 31 children; however, only 10% of them had their warts go away entirely.

Another study that tested a treatment consisting of 15% glycolic acid and 2% salicylic acid had very promising results when evaluating 20 people with warts.

Related: Warts Explained

How to Safely Use Glycolic Acid in Your Skincare Routine

Typically, glycolic acid is safe for your skin and works very well to treat the conditions listed above. However, to keep your skin safe while using glycolic acid, you should know a few things.

Glycolic acid — and all AHAs — can make your skin become more sensitive to the sun. So if you don’t want to undo all of the benefits that your glycolic acid treatment is doing, you must wear sunscreen while using products with this compound.

In addition, you need to allow your skin to gradually get used to using glycolic acid. Start slow — 2-3 times per week — to see how your skin reacts. If it’s not red or irritated, you can slowly start using glycolic acid products more often.

If your skin feels rough after the first couple of treatments, don’t worry; it’s normal and means that the glycolic acid is doing its job. Unless your skin becomes irritated, you’ll slowly start to notice smoother, healthier skin.

Follow these five steps to incorporate glycolic acid into your skincare routine safely:

  1. Do a patch test. For your first treatment, try the product on a small area to see how your skin tolerates glycolic acid.
  1. Start low and slow. Skincare products come in varying strengths of glycolic acid. Start with a low-strength product and work your way up once you see how your skin reacts.
  1. Stick with one product. When incorporating glycolic acid into your routine, you don’t need to use every product you can find with the ingredient. In addition, if you introduce multiple new products at once, you won’t know which one is working.
  1. Use it at night. As we mentioned, glycolic acid can increase your risk of getting sunburnt — many people prefer using it at night to help prevent UV damage.
  1. Don’t forget the sunscreen! We know we mentioned it above, too, but sunscreen is extremely important when using glycolic acid treatments.

Ready to revamp your skincare routine? See how glycolic peels can help.

How to Choose the Right Glycolic Acid Product

Choosing a glycolic acid product ultimately depends on what results you want to achieve.

You can find skincare products containing glycolic acid in various forms, including:

  • Cleansers
  • Liquid exfoliants
  • Moisturizers
  • Toners and face mists
  • Serums
  • Acne treatments
  • Face peels and masks

Related: Best Anti-Aging Sunscreens

Typically, face peels and products with leave-on formulas will help you get the best results — they give the glycolic acid more time to work.

If you’ve never used glycolic acid before, it’s best to start with products containing a low concentration instead of starting with the strongest formula. You can increase the strength as you go.

In addition, it’s usually best to look for products with a pH that’s not too acidic. Generally, a pH around four is great, but everyone’s skin is different.

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