What Is Glycolic Acid? 4 Reasons Derms Love It For Glowy, Radiant Skin

mbg Editorial Assistant By Jamie Schneider
mbg Editorial Assistant
Jamie Schneider is the Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen with a B.A. in Organizational Studies and English from the University of Michigan. She's previously written for Coveteur, The Chill Times, and Wyld Skincare.
Close Up Beauty Shot of a Woman with Glowing Skin and Rosy Cheeks
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Skin resembling steel wool? You'll likely need some exfoliation. But as with most skin care formulas, there are so many avenues to consider: Physical or chemical? Cleanser or serum? AHA or BHA? If you're looking for a radiant, smooth skin texture, allow us to introduce you to glycolic acid, a superstar ingredient for sloughing off dead skin cells with ease. Here's why you'll want to add it to your beauty lineup, stat. 

What is glycolic acid?

This chemical exfoliant is an alpha-hydroxy acid—the family of water-loving acids that works on the surface of the skin. Naturally derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid "dissolves the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin so the skin will gently shed," according to board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D. Basically, glycolic acid (and all AHAs, for that matter) loosen dead skin cells that sit on the topmost layer of the skin, paving the way for soft, smooth skin underneath.  

But here's the thing about glycolic acid: It has the smallest molecular weight of all the alpha-hydroxy acids, which means it can penetrate the outer layer quite easily (unlike its AHA counterpart, lactic acid, which is larger in molecular size). Meaning, it does its work rather quickly—leading to fresh, rejuvenated skin that's soft to the touch. 

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What does it do for skin?

As mentioned, glycolic acid is the workhorse in exfoliating products. It unglues dead skin cells from the topmost layer, but it also provides moisturizing qualities as well. That's what makes glycolic acid so great: It strikes a unique balance as it "can be simultaneously exfoliating and hydrating, making them very beneficial to many skin types," board-certified dermatologist Mona Gohara, M.D., tells us about AHAs in skin care. The best skin types, however, might just be those with normal to dry, sun-damaged skin. (If you have very sensitive skin, we might suggest a lighter exfoliator like lactic acid or fruit enzymes.) Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Decreases hyperpigmentation: Because it works on the surface (rather than penetrating into the pores; that'll be your BHAs), glycolic acid can slough off pigmented skin and encourage cell turnover. That makes it great for skin care concerns like hyperpigmentation and discoloration, according to King. The research backs it up, too: A systematic review of glycolic acid's effects on photodamage and hyperpigmentation showed that glycolic acid peels led to significant improvements in pore size, rhytids (meaning wrinkles), and radiance. 
  2. Reduces the appearance of photodamage: One study on the exfoliant's photoprotective effects even showed that UVB-burned skin healed sooner when treated with glycolic acid for seven days—a reason the acid is perfect for those facing some sun-damaged skin, King says.
  3. Reduce the appearance of acne scars: Another study on glycolic acid's ability to treat acne scars showed that the exfoliant is superior in reducing the appearance of those scars; even low-strength daily products were shown to be effective, especially for patients who can't tolerate an intense chemical peel. 
  4. Supports skin elasticity: "Studies have shown that six months of topical glycolic acid stimulated a 27% increase in epidermal thickness," King explains. As we age, our skin's natural cell turnover process decreases, but exfoliating with glycolic acid can help rejuvenate those skin cells and contribute to plump, fresh-looking skin (in other words, say goodbye to that tired, dull appearance).

While people suffering from blackheads may fare well with glycolic acid as well (after all, those plugs are more surface-level), reach for glycolic acid if discoloration, scarring, and fine lines are your main gripes. No matter what, regularly exfoliating your skin has its benefits—it improves skin texture, enhances collagen production, and allows other ingredients to better penetrate the skin, says King. 

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 How to use it in your routine.

Take a peek into your skin care arsenal, and chances are you'll find a product featuring glycolic acid. It's one of the more researched AHAs, which is why you can find it in many clarifying formulas—namely, cleansers, toners, serums, and renewal masks, according to board-certified dermatologist and founder of MMSkincare Ellen Marmur, M.D.

Other popular products are those premedicated pads (the beloved gly-pad, if you've heard your derm toss the term around), known for removing sweat and residual makeup if a full-on cleanse feels like too much—after a workout, perhaps. 

In terms of procedures, that's where peels come into play: A glycolic acid peel is one of the most common AHA peels used in dermatologists' offices. That said, it's not a venture you should take on in the comfort of your own home: "In a clinical setting, doctors generally use a glycolic acid peel that is 40 to 50% glycolic acid," says King, whereas an at-home product will likely have a 10 to 20% solution. That's because trained professionals can take one look at your skin and know whether it could benefit from that heavier exfoliation or whether you should stick to a clarifying cleanser and call it a day. 

That said, it's best to take it slow with glycolic acid (and all exfoliating products, for that matter) until you know just how your skin is going to react. As always: Do a patch test before applying new products to the face.

Anyone who shouldn't use it? 

Because glycolic acid has a smaller molecule size (and can penetrate more easily into the skin), that means it's a little more heavy-duty than some of the other sensitive-skin-approved ingredients. While AHAs in general are great for most skin types, glycolic acid can be a bit unfavorable for some folk. "Very sensitive skin may find glycolic acid irritating," King says. That said, those who suffer from sensitive skin conditions like eczema or rosacea might want to proceed with caution or consult your dermatologist before giving it a go, says Marmur. If you swipe a gly-pad over your skin and get some redness or discomfort, you might want to consult your derm before using it again (or perhaps swap it for even gentler lactic acid).  

Those with oily skin prone to acne and clogged pores might also fare better with a BHA (like salicylic acid) over this AHA. Again, both are great gentle exfoliants, but if you're looking for a product to penetrate clogged pores (say, if you suffer from deep, cystic pimples), oil-soluble BHAs might be a better fit for those skin care woes. 

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The bottom line.

Looking for gentle exfoliation to help fade acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and decrease fine lines? Glycolic acid is your guy. It's best to consult your derm before diving right in, but generally speaking, glycolic acid can be a lovely addition to your skin care arsenal; especially those in the market for sensitive-skin-approved formulas, consider this AHA your newest go-to. 

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