Originally derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is one of the most commonly-used and effective alpha-hydroxy acids in skincare. This ingredient was first coined by a French chemist in 1848 and has since become a key ingredient in cosmetic products formulated for acne, anti-aging, enlarged pores, and hyperpigmentation. Glycolic acid helps gently exfoliate the skin to reveal a smoother, softer, clearer, and healthier-looking complexion.
Important Things To Know About Glycolic Acid
How Does Glycolic Acid WorkGlycolic acid is an exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). It has the lowest molecular weight of all the AHAs (including lactic acid), which allows it to easily penetrate the skin.1 Glycolic acid helps to promote the skin’s natural exfoliation process by shedding the skin’s outer layer. This natural shedding process supports the elimination of dead skin cells, and helps to reveal fresh, healthy-looking skin. Rather than using potentially harsh or irritating physical exfoliation methods, this chemical exfoliant is often recommended as a gentle, yet effective option for a variety of skin concerns.
How Is Glycolic Acid Used?
When used properly, glycolic acid offers a variety of skincare benefits for numerous skincare concerns, including acne, anti-aging, and hyperpigmentation. This gentle chemical exfoliant may help to visibly shrink pores and can also help soften, smooth, and improve skin texture. Glycolic acid can be found in cleansers, lotions, gels, and other treatments designed to target enlarged pores, visible signs of aging, and dullness.
Who Should Use Glycolic Acid?Glycolic acid provides gentle chemical exfoliation that is generally well-tolerated by most skin types when used as part of a daily skincare routine. Its far-reaching benefits include a mild exfoliating effect that can make it an ideal choice for anyone suffering from enlarged pores, blackheads, wrinkles, dullness, dark spots, or acne blemishes. Those with dry or sensitive skin that is prone to irritation are best advised to start small and to stick with products with a low concentration of glycolic acid.
Is Extra Sun Protection Necessary When Using Glycolic Acid?
Daily sun protection is an essential part of every effective skincare routine and should be applied every morning, rain or shine. According to the FDA’s guidelines, a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher should be reapplied every two hours during extended periods of sun exposure, and direct sunlight should be avoided during peak hours of the day between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.2
This is especially crucial when using products containing glycolic acid, as this ingredient can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun’s rays. Therefore, taking extra precautions to protect against this increased vulnerability to UV damage is highly important. Always apply sunscreen consistently, 365 days a year, as part of your skincare regimen when using products containing glycolic acid.
Can Glycolic Acid Be Used With Other Skincare Ingredients?
Glycolic acid can be paired with a number of complementary skincare ingredients that ideally support skin hydration and a healthy skin barrier, such as ceramides. Like with all chemical skin exfoliants, it’s important to apply glycolic acid as directed in order to prevent or minimize any redness, flakiness, or peeling. CeraVe’s glycolic acid-containing skincare products are always formulated with three essential ceramides to help maintain and restore the skin’s natural barrier, which is responsible for helping to seal in moisture and keep impurities out.
Glycolic acid’s mild exfoliating effect is also sometimes paired with other similar skincare acids, like beta-hydroxy salicylic acid (BHA) or alpha-hydroxy lactic acid (AHA), to further promote surface cellular turnover for visibly smoother skin. Its ability to buff away layers of dead skin cells may also help enhance product absorption when paired with other complementary skincare ingredients. If you’re feeling unsure, it’s always best to speak with a dermatologist.
Is It Safe To Use Glycolic Acid Every Day?
The answer to this question will depend on your skin type, the product you choose, the percentage of glycolic acid in the product, and your existing skincare regimen. There are many gentle, yet effective products with glycolic acid that have been specially formulated for daily use to support healthy-looking skin. However, if you’re using glycolic acid for the first time, it may be best to first gauge your skin’s sensitivity to exfoliating acids with a patch test. Always read the usage instructions on the label carefully to avoid potential irritation from over-exfoliation and seek the help of a qualified dermatologist when in doubt for the best personalized recommendation.
How Is Glycolic Acid Different From Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid and glycolic acid are both well-known and effective ingredient options for helping to prevent and minimize breakouts, as well as other skin concerns. Since they are both alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), these two skin exfoliators work somewhat similarly. Their main function is to help exfoliate top layer dead skin cells that can clog pores, which can result in various skin concerns.
Lactic acid is generally viewed as the milder and gentler of these two AHAs, making it a great option for very sensitive skin, while glycolic acid penetrates deeply into the skin. This makes glycolic acid especially beneficial for acne-prone and oily skin types looking for more rapid results—or for anyone with stubborn breakouts on their body. There are many products that safely combine both glycolic acid and lactic acid for an effective two-in-one approach, or if preferred, it’s possible to try both ingredients separately and see which suits your skin type best.
- Sharad, Jaishree. “Glycolic acid peel therapy - a current review.” Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology vol. 6 281-8. 11 Nov. 2013, doi:10.2147/CCID.S34029
- “Tips to Stay Safe in the Sun: From Sunscreen to Sunglasses.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 24 May 2021.
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