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Does Glycolic Acid Benefit Your Skin? What It Actually Does

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Using skincare products based on alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHA) has a looong tradition. You can keep all of your skin concerns, hyperpigmentation, acne, and aging skin, under control with one ingredient. Isn’t that awesome? First, though, let’s start with the root of where all this is coming from.

What are AHAs?

AHAs are water-soluble acids that can occur naturally as acid components of certain botanicals, like sugary fruits, but can also be generated synthetically. They help peel away the surface of your skin so that new skin cells may generate and take their place. The best examples of AHAs are lactic acid, citric acid, and glycolic acid. However, our focus today is on the simplest AHA, which is glycolic acid (GA). “Of the AHAs, glycolic is the simplest in structure and the smallest; it has the lowest molecular weight,” says Kenneth Howe, M.D., a dermatologist at Wexler Dermatology in New York City for glamour.com. The small molecular weight means that it can penetrate your skin quickly and is super effective!

What is glycolic acid?

As mentioned, glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid, highly soluble in water. Mostly used by cosmeticians as a medium-strength chemical peel, glycolic acid is also present in cosmetics in lower concentrations. Due to its ability to penetrate the skin, glycolic acid has applications in skincare products, most often as an exfoliator. Naturally, glycolic acid occurs in sugar cane yet can be obtained synthetically. Both are loaded with benefits and entirely safe for use. Synthetic glycolic acid is not hazardous or anything like that. In fact, most of the skincare products with glycolic acid use the synthetic form because it has higher concentrations of skin-nourishing vitamins than its natural equivalent.

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However, skincare products with glycolic acid may make skin photosensitive. As a consequence, the U.S. regulations are strict regarding the use of GA. Based on the available information, glycolic acid is safe for use in cosmetic products at concentrations ≤ of 10%. You shouldn’t use anything higher than 10% at home because the higher the percentage, the more likely it is to penetrate the skin deeper. Even if that might sound good, it can actually worsen your skin condition, causing a chemical burn. Anything that’s more than 10% should be applied only by a dermatologist.

What does glycolic acid do to my skin?

According to board-certified dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo, the main function of glycolic acid is to exfoliate the skin, or as she explains, it’s “ungluing dead cells from each other.” Once applied, glycolic acid reacts with the epidermis’ upper layer, weakening the lipids’ binding properties that hold the dead skin cells together. In this way, it allows the outermost layer to be exfoliated, producing new skin cells.

When to use glycolic acid

Exfoliation is crucial for everyone, no matter what skin concern you have or if you have any. Dead skin cell accumulation can encourage other underlying skin issues, such as wrinkles, age spots, or pimples. By helping the cells turnover, exfoliation boosts the skin’s overall radiance, keeping it healthy and rested. Thus, whenever you feel your skin is being dull, rough, it’s breaking out, or you want to get rid of some scars left behind from spots, then glycolic acid is for you.

Dull skin

Even the healthiest skin will look dull when pores get clogged with oil and dead skin cells. Once you remove them, your face will appear brighter. With each use, you’ll likely notice that your skin is smoother, more even, and brightened.

Blemishes

When dead cells stick together, they clog pores and can lead to acne. But since glycolic acid works to help you get rid of these dead skin cells, it’ll unclog your pores, so you’ll have fewer breakouts. Dr. Melda Isaac, a board-certified dermatologist based in Washington, D.C., affirmed that glycolic acid could get down into the hair follicles and loosen up the built-up sebum and proteins that could lead to blackheads and breakouts. So, in case your skin is acne-prone, glycolic acid can help.

Rough, dry texture

Similar to physical scrubs, glycolic acid sloughs away flaky patches of the skin. Also, it helps transfer water molecules from the air to the skin, replenishing lost moisture.

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Photodamage

Topical application of skincare products formulated with glycolic acid effectively diminishes the effects of sun damage. During a clinical trial study at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, 74 women (40-70 years) with photodamaged skin have applied a cream containing 8% glycolic acid for 22 weeks. By the end of the trial, the treatment with glycolic acid cream was superior in improving the overall severity of photodamage and sallowness. 

Pigmentation, scars

Pigmentation and some scars only affect the top layer of the skin. So, with every removed layer, scars will fade away and appear less noticeable.

Mature skin

Because glycolic acid has such small molecules, it can get deep into your skin, where it does an excellent job. Glycolic acid stimulates fibroblasts in the dermis to produce increased collagen amounts, making your skin appear plumper. This research shows that glycolic acid has a precise stimulatory effect on collagen production. 

Products absorption

The exfoliating properties of glycolic acid make it great for prepping your skin for other products, and it also sets it up for better makeup application.

When NOT to use glycolic acid

Whether your skin is dry or highly sensitive, glycolic acid can react to it with irritation. You should consider the seasonal factor too. During the summer, glycolic acid makes your skin sensitive to sunlight. Conversely, in the cold season, when your skin’s barrier might be at risk (of getting dry), it will allow for deeper penetration, which can lead to irritation. Pretty nasty! However, no matter the time of the year, always apply SPF, especially after exfoliating. And for the best, don’t forget to use your glycolic acid product at night.

Side effects of glycolic acid application

Although uncommon, some people can have reactions to glycolics, such as itching and burning sensations. You’re more prone to this if your skin is dry or sensitive.

How should I use my glycolic acid products?

As with exfoliants in general, it’s better to start with small amounts. You can start using it in a cleanser or a toner. In case your skin is already used to glycolic acid, it’s OK to apply creams or serums formulated with this hero ingredient.

Remember, glycolic acid makes skin sensitive to light, so better to use it in the evening. Doing so gives enough time for it to do its magic trick without the risk of damaging your skin. Still, apply an SPF moisturizer in the morning. Experts also recommend using glycolic acid and retinol together. Retinol is another great skincare ingredient that, when combined with glycolic acid, can improve the appearance of photodamaged skin better than glycolic acid alone. I know that glycolic acid and retinol are considered by most people two worlds apart as far as skincare is concerned. But you still can give them a shot, especially if you feel your skin can tolerate them. Studies revealed that the combination of retinol and glycolic acid works very effectively and is considered to aid in skin rejuvenation.

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Can I use glycolic acid daily?

How often you can use glycolic acid mainly depends on the product’s concentration and your skin’s tolerance. But, as a general rule, products with between 5 to 10% concentration should be used two to three times per week or daily if your dermatologist recommends it. Glycolic acid peelings of 30% or higher should be limited to once every two weeks.

Final words

Glycolic acid is here to stay, as it has plenty of skin benefits. Even if it comes with some restrictions when using it, your skin can only take advantage of glycolic acid as long as you’re concerned about these.

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