Glycolic Acid in Skincare, Explained

Glycolic Acid in Skincare

By now, everyone, even the people who’ve been living under a rock, knows about glycolic acid in skincare. One way or another, it’s made its way into your skincare routine. And it’s because of the fact that it’s pretty much in everyone’s skincare routine, whether in the form of daily exfoliation or monthly peels, the superficial information about glycolic acid is not enough anymore.

When an ingredient is everywhere, recommended by dermatologists, and comes in several different products, you end up with more questions than you had in the beginning. We know it’s an exfoliant, but what makes it so popular? We know it helps with acne, but who’s stopping us from using it in much higher concentrations?

Do you see what I mean? I talk a lot about it here too. So I’ve decided to put together a Q&A on glycolic acid. Keep reading to learn more about it and how to properly use it.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) used in skincare as an exfoliant to promote skin turnover. Glycolic acid is water-soluble and it’s usually derived from sugar cane.

Even though it was widely used in dermatological procedures like chemical peels, glycolic acid has since then made its way into daily skincare products.

Glycolic acid comes in the form of serums, toners, peel pads, cleansers, and creams. It’s the most popular alpha-hydroxy acid because its small molecular weight makes it more penetrating and, therefore more effective, than other AHAs.

What Are the Benefits of Glycolic Acid For the Skin?

Broadly speaking, glycolic acid is both anti-aging and anti-acne and helps all that’s related to these two concerns. Here’s more.

Benefits and Side Effects of Glycolic Acid

1. It Promotes Clear Skin

First and foremost, glycolic acid is the gold standard for exfoliating skin. Glycolic acid targets the outer layer of your skin and weakens the bond that holds dead skin cells together. It’s one of the most popular ingredients to clear clogged pores and blackheads and minimize acne.

2. It Softens Skin Texture

Glycolic acid stimulates skin turnover. As a result, it smooths out the skin texture and eliminates rough, flaky skin. When dead skin cells are shed off, the revealing skin looks more vibrant and radiant and feels smoother and softer.

3. It Minimizes Wrinkles and Lines

Glycolic acid is one of the most popular and effective anti-aging ingredients. It stimulates collagen production. This helps soften the look of fine lines and wrinkles as well.

4. It Reduces Discolorations

As an exfoliant, glycolic acid helps reduce discolorations like dark spots and brightens skin. That’s why it’s commonly formulated into skincare products that reduce hyperpigmentation.

5. It Hydrates

Moreover, glycolic acid increases your skin’s hyaluronic acid production and epidermal thickness, resulting in smoother, healthier, and plumper skin.

What Are the Drawbacks of Glycolic Acid?

The most common side effect of glycolic acid is irritation. By default, it’s a potential irritant and it’s all because of its penetrating abilities. As with any other chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid can irritate your skin and cause redness and sensitivity.

But you can avoid this drawback simply by slowly introducing glycolic acid into your routine. Avoid using it too frequently, which can also lead to irritation.

Additionally, glycolic acid can make your skin vulnerable to sunlight. Make sure you wear SPF regularly to protect your skin when you’re using glycolic acid or any type of exfoliant.

Who Should Use Glycolic Acid?

In theory, you can use glycolic acid if you’re dealing with wrinkles, acne, hyperpigmentation, flakiness, and roughness. Anyone with normal, oily, and overall tolerant skin can use glycolic acid to address their issues.

However, you shouldn’t use glycolic acid if your skin is dry, or sensitive, or if you have a skin condition like rosacea.

How To Use Glycolic Acid in Your Skincare

You can only collect the benefits if you know how to properly use glycolic acid. So here’s the first rule: use only one glycolic acid product. It doesn’t matter if it’s a glycolic acid serum or a toner. Get one product and start with that.

Use it once a week at night for a whole month and see how your skin changes. More importantly, see if there’s any recently formed redness. It may be a sign of over-exfoliation and you might need to reduce the frequency.

Once your skin gets used to glycolic acid, you can increase the frequency and can even try higher concentrations.

How Often Should You Use Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic isn’t something like an acne treatment. So there’s no need to use it every single day. I can’t imagine a scenario where your skin needs exfoliation every single day.

Having said that, there’s no rule out there for this. It’s an exfoliant. And generally, dermatologists recommend exfoliating 1-3 times a week. But you know your skin best. And as I said, there is such a thing as over-exfoliation.

How To Apply Glycolic Acid

Even though this depends on your product, make sure you apply your glycolic acid on clean, dry skin. If your skin is wet, it’ll be more absorbing. So glycolic acid can cause irritation if you apply it when your skin is wet.

If it’s a glycolic acid toner, get a few drops on a cotton pad and wipe it evenly on dry skin. Wait for it to dry before moving on to other products. If it’s a serum, get a few drops and apply it after your toners and serums are fully absorbed.

If it’s a cream, apply it as the last step of your routine. Whatever product you’re using, sunscreen is vital. As glycolic acid can temporarily make your skin prone to sunburn, you should wear sunscreen. If you don’t, glycolic acid can cause hyperpigmentation.

Can Glycolic Acid Cause Purging?

If you readily deal with acne, glycolic acid can temporarily worsen acne aka purging. Even if you don’t really struggle with acne, you can experience breakouts at first which eventually disappear.

This is usually because glycolic acid increases skin turnover and it reveals underlying impurities. But it’s only to get rid of them. The only way to make sure it’s a temporary purging and not signs of over-exfoliation is to stick with the “start slowly” rule.

What Can’t You Mix With Glycolic Acid?

There are certain ingredients you should avoid mixing with glycolic acid. This is to avoid irritating your skin, which may require a long break from using active ingredients in your routine.

Even if you have normal skin and a healthy skin barrier, slathering it with heavy active ingredients will cause problems. As a general rule, don’t layer glycolic acid with other exfoliants like lactic acid or salicylic acid. And don’t use retinol or vitamin C in the same routine you use glycolic acid.

Remember that combining active ingredients also means combining two separate potential irritants. So if you’re using glycolic acid and want to add in retinol to better target acne, you may experience a worse case of skin purging, which will make you cut things short without benefiting from either of the ingredients.

The best way to layer acids is to assign days of the week for each. Use a retinol product one day and use glycolic acid one day. Use your vitamin C serum during the day and your glycolic acid toner in the evening. Keep things separate to be safe.

On the other hand, ingredients that aren’t potential irritants can be layered with glycolic acid. Hyaluronic acid or other humectants that simply hydrate or emollients that increase moisture can be used together with glycolic acid in the same routine.

Read Next: The Best Drugstore Glycolic Acid Products

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