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What Is Glycolic Acid? – Impact, Its Work, Benefits and More

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid is a kind of alpha hydroxy acid (or AHA) derived from sugar cane. It combines other acids that you might recognize, such as lactic acid (derived from cottage cheese and reportedly Cleopatra’s favourite), tartaric acid (from grapes), and citric acid, which you might imagine comes from citrus fruits.

But it’s unique. “Of the AHAs, glycolic is the simplest in structure and the smallest; it has the lowest molecular weight,” says Kenneth Howe, MD, a dermatologist at Union Derma in New York. The low molecular weight means “it’s easy to penetrate the skin and very effective,” says Alix Shapiro, a skin therapist at Heyday in New York.

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What Is the Impact of Glycolic Acid on Your Skin?

The list goes on when it originates with the benefits of glycolic acid. First of all, It is an exfoliating agent. It helps to shed dead skin cells and opens up new, brighter layers underneath, targeting the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of the skin). “A normal, intact stratum corneum is made up of densely packed layers of dead skin cells tightly held together,” says Dr. Howe. When the adhesive dissolves in it, these complex, rough layers of dead skin cells are more easily peeled off. “Glycolic acid weakens these bonds.”

“Glycolic acid stimulates fibroblasts to produce in the dermis more collagen,” says Dr. Howe. Calculating collagen production helps skin appear firmer and minimizes fine lines and wrinkles. But because it is tiny, it can also penetrate deeper into the skin, where it does some serious work. Between the simple action on the stratum corneum and the work it does underneath, “your skin will look smoother, more radiant, and more even,” says Shapiro.

How Do You Apply Glycolic Acid to Your Skin?

As with any exfoliator, it’s best to start small if you have sensitive or irritated skin. To do this, Shapiro recommends using it to wash your face. “A glycolic cleanser can acclimate your skin rather than diving directly into an acid-free glycolic product if you’re not sure your skin can handle it,” she says. Try one that combines it with moisturizing ingredients, like Glow Recipe’s Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser, which contains hyaluronic acid.

Is Glycolic Acid Suitable For All Skin Types?

“This is best for normal, combination, and oily skin,” says Shapiro. But, like everything else, it is not for everyone. “People with susceptible, dry skin often react to irritation,” the doctor says. Howe.

“Any method can irritate them, whether it’s a topical product, an exfoliating pad for home use, or an office peel.” It is also vital to consider the seasonal aspect. “In winter, when your skin’s barrier function can be compromised (and therefore, your skin feels dry or chapped), this can lead to deeper penetration and, in a word, irritation.

In the summer, this makes glycolic acid more dangerous, as it can make you sensitive to the sun. On the other hand, sun exposure can speed up skin renewal and therefore exfoliate it naturally. (Though no matter what time of year or where you go, using SPF is a must, especially after exfoliating.)

How Does Glycolic Acid Work?

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecules of any AHA.1 This allows glycolic acid to be absorbed into the skin and exfoliate even better than other AHAs.

It accelerates cell turnover. In other words, it breaks the bonds that hold skin cells together. This is because your skin can shed dead cells faster than on its own.

It also enhances the skin’s collagen production. Collagen is a protein that gives the skin firmness, firmness, and elasticity. It also helps your bones and connective tissues to be stronger.

The skin generates less collagen as we age. When you spend too much time in the sun, collagen is also damaged. A daily dose of glycolic acid can aid in the prevention of collagen breakdown.

What Effect Does It Have On Your Skin?

Glycolic acid is a standard therapy for a variety of reasons.

  • Anti-Aging: Improves skin tone and texture by smoothing fine wrinkles.
  • Hydration: Fills the skin and prevents it from drying out.
  • Sun Damage: Lightens dark spots caused by sun damage and protects collagen from the sun.
  • Complexion: Brightens the skin with regular use.
  • Exfoliation: Prevents ingrown hairs and reduces pore size, helping the skin to remove dead skin cells.
  • Acne: Cleans pores, preventing comedowns, blackheads, and inflamed pimples.

While many sites claim it may remove scars, this is not true. It can brighten dark stains caused by pimples or other lesions. It can also soften elevated, pitted scars but will not remove them. The best treatment for blemishes is a professional glycolic acid peel or other scar treatment.

Benefits of Glycolic Acid Skin Care

Glycolic acid is a kind of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) commonly used to treat aging, hyperpigmentation, dryness, and acne. Considered the gold standard of the AHA, the keratolytic properties of it exfoliate dead surface skin cells. This exfoliation decreases fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and pimples.

Glycolic acid, derived from sugar cane, is also a humectant, meaning it has the chemical ability to draw moisture to itself. This means that it draws water into freshly exfoliated skin, which, when used correctly, hydrates dry skin and prevents new lines and wrinkles from forming. Top 8 Glycolic Acid Skin Care Benefits

  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
  • Brightens and evens out the complexion
  • Small and mighty
  • Increases penetration of ingredients
  • Hydrates dry skin
  • The hyperpigmentation disappears
  • Fight acne
  • Safe for lipids


Glycolic and salicylic acids treat acne vulgaris, scars, and hyperpigmentation. Glycolic and salicylic acid peels also lighten superficial scars and improve skin texture. Both acids were well tolerated both in the immediate and post-peeling periods. However, erythema, burning sensation, dryness, and scaling were more familiar with salicylic acid peels, but these complications were temporary.

Based on the number of lesions and overall improvement in the visual scale, glycolic acid and salicylic acid are effective monotherapies in treating acne. However, the cost of treatment and frequent visits can be a limiting factor in patient compliance.

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