It’s no secret glycolic acid is my favourite exfoliating ingredient. It truly does wonders for the skin. I didn’t believe it until I tried it myself, a few years ago. I had only used scrubs before (there really was nothing else in the shops when I was a teen), and loved the satisfaction I felt at seeing all that gunk come off my skin.
I sometimes miss that feeling. You don’t get it with glycolic acid. But you get something much better: a powerful ally in the fight against premature ageing. Glycolic acid is one of the workhorses of skincare, and, once you try it, you’ll never go back to scrubs again (just the thought of using one now makes me cringe!). Here’s why:
What’s Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid belongs to the alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) family, a group of substances with water-binding and exfoliating properties. Although they can be derived from milk and plants (glycolic acid from sugar cane), the types used in skincare products are usually made synthetically in a lab. Of all the AHAs, glycolic acid is the most used. That’s because it is the smallest. Its tiny size allows it to easily penetrate skin and work its magic.
Glycolic Acid Is An Effective Exfoliant
Glycolic acid is an effective exfoliating agent. It works by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together, thus allowing them to slough off. This brings to the surface the newer, smoother, more even toned, and younger-looking skin underneath. The result? Dark spots look lighter, fine lines and wrinkles smaller, and skin healthier, glower, and younger.
Glycolic Acid Is Better Than Physical Scrubs
“Ungluing” dead skin cells is a much better way to get rid of them than manual exfoliation. When you scrub your skin with sugar, apricot kernels, or plastic microbeads, you may spend a few seconds more on one area and less on another. As a result, you may remove more dead cells on your forehead and less on your cheeks.
If applied properly, glycolic acid produces a more precise exfoliation, and without lacerations. Some small particles, such as apricot kernels (which are often deemed gentle but are anything but), have really rough edges that can scratch and irritate skin. Stay away from them!
Glycolic Acid Can Improve Photoaged Skin
If those, for you, aren’t good enough reasons to switch from scrubs to glycolic acid based exfoliants, maybe this will convince you. Physical scrubs can only removes dead cells (and not always all that well). But glycolic acid does a lot more.
A 1998 study has shown that glycolic acid can boost collagen production. This was confirmed by another 2001 study, performed on hairless mice, which also showed that glycolic acid can increase thickness of the skin as well.
This leads to smoother, more elastic skin. Researches think this is why and how glycolic acid helps reduce visible signs of ageing like fine lines and wrinkles.
Glycolic Acid Moisturizes Skin Too
But wait, there’s more. Glycolic acid can also moisturize skin. It does so by increasing the levels of hyaluronic acid in the skin. Hyaluronic acid is a humectant (it can draw moisture from the environment into the skin) that can hold 1000 times its weight in water. Very hydrating, it makes skin look plumper too.
Sounds Great! Where’s The Catch?
I wish I could tell you there are none, but that wouldn’t be true. Glycolic acid can increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun, making it more prone to UV damage. Kinda ironic considering glycolic acid can actually improve photodamaged skin, isn’t it?
But don’t despair! Luckily, this problem is easy to fix. You have two options. You can use glycolic acid at night, before you go to bed, and wake up with glowing skin the morning after. Or, if you prefer to use it during the day, just apply sunscreen afterwards (that’s something you should be doing anyway!).
Who Should Use Glycolic Acid
As much as I like glycolic acid (and I hope you are pretty excited about it too by now), it is not for everyone. Because of its hydrating and anti-ageing properties, glycolic acid is ideal for those with dry and sun damaged skin.
If your skin is oily, then you’ll benefit more from salicylic acid. This ingredient has the ability to penetrate inside the pores, getting rid of all the gunk that would otherwise accumulate within them and, eventually cause breakouts.
How Much And How Often Should I Use It?
You can’t just buy a glycolic acid based exfoliant, slather it on your skin, and expect to look 10 years younger overnight. In OTC products, glycolic acid is used in small concentrations (usually under 15%) that work, but slowly.
If you want quicker results, you should consider glycolic acid peels, which range in concentrations of 20 to 70 percent. But don’t go looking for them on Amazon! Such peels are quite harsh, and should only be administered by a dermatologist to avoid serious side effects, like severe irritations.
Glycolic acid removes the outermost, dead layer of the skin. This layer has a very important job. It protects the raw, live skin underneath that’s not ready to come to the surface yet. When you remove some of these dead cells, skin looks younger, smoother, and brighter. But remove too many, and you can do some serious damage. Your skin won’t look pretty and will be quite painful!
OTC concentrations can cause irritations in some people too. That usually happens when you use a higher amount than your skin can tolerate, or exfoliate too often. A lot of experts say it is safe to use glycolic acid daily, but I’ve found that depends on the individual. Some people can tolerate glycolic acid daily, others can use it only two or three times a week or their skin starts acting out.
So experiment until you find the right concentration and frequency of application that best suits your skin. Start small and seldom. If you exfoliate too little, you can always increase concentration and/or frequency. Exfoliating too much, instead, can cause problems that will take a while to heal.
Oh, and don’t be tricked into buying cleansers and other rinsed-off products with glycolic acid. You’ll get some exfoliation if you massage them for a few minutes into your skin, but glycolic acid works much better when left on the skin for hours.
What Are The Best Products With Glycolic Acid?
There are a lot of great products with glycolic acid out there. If you’re overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, here are my favourite picks:
Paula’s Choice Resist Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA ($25.50): this fragrance-free exfoliant features 5% glycolic acid to exfoliate skin, leaving it brighter and smoother. It is also infused with antioxidants and hydrating ingredients that keep it soft and younger-looking.
Derma E Overnight Peel With Alpha Hydroxy Acids ($16.95): it contains three AHAs – 5% glycolic acid, lactic acid and malic acid – to exfoliate skin, and a few emollients to hydrate it. Ideal for dry skin, it leaves it smoother, brighter, and softer.
Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid Moisturizer ($45.00): this moisturizer contains 10% glycolic acid, which is time-released. Basically, rather than getting the full force of glycolic acid all at once, it is slowly released over a several hours period. This allows you to get all the benefits of glycolic acid without the risk of irritation.
Olay Regenerist Advanced Anti-Aging Night Resurfacing Elixir ($29.99): it features glycolic acid to exfoliate skin, glycerin to hydrate it, a bunch of antioxidants to help fight premature wrinkles. Unfortunately, the translucent bottle won’t let them stay stable for long, so keep it in its box, and expose it to light as little as possible.
DERMADOCTOR KP Duty Dermatologist Moisturizing Therapy For Dry Skin ($38.00): your body needs exfoliation too. Although this body cream is designed for those who suffer from kelatoris pilaris (a condition characterized by red, raised bumps on skin), it works well for normal and dry skin too. Infused with green tea, it also has antiageing properties.
The Bottom Line
Glycolic acid is an anti-ageing superstar. A must for dry and sun damaged skin, it exfoliates, hydrates, boots collagen production, and helps reduce wrinkles and hyperpigmentation. If you haven’t already, do add it to your skincare routine. You’ll be amazed at the results.
Do you love glycolic acid too? Or do you use something else to exfoliate your skin?