The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid

by Gio
glycolic acid complete guide

Are you still exfoliating with scrubs?

It’s time to switch things up and give glycolic acid a try.

I know, I know, scrubs can be addictive. But so can glycolic. I’ve never met anyone who made the switch and went back to scrubs.

Glycolic acid is an exfoliant on steroids. It gets rid of dead skin cells, hydrates your skin and keeps wrinkles at bay. Can your scrub keep up with that?

In case you’re still on the fence, I’ve put together this complete guide to glycolic acid. By the end, you’ll be ready to ditch scrubs for good. I promise. 🙂

What The Heck Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid belongs to the alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) family, a group of exfoliants derived from milk and plants. You’ll find glycolic acid in sugar cane. But the type used in cosmetics is usually made in a lab.

Glycolic acid is the most famous member of the family. That’s cos it’s the smallest. It can easily penetrate your skin so it works better and faster.

sunday riley good genes glycolic acid treatment

Glycolic Acid Is An Effective Exfoliant

Glycolic acid’s main job is exfoliation. It works by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off.

This top layer is the most damaged. These cells have become dull and rough. Darker even. Once they’re out of the way, your skin looks smoother, brighter and more even-toned.

Your dark spots slowly fade away. Wrinkles look smaller too. Your whole complexion glows.

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. You may remove more dead cells, let’s say, on the forehead and fewer on your cheeks.

Plus, they can irritate skin. Apricot kernels are the worst culprits but anything with rough and jarred edges can scratch skin. Spend a few seconds too long on one area and it’ll get all red and irritated.

Compare that with glycolic acid. You apply that all over, getting a more even and precise exfoliation WITHOUT lacerations.

Related: Physical VS Chemical Exfoliation: What’s The Difference?

Glycolic Acid Can Improve Photoaged Skin

If better exfoliation alone isn’t enough to make you switch, how about this? Glycolic acid can make you look younger.

Scrubs only remove dead cells from the surface of your skin. That’s it.

Glycolic acid goes the extra mile. It boosts collagen production, too.

Collagen is the protein that keeps your skin firm and elastic. The more collagen your skin has, the longer it keeps sagging and wrinkling at bay.

Scientists think this is how glycolic acid helps reduce the fine lines and wrinkles you already have, too.

the ordinary glycolic acid toning solution

Glycolic Acid Moisturizes Skin Too

Wait… there’s more!

Glycolic acid moisturizes skin, too. This acid increases the levels of hyaluronic acid in the skin. Hyaluronic acid is a moisture magnet that can hold 1000 times its weight in water!

Once your skin has all that moisture, it stays soft all day and looks plumper, too.

Related: Why You Should Add Hyaluronic Acid To Your Skincare Routine

Sounds Great! Where’s The Catch?

I wish I could tell you there are none… but that wouldn’t be true. Even roses have thorns…

Here goes: glycolic acid can increase skin’s sensitivity to the sun. In other words, you’re more prone to get sun damage if you use glycolic acid. Kinda ironic since it can treat it too, isn’t it?

So why should you use it, I hear you ask? Cos its positives far outweigh the negatives. Besides there’s an easy fix: wear your sunscreen. 🙂

One more thing: high concentrations can cause irritations. Start small and work your way up.

nip + fab glycolic fix overnight purifying gel

Who Should Use Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid ain’t for everyone. It’s a godsend for:

  • Dry skin: it exfoliates and hydrates at the same time.
  • Mature skin: it exfoliates and fights wrinkles at the same time.

Instead, avoid it if you have:

  • Oily, acne-prone skin: opt for salicylic acid, an exfoliant that unclog pores from within.
  • Sensitive skin: glycolic acid may be too harsh for your skin type.

Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Should you Use?

How Much And How Often Should I Use It?

If you want fast results, you need to get peels. They use between 20-70% glycolic acid but they’re super harsh on the skin. Don’t even think of buying them from Amazon. You can seriously destroy your skin. Save yourself the pain and go to a professional.

OTC concentrations are much lower (<15%) so they work more slowly. They can irritate skin too but not as severely. Still, start small. Use 5% a couple of times a week and slowly increase both dose and frequency. 

FYI, while we’re on the subject, don’t bother with cleansers with glycolic acid. Glycolic acid needs to stay on the skin for hours to work its magic. Rinse it down the drain and you won’t see much of an improvement.

Related: Do Exfoliating Cleansers Work?

What Are The Best Products With Glycolic Acid?

SHOP THE POST

The Bottom Line

Glycolic acid is an antiaging superstar. It exfoliates, hydrates, brightens, fades dark spots and wrinkles and even boosts collagen. Find a scrub that does all that!

Are you ready to make the switch to glycolic acid? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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47 comments

Janessa March 18, 2015 - 12:09 am

I’m currently using one by DDF. It’s their ‘10% glycolic exfoliating oil control gel salicylic acid 2% ace treatment’. What a mouthful to say but that’s what’s written on the pump bottle. I use it every few nights instead of retinol and sometimes during the day when I’m not outdoors much.

I don’t trust some skincare on Amazon. I used to order my vitamin C serums there and I occasionally still do, but a few of the brands seem to have fake reviews. Like I never even heard of them a month before and they now have a few hundred reviews? It just seems odd. I could be mistaken though.

Every now and then I do use this LUSH scrub that smells like cookie dough just because it smells so good. And the occasional scrub samples I get from Sephora. 😀

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Gio March 18, 2015 - 3:12 pm

Janessa, oh the power of a good scent. When something smells that good, it’s impossible not to use it.

Could it be that they’re bloggers’ reviews? I know on Goodreads a lot of people write reviews of books before they come out. They get an advanced copy from the publisher who hopes to attract interest in the book. Not sure if those brands use the same tactic. But if they are small and unknown, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. You never know. Some may get friends to write fake reviews.

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Vanity March 18, 2015 - 5:32 am

I’ve read AHAs are pH sensitive and that it’s crucial to make sure products containing them are between pH 3 and 4.5. Any truth to this and if so, is there any way to determine whether a product falls within this range?

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Gio March 18, 2015 - 3:49 pm

Vanity, yes, that’s true. Unfortunately, it’s often impossible to determine the ph of a product. You could do a test using ph strips. Or, sometimes, a product contains ingredients that work well at a basic ph and others at an alkaline one, so you know that something is off.

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Sage March 24, 2015 - 7:22 am

I love Glycolic and swear by it! I’m a few weeks away from my 40th birthday and most people place my firm, wrinkle-free face in the first half of my 30s. I always thought I’d be buying myself botox or fillers for my 40th, but no need 🙂 I’ve been using glycolic acid since my 20s.

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Gio March 24, 2015 - 8:20 pm

Sage, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? Definitely one of the best treatments for anti-aging, and a great help in keeping botox away. 🙂

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SK May 8, 2016 - 3:50 pm

Hi Sage, may I ask what concentration of Glycolic acid you have been using?

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Stavroula DrugstoreBLover March 26, 2015 - 3:11 am

I actually have a serum that contains both AHA and BHA and I love it! 😉

http://www.iherb.com/Earth-Science-Active-Age-Defense-A-B-Hydroxy-Acid-Night-Rejuvenator-1-fl-oz-30-ml/21481

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Gio March 27, 2015 - 9:09 pm

Stavroula, sounds great!

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SK May 8, 2016 - 3:49 pm

Hi Gio
First off, I am grateful to you for all the advice.

I am a 26 year old male and am considering starting Paula’s choice 8% AHA. Using it daily in the morning followed by SPF.

Q1) Do you think its too early an age to start?
Q2) I know my skin can tolerate 8% AHA daily. Is daily use too frequent?

please let me know

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Gio June 10, 2016 - 1:34 pm

SK, I think it’s great that you want to start taking better care of your skin. And nope, 26 is definitely not too early too start.

And that depends. If your skin can tolerate it, then there’s no reason why you can’t use it daily.

Hope this helps.

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Xy June 3, 2016 - 4:34 pm

I like to ask if I can use the glycolic mosituriser of Thomas Peter Roth on my eyes area. My eyes area are extremely dry. Will it be too harsh?

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Gio June 10, 2016 - 1:31 pm

Xy, you won’t know until you try it. but yes, that’s a possibility.

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Xy June 13, 2016 - 3:39 pm

I have been reading your blog and understand that mosituriser are good enough for the under eye as well. But I ended up buying the glycolic gel which is suitable for all skin types instead of the mosituriser. I find the gel not mositurisering enough. I will try the cream one next. The thing is it stated on the bottle to avoid with eyes and mucous membranes. Not so sure what it meant. I did apply a thin layer under my eye, so far not much of adverse effects.

Such a pity you don’t do reviews on Korean or Japanese products. I’m from Asia and it’s very popular here.

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Gio June 16, 2016 - 10:37 pm

XY, I find most creams and gels say “not suitable for the eye area”, yet they contain the same ingredients as eye creams! As long as they don’t contain fragrance or any other irritating ingredients, you can safely use them.

It’s funny you mention that, because I have just got a couple of Korean products. They’re makeup products, but skincare stuff may follow soon. 🙂

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Rajesh January 15, 2018 - 7:26 am

Hi Gio
I hv been hv a good time reading ur blog
Currently I’m using Caudalie glycolic mask 10 mins 2 t
times week
I want to switch to the Ordinary glycolic toner
How do I use it
Tqvm

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Gio January 19, 2018 - 4:01 pm

Rajesh, you can use it every other night after cleansing. 🙂

Sherry G August 21, 2016 - 6:26 pm

There is a very affordable brand with good AHA options. It’s Alpha Skincare, formerly known as Alpha Hydrox. It gets high ratings on.Beautypedia.

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Gio August 21, 2016 - 9:39 pm

Sherry, thanks for sharing. I think I tried one of their products and it was very good indeed.

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Ella March 18, 2017 - 5:43 pm

The only thing I’m concerned about is indirect premature ageing caused by exfoliation which speeds up the skin’s renewal process. Apparently a skin cell itself ages and the number of times it renews itself is the way it ages. I wonder if there is a bigger price to pay later.

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Gio March 20, 2017 - 7:26 pm

Ella, in moderation, it is fine. You can check out this article for more information: https://www.truthinaging.com/review/the-truth-about-hayflick-limit

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Sheryl Joyce March 25, 2017 - 5:40 pm

The best EVER article I have EVER read about glycolic acid. You sum it all up beautifully. Thank you! I am subscribing to your blog.

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Gio March 25, 2017 - 9:17 pm

Sheryl, thank you! So glad you loved the article and thanks for subscribing,

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Johanna April 12, 2017 - 4:28 pm

Hi – I was so happy when your blog came up in my search results; I was trying tonremember the name of the swelling/irritation that glycolic acid can create. I didn’t find it in your post, but having read it I am leaving my first ever comment/question:

My understanding is it glycolic acid is not chirally correct and can have a damaging effect on skin over the long-term. Can you please address this issue of chirality? Thanks so much!

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Gio April 21, 2017 - 8:27 pm

Johanna, I will do a post about it or edit this one. In the meantime, you can check this out: https://www.cosmedixuk.com/skin-cop-constance-campion-chirality-vs-glycolic-acids-part-2/

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Kate October 16, 2017 - 4:52 pm

I just spent a boatload of money on glycolic acid and a variety of other products by dr. Dennis gross (before I found your blog) do you know anything about his products or have you ever done a review?

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Gio October 19, 2017 - 12:41 pm

Kate, I find it to be a good line most of the time. I’m a big fan of the Retinol + Ferulic Acid serums for eyes and face but their exfoliating products use a bit too much alcohol for my liking. Having said that, if you apply a good moisturiser afterwards and don’t have sensitive skin, the alcohol content likely won’t be a problem.

You may also find this post interesting:http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/dr-dennis-gross-best-worst-average/

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Kelly October 29, 2017 - 2:35 am

Great info, thank you! I’m excited to try one of these. I too have used scrubs in the past. This may be a silly question- but if you use glycolic do you still need a manual exfoliant – or will the dead skin dissolve naturally when washing your face?

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Gio November 5, 2017 - 4:43 pm

Kelly, no, if you use glycolic acid you don’t need a manual exfoliant. Glycolic acid and manual exfoliation do the same thing so you only need to pick one. 🙂

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Shalini April 6, 2018 - 5:38 am

Detailed read on glycolic acids!Thank you! I’m very new to these acids.. I have combination to dry skin..occasional breakouts, but loads of stuborn blackheads here and there..I’m 32 and would like to know if it’s ok to start off with 5% glycolic acid toner.. would it help?

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Gio April 8, 2018 - 11:21 am

Shalini, if your main concern is blackheads, salicylic acid would be a better option. You can find more about it here: http://giorgiaguazzarotti.com/nadine-rohner-interview/

Unlike salicylic acid, glycolic acid won’t get inside the pores and unclog them from within. So try salicylic first and, once the blackheads have disappeared, you can switch to glycolic.

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Mag May 15, 2018 - 4:36 pm

Hi. I’m 27 and I apply a glycolic acid serum every night and I was wondering, should I also start retinol? I keep reading that it’s an essential part of a nighttime skincare routine but how is it different from glycolic acid. Do I need it or is glycolic acid enough?
If you think it’s essential that I start using it, how should I incorporate it into my nighttime routine considering that I also use glycolic acid, and what are the best products in your opinion?
Sorry for all the questions and thanks!

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Gio May 27, 2018 - 6:50 am

Meg, retinol (and all forms of vitamin A) is the only thing that’s proven to reduce wrinkles once they’ve appeared. It also boosts collagen production, preventing them in the first place. If you’re serious about anti aging, you should add it to your skincare routine indeed.

The best way to start would be to pick a product with a low amount of retinol and alternate it with the glycolic acid at night. One night glycolic, the other retinol…

You can check out my tips on how to use retinol and what products to try here: http://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/strength-retinol-need/

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Shauntel Suire May 31, 2018 - 1:18 am

Hi! I’ve been using a moisturizer with Glycolic Acid copolymer. Does it have the same potency as Glycolic Acid? And does it cause sun sensitivity? I’ve only been applying sunscreen in the morning under my makeup. I’m wondering if that’s enough protection?

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Gio June 2, 2018 - 2:51 pm

Shauntel, if you’re applying the recommended amount of sunscreen (about 1/4 teaspoon for the face), it’s protection enough. It’ll exfoliate your skin without side effects.

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Christine October 11, 2018 - 4:56 am

Hello, first thank you for so much information on glycerin acid. It was actually difficult to search for info about it that was not from generalized websites that lack more depth about it. After reading the 2 articles linked here, I want to know if PHAs and BHAs also can be safe for daily use without shortening the Hayflick Limit on our skin?

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Gio October 21, 2018 - 4:56 pm

Christine, the Hayflick Limit doesn’t really apply to exfoliation. This post explains why: http://thebeautybrains.com/2014/04/does-exfoliating-make-you-run-out-of-skin-the-beauty-brains-show-episode-24/

Having said that, I wouldn’t use any exfoliant every day unless my skin were really oily and resistant. Dead cells are there for a reason: to protect the raw skin underneath from sun damage, pollution etc. If you exfoliate daily, you may remove too many dead cells and irritate your skin.

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KR January 12, 2019 - 11:54 pm

Hi! I have a glycolic acid toner. Can I use with vitamin C serum? Does the order matter?

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Gio January 24, 2019 - 7:19 pm

KR, that could be too irritating. Use Vitamin C in the morning and glycolic acid at night.

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sam April 1, 2019 - 2:48 am

Hi Gio,
Thank you for the interesting article and informative comments. I am 41, normal – dry skin. Never used glycolic acid. Do you think 10% pads could be a good start to reduce pores and even wrinkles like crow feet, frown and smile lines? Would you suggest any brand?
Thanks!

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Gio April 4, 2019 - 11:20 am

Sam, I’d start with 5% and see how your skin takes it before upgrading. A common mistake with exfoliation is that people use higher concentrations or exfoliate every day to get faster results… and it massively backfires! Overexfoliation just irritate skin and it can take a while to recover from it.

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Tanvi August 30, 2019 - 11:21 pm

Hi Gio, just discovered your website serendipitously and I’m so impressed with all the information. I’ve been reading it for the last hour!
I’m 34 with normal/combination skin – shamefully, not very well looked after – but it’s been not too bad considering, so far. However my pores have become visibly larger in the last couple of years, and recently I’ve noticed fine lines & crows feet under my eyes (I’ve always had bad dark circles too).
Because of that and the general dullness of my skin I’ve been wanting to incorporate AHAs or BHA into my skincare (and improve my routine generally!). Would you recommend glycolic or salicylic acid for my skin please?
And any recommendations for eye care? Thanks!

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Gio September 14, 2019 - 5:30 pm

Tanvi, thank you for your kind words. So glad you’re enjoying the website. Try salicylic acid. Or you can go for a product that has both, like Drunk elephant Glycolic Night Serum.

For eye care, check out this post: https://www.beautifulwithbrains.com/do-you-really-need-an-eye-cream/

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Dj September 20, 2019 - 12:17 am

Hi, can you help me figure this out like how to combine it? I have here the vit c serum, vit a retinol and glycolic acid, i dont know the how to order that for AM and PM..

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Gio October 5, 2019 - 5:03 pm

DJ, Vitamin C in the morning. At night, alternate retinol and glycolic acid.

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Monica October 8, 2019 - 5:43 am

Hi Gio,
Thanks for the great info!
I have been using The Ordinary granactive retanoid 2% for a few months now every night, and I recently ran out of my scrub so was looking at using a non physical exfoliant like Glycolic Acid instead, for exfoliating purposes, how many times a week would you recommend the glycolic? I’m 30 and at night I currently the Retinoid followed by Hyluranoic Acid for moisture and then a simple night creme. In the day I put on Hylurnoic and then a spf 30 Mineral BB cream. Thanks in advance 🙂

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Gio November 8, 2019 - 7:29 am

Monica, alternate it at night with retinol. One night glycolic, the following retinol.

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