When it comes to acids and peels, you might conjure up a frightening image of the scene in “Sex and the City” where Samantha gets an averse, red-faced reaction from her chemical peel just days before Carrie’s book launch party. But, when used correctly, your skin will not actually peel off with a peel. The hero of these acids is glycolic: an exfoliating staple that can be found in many beauty products, from cleansers to masks and moisturizers. Glycolic acid exfoliants are gentle for most skin types, and they are considered safer and less abrasive than scrubs (which can cause tiny lacerations on your skin when used carelessly or too often).
Ready to reach glowy, soft skin nirvana? We tapped skincare experts to explain the ins and outs of incorporating a glycolic acid exfoliator into your routine. Of course, it is always a good idea to check in with your dermatologist whether or not a new routine is right for you, but we have a feeling after brushing up on our handy guide, you will not need much convincing that glycolic is the ingredient your regimen is missing.
Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) is a group of naturally-derived and synthetic acids that gently exfoliate the top layers of the skin revealing a brighter, more even complexion.
AHA can be used by anyone looking to reduce the appearance of fine lines while smoothing and evening skin. It also brightens the appearance of dull-looking skin.
Use products containing AHA after cleansing and toning and before moisturizing. When you first start with AHA use it every other day, then gradually increase usage to once daily. Check in with your derm when using AHA and retinol together.
What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (or AHA) that is used as a chemical exfoliant, explains Dendy Engelman, M.D., F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist at Medical Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery in New York. “Derived from sugarcane, it’s the smallest acid in size, meaning the molecule can get deep into the skin” she goes on to note. This deep penetration allows the glycolic acid to unglue the dead skin cells from one another in the layers underneath the stratum corneum (the outermost skin layer). This makes glycolic acid a very effective ingredient for exfoliation.
Basically, glycolic acid helps break down the skin cells and removes dead particles while addressing skin concerns like pigment unevenness and fine lines. Glycolic acid also stimulates cell turnover and generation. This process of removing dead skin and replacing it with new, fresh cells helps the skin look brighter and healthier.
Glycolic acid has also been known to help the skin with the production of elastin and collagen. This allows the skin to heal faster, feel firmer, and be better protected against environmental pollution and damage.
What is glycolic acid used for?
“It is often used to even out pigment, skin tone, blur fine lines and combat aging. By exfoliating and stimulating collagen production, it helps to address these concerns on your face and sun-exposed areas. It is also helpful for follicular disorders, like keratosis pilaris or ‘chicken skin’ on the arms and legs,” says board-certified dermatologist Michele Farber, M.D., F.A.A.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York. “It’s safe to use on other areas in addition to your face, like the back, chest, neck and arms,” adds Engelman.
Should I use glycolic acid?
Generally, glycolic acid is great for all skin types (and safe to use during pregnancy), but “those with dry or mature skin will benefit the most because of the acid’s ability to penetrate deep into the skin to even out your tone and smooth out fine lines,” says Engelman.
While a glycolic acid exfoliator is much gentler on your skin than a scrub, if you are trying to treat acne or you have super sensitive skin, just make sure it is mixed properly with your other skincare products. “People with acne often use retinoids, retinols, or other ingredients that dry out your skin, so it’s best to not use them in tandem with glycolic acid to prevent irritation and inflammation that could lead to further breakouts,” says Farber. Instead, apply retinol in the evening and use glycolic in the morning to clear away dead skin and increase radiance — and do not forget to apply SPF.
What other ingredients should you be mindful of when layering other products?
“Glycolic acid plays well with other AHAs and BHAs (beta hydroxy acids like salicylic), just use it more slowly with other acids so you don’t overwhelm your skin. It can also be paired with ceramides or hyaluronic acid for hydration,” says Farber.
Speaking of BHAs, what’s the main difference?
“AHAs are water-soluble while BHAs are oil-soluble. While AHAs exfoliate the skin’s surface, BHAs are able to act inside the pores. In choosing an exfoliant based on skin type, glycolic acid is better tolerated by dry skin, and salicylic acid is helpful for oily skin,” says Farber.
Are there different strengths of glycolic acid you can consider?
Choosing the right strength of glycolic acid should be personalized to your skin type. “It often varies between five and 20 percent in at-home products. A higher percentage is better for oily skin as it can be more drying, while a lower percentage is better for sensitive skin or if you’re introducing it into your routine for the first time. Starting at a lower concentration and working your way up slowly gives you time to see what your skin can tolerate,” says Farber.
For those with acne or dark marks, higher strengths in the form of a chemical peel are available in the dermatologist’s office.
How often should you use glycolic acid?
“In a cleanser, glycolic [acid] may be tolerated every day since it has short contact with your skin. Even at a lower strength, leave-on products like serums, toners or peel pads can be more irritating since the product sits on your skin for a longer period of time. For leave-on products, start using them a few times a week or less depending on the concentration of glycolic acid,” Farber adds. When in doubt, start with every other day for two weeks and see how your skin reacts to the product before building up to daily use.
What are the immediate and long-term results?
When using a glycolic acid exfoliant, you will notice softer, smoother skin right away, which is why it continues to be a top pick in skincare products. “However, as with all active ingredients, it takes time to see its full results,” says Engelman. Anti-aging effects take a longer time to kick in (there is no such thing as a time machine!). Stimulate collagen production (resulting in healthier, bouncier skin) and minimize fine lines by using glycolic consistently for four to six months for best results.
What’s the most common mistake when using a glycolic acid exfoliant?
Many people wonder how to use glycolic acid. While it is easy to get addicted to glycolic acid’s immediate, glow-inducing powers, but you do not want to take on too much too soon. “The biggest mistake with exfoliants — and with any beauty product — is overusing it,” adds Engelman. Over exfoliation can cause bumpiness and sting from excessive dryness. It is important to see how your skin reacts to new product over time. It also makes your skin more sun-sensitive, so make sure to wear your sunscreen.
What can you expect it to feel like when you use it?
“Your skin will feel tingly when you first use glycolic acid. It can cause mild redness and irritation on initial use as it is able to reach a deeper layer of the skin relatively quickly because of its molecular size,” says Farber. “However, getting your skin slowly used to the right concentration should make it tolerable.”