Glycolic acid, of which other names include hydroacetic acid or hydroxyacetic acid, is the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids. Glycolic acid is originally derived from sugar cane, while the other alpha hydroxy acids include lactic acid from sour milk, malic acid from apples, citric acid from citrus fruits, and tartaric acid from grape wine. Most cosmetics use AHAs synthesized or grown in bacteria or fungus that has been fermented.
The reason glycolic acid’s small size is important is because of how topical applications work. In order for something put on the skin to be useful, it must be absorbed so it can reach the living cells. Because glycolic acid is smallest, molecularly, it is able to more easily get into those living cells.
Glycolic acid is an exfoliator. There are two types of exfoliators – physical and chemical. This is a chemical type. Physical types are characterized by grit of some kind that makes the product scrubby. Chemical types work on a molecular level instead. Glycolic acid works by reacting with the dead cells and breaking their bonds to neighboring cells. This allows the dead cells to be more easily removed, making the newer skin to the top layer.
The substance is diluted for use; usually it is added to another cosmetic as a percentage of that product. The higher the percentage, the more effective the product will be, generally speaking, but a 10% concentration is the upper limit for home use. Higher percentages are usually reserved for professional or commercial use. A chemical peel, for example, is usually less diluted or undiluted (depending on the acid used), while some other facial applications combine glycolic acid with the other ingredients of the product.
Because of the way glycolic acid works, it has some definite advantages over physical exfoliants.
- Even exfoliation, because it releases dead cells everywhere it is applied.
- Blackheads and blocked pores are cleared out by its releasing and dissolving action.
- Acne caused by dead skin being retained deep in the skin will clear up.
- Fine lines and wrinkles are reduced because older cells are sloughed off and new, healthier cells become visible.
- Scars are often reduced over time through consistent treatment with glycolic acid.
- Moisturizers used after glycolic acid are more effective, because the layers on the surface of contaminants, dirt, and dead cells have been removed.
- Consistent use builds upon itself, and the longer it is used consistently, the better your skin will look!
While generally safe to use, there are some cautions that apply. As an acid, it is possible for it to cause damage if used improperly. Everyday products should never contain more than 20%, and products for regular home use should be 10% or less for safety. Products containing between 10-20% should only be used by knowledgeable people who are aware of the risks and used with caution. It is also recommended to test a small area of your skin before applying to your entire face, to determine whether your skin will have any adverse effects from the substance.
It is best to start with a very small amount, to give the skin a chance to acclimate. Too much can cause the skin to get red and irritated, and sometimes a crusty layer can form, called “frosting,” that is flaky. If this happens, refrain from picking at it, as that can cause scarring and hyper pigmentation, rather than reducing it as expected.
Because of how it works, it causes the skin to be more sensitive to the sun’s rays, so caution must be taken to prevent sunburn which could damage the skin. Sunscreen is recommended, as well as covering your skin with a wide hat when possible. It may be a good idea to plan to use glycolic acid in the evening, so there is more time for healing and recovery before leaving the house again, limiting the exposure of the new fresh skin to direct sunlight.
There are a wide variety of glycolic acid products, ranging from cleansers, moisturizers, facial peels, eye creams, and serums, among others. When looking for products that contain glycolic acid, check the section labeled “active ingredients.” Most products list it as a percentage of the product.
Manufactured in the USA, this bottle of glycolic acid peel includes full instructions. This is considered a Medium Peel; the company also offers a Light Peel that is a 10% solution. This bottle can be diluted to make a 10% solution, as well, making it last longer.
This bottle of concentrated glycolic acid will last longer than a lower concentration but should not be used at full strength. Dilute with distilled or filtered water to a more manageable level (such as 10% or 15%) before applying. One bottle will easily provide 15-24 peels. It includes instructions for application.
This container of 50 glycolic acid pads offers an easy way to use a glycolic acid peel at home without worrying about how much to use. The professional strength formula is paired with a 3.5 pH to make them effective, in a single use pad to make it easy to apply. The addition of cucumber, chamomile, comfrey, and green tea extracts prevent irritation.
Including essential oils, bamboo, and willow bark, this cleanser provides a deep clean that can reduce wrinkles and fine lines. It also brightens your skin.
Paired with a 3.5 pH, this face wash is made to be non-drying as well as exfoliating. The addition of green tea, chamomile, and aloe vera make this a pleasant way to rejuvenate your skin.
This facial cleanser includes a lathering agent to help sweep away dirt, impurities, and dead skin to help clear acne and brighten and soften your complexion.
Three AHAs increase the effectiveness of this exfoliator peel. The glycolic acid is combined with lactic acid and pyruvic acid. Because it is a low concentration, it is gentle enough to use every day as a part of your skin care routine.
This toner does not list the percentage of glycolic acid in the product, but it is a toner rather than a peel. Meant to be used as a part of your skin care routine, this carries many of the same benefits as a peel, in a gentler format.