Lauded as the gold standard in chemical exfoliation, this potent ingredient is found in cleansers, serums, toners, creams and professional treatments such as chemical peels, to provide an effective solution for various skin concerns including dullness, uneven texture and tone, blemishes, and or signs of skin ageing.
What is glycolic acid?
Commonly derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids (AHA). It effectively loosens and releases dead and dehydrated cells, increasing the rate of exfoliation on the surface of the skin. This exfoliation promotes cellular turnover, which helps to minimise the appearance of fine lines, uneven texture, and dull skin tone and improve radiance.
Why is glycolic acid good for skin?
To fully understand why glycolic acid is good for skin, it is important to understand skin’s natural exfoliation process. Every month your skin sheds dull, dead skin cells to reveal newer, healthier cells below. On average, this natural exfoliation or cellular turnover occurs every 28 days in young adults. However, as skin ages, cellular turnover becomes more sluggish, resulting in a build-up of dead skin cells that contributes to dull skin, or uneven tone and texture.
Glycolic acid is an essential ingredient that helps slough away dead and dehydrated skin cells on the surface layer of the skin. Unlike abrasive mechanical exfoliating products that can tear the skin and cause inflammation, glycolic acid efficiently dissolves the bonds that bind surface dead cells to the skin, providing a gentle, yet effective exfoliation. This accelerated rate of cellular turnover promotes skin clarity and a more even skin tone and skin texture.
Is glycolic acid safe?
Overuse of any chemical or mechanical exfoliating agent can result in redness or irritation. However, in moderate concentrations, glycolic acid can be well tolerated for nightly use to help facilitate skin’s natural exfoliation. When considering a glycolic acid treatment for your skincare routine, it is important to identify the right concentration for your specific skin concern.
Concentrations under 4% provide low level exfoliation and may be used once or twice daily depending on the potency and pH value of the formula. Sometimes glycolic acid may be added to acne formulas at lower levels to enhance skin detoxification and turnover. When looking for an effective night-time product that primarily targets visible signs of ageing such as fine lines, dullness, and skin texture, a 4-10% concentration of pure glycolic acid is recommended. Any glycolic acid formulation featuring a concentration above 20% should be recommended and administered by a skincare professional. This includes chemical peels, which may require pre-conditioning and specific post-procedure care, and should only be carried out in a clinic that specialises in skin.
Due to the exfoliating nature of glycolic acid, always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day, when using these products.
What is the pH level of glycolic acid?
Not all glycolic acid skin care products are created equal. The effectiveness of glycolic acid is determined by its free acid value - the effective amount of acid available to work on your skin. It depends on 2 factors: acid concentration and the overall pH of the formula. A glycolic acid concentration of 4-10% is ideal for nightly use, but a lower pH is necessary to preserve the strength of the glycolic acid for optimal efficacy. Always look for the free acid value in a glycolic formula, not just the total concentration claimed. As pH levels increase, glycolic acid may become largely neutralised, decreasing the effective acid level and weakening its strength. The key is finding a formula featuring the right balance between glycolic acid concentration and pH levels.
What is a glycolic acid peel?
Simply put, a glycolic acid peel is a chemical peel formulated with glycolic acid as the primary exfoliant in the peel solution. Performed by a skincare professional, these treatments exfoliate and resurface the topmost layer of the skin to reveal new, healthy skin underneath. They are effective in increasing cell turnover, softening the look of fine lines and wrinkles, and improving skin tone and texture. During a glycolic acid peel, one or more layers of the solution are applied onto the skin for a predetermined amount of time based on concentration, skin type, and the patient’s reactivity to the treatment. Once the solution is left on for the desired amount of time, the formula is neutralised with a buffering solution or water.
Following a glycolic acid peel, a skincare professional will apply post-procedure skincare, which includes a high broad-spectrum sunscreen to help protect skin against damaging UVA/UVB rays. After any type of chemical peel, skin is more susceptible to damage from environmental aggressors. Therefore, it is key that sunscreen is applied daily and diligently. Your skincare professional may also recommend additional homecare products to help maintain and protect the results of your glycolic acid peel.
Glycolic acid is found in
For more information on skincare ingredients, go to our Skincare Ingredients Dictionary.