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  • Writer's pictureAnjana Rajbhandary

What does glycolic acid do?

Glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane and primarily used for reducing lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, dryness and acne. It is a chemical exfoliant that removes the top layer of skin, or dead skin, from the skin's surface, resulting in reduced lines, brighter skin and a smoother complexion.

Glycolic acid is a tiny molecule, so it can deeply penetrate your skin and increase the effectiveness of other ingredients that you apply to your skin afterward. It is normal to experience some slight stinging and redness when you first start using glycolic acid, but that should go away as your skin gets used to it.

Glycolic acid benefits

As glycolic acid exfoliates dead skin from your face, the peeling makes your skin underneath that layer appear smoother and brighter. The removal of dead skin also fades hyperpigmentation and clears acne scars. It stimulates collagen production that reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It is considered safe to use during pregnancy and nursing.

How to use glycolic acid

Glycolic acid should only be used at night because it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun. Apply a small amount after cleansing your face and neck at bedtime one to two times a week and follow with a moisturizer. It is most effective in serum form. Wear sunscreen in the morning to protect your exfoliated skin.

Glycolic acid side effects

Glycolic acid is not for everyone. You may experience some mild — or more than mild —irritation when you first incorporate it into your routine. If you have very dry or sensitive skin, it may cause swelling, itching or burning, so check with your dermatologist before using it. It also makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, which can cause inflammation or hyperpigmentation.

How much does glycolic acid cost?

You can expect to pay from about $8-$150 and up for glycolic acid. Affordable brands make formulas in the $8-$29 price range, and premium brands make formulas in the mid and high price range for about $30-$149. If you don’t mind splurging, you can find luxury brands with glycolic acid for $150 or more.

Glycolic acid FAQ

Is it safe to use glycolic acid with other active ingredients?

A. Glycolic acid exfoliates your skin to reveal a new layer of skin that can irritate easily since it's new and sensitive, so it is recommended you do not use it with a retinol at the same time.

Can all skin types use glycolic acid?

A. Glycolic acid can be used on normal, dry, oily and combination skin. If you have naturally sensitive skin, it is recommended you use lactic acid as opposed to glycolic because it is gentler.

What percent of glycolic acid is safe to use?

A. You can use glycolic acid at 10-15% concentration in skincare products at home. Dermatologists, aestheticians and estheticians can use it to up to 70% concentration at their offices.

Best glycolic acid products

Best glycolic acid peel

Goop GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid Overnight Glow Peel: available at Credo Beauty and Sephora

Inspired by professional chemical peels, this 15% glycolic acid overnight peel provides intense exfoliation to refine and brighten your skin as you sleep. It has hyaluronic acid to make your skin soft and is suitable for all skin types, except for sensitive skin.

Best glycolic acid cleanser

Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser: available at Sephora and SkinStore

This oil-free exfoliating cleanser has only 3% glycolic acid but still helps reduce fine lines and wrinkles, pore size and uneven texture. It also has vitamin B5 to nourish the skin.

Best glycolic acid toner

Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner: available at Amazon, Sephora and Ulta Beauty

This alcohol-free mild resurfacing toner can brighten your skin and reduce pore size and dark spots. It also has aloe vera to hydrate and calm the skin.

Best glycolic acid peel pads

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel: available at LovelySkin, Sephora, SkinStore and SpaceNK

These at-home daily peel pads with five exfoliating acids can visibly reduce dullness, uneven skin texture and dark spots. It is also available in extra-strength with seven exfoliating acids, and an ultra-gentle version with lactic acid for those with sensitive skin.

Best glycolic acid serum

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum: available at Amazon and Sephora

This resurfacing serum removes dead skin overnight to give you clearer and smoother skin in the morning. It also has salicylic acid to unclog your pores.

Best glycolic acid night cream

Exuviance Glycolic Perfecting Moisturizer: available at LovelySkin, SkinStore and Ulta Beauty

This non-greasy night cream with glycolic acid can add moisture to your skin and make you look more radiant with its brightening complex. It is oil-free and non-comedogenic.

Best glycolic acid mask

Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Peel Mask: available at LovelySkin, Sephora and SpaceNK

This gentle peel mask has viniferine, which is considered more effective than vitamin C, to smooth and brighten your skin. It is also vegan, cruelty-free and comes in recyclable packaging.

Best glycolic acid for sensitive skin

Tula Get Toned Pro-Glycolic 10% Resurfacing Toner: available at Amazon and Ulta Beauty

In addition to 10% glycolic acid, this alcohol-free toner has probiotic extracts to smooth and calm the skin without causing any irritation. It has blueberry and snow mushroom, antioxidants, to protect the skin and is free from paraben, phthalates and harmful preservatives.

Best glycolic acid for acne-prone skin

GLAMGLOW SUPERWATERGEL Triple Acid Oil-Free Moisturizer: available at LovelySkin, Sephora and Ulta Beauty

This gel moisturizer can hydrate and clear acne-prone skin without causing any irritation, and it has glycerin to support the skin’s moisture barrier.

Best glycolic acid with vitamin C

Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum: available at Murad, Sephora and Ulta Beauty

This potent serum has a blend of glycolic acid and vitamin C to give you a more radiant and even skin tone while visibly reducing hyperpigmentation. It has phyto-luminescent extract that converts UV energy into a light source to luminate your skin from within.

Best glycolic acid with salicylic acid

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution: available at SkinStore, SpaceNK and Ulta Beauty

If you are looking to get radiant skin while reducing acne, this peeling solution offers both: refine your skin texture and fight blemishes with one bottle. It is free of oil, parabens and phthalates.

Best budget glycolic acid

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution: available at Amazon, Sephora, SpaceNK and Ulta Beauty

This affordable, alcohol-free toner offers mild exfoliation and is suitable for all skin types. It also has aloe vera and ginseng to calm and soothe the skin.

Best splurge glycolic acid

NATURA BISSÉ Glyco Extreme Peel: available at SkinStore and SpaceNK

Suitable for all skin types, this effective and non-irritating treatment can firm and brighten your skin. One use can give you a more radiant and healthy-looking complexion.

Best glycolic acid alternative

Sunday Riley Good Genes All-In-One Lactic Acid Treatment: available at LovelySkin, Sephora, SkinStore, and Ulta Beauty

This purified lactic acid serum is ideal for those with sensitive skin who cannot tolerate glycolic acid — it offers the same benefits of reducing fine lines and wrinkles, pores and hyperpigmentation without irritation.


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