What Is Glycolic Acid And What Does It Do To Your Skin?

Medically reviewed by Vincent Marin, MD
Written by Ramona Sinha
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Glycolic acid is the next big thing in the cosmetic industry, and it is here to stay. In fact, brands are heavily investing in research to find out how to make this ingredient a part of our skincare routine. From clearing clogged pores, cleansing your skin, and evenly toning it to taking care of all the other skin issues you undergo because of age and pollution, glycolic acid is the answer to all your problems. Want to find out how it works, how to use it, and what precautions to take? That’s exactly what we are getting at. Read on!

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What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a derivative of sugarcane and a part of the AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) family. It was first used in the cosmetic industry about 20 years ago and is known to be one of the safest and most effective AHAs for the skin. Dermatologists started using it in skin peel off procedures because its molecules are small and penetrate the skin very easily. It is now distilled, filtered, and diluted before being added to everyday beauty products. It is a great exfoliator and toner.

It’s pretty clear that glycolic acid has some great benefits to offer. So, let’s take a look at why exactly you should add it to your skin care regimen.

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How Does Glycolic Acid Work And What Are Its Benefits?

  • Treats Acne And Clogged Pores


The most significant advantage of glycolic acid is that it has extremely small molecules that penetrate into the skin quickly and battle acne from within. It prevents breakouts and blackheads, clears pores, and controls oil secretion.

  • Battles The Effects Of Aging


The topical application of AHAs fights skin aging by reducing the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, and crow’s feet. Using serums that contain glycolic acid and a combination of other ingredients (like vitamin C and lactic acid) over a period has a visible impact on the overall health of your skin.

  • Exfoliator


Glycolic acid is known to weaken the intercellular adhesions, which means it removes dead skin cells from the skin’s epidermal surface and reduces dry patches and flakiness (1). It acts as an abrasive and tones your skin. You can use it as a toner or in the form of a scrub because it is gentle and safe.

  • Skin Brightening


Topical application of glycolic acid is known to improve the texture of your skin because it clears dead cells and reduces the size of follicular pores. This, in turn, lightens and brightens your skin tone (2).

  • Treats Ingrown Hair And Keratosis Pilaris


Chicken skin or keratosis pilaris is a condition characterized by thick, rough, and bumpy skin in the underarm area. It is caused by a build-up of keratin around the hair follicles. The only way to keep it under control is to exfoliate your skin regularly. Use a glycolic acid-based product to scrub your skin on a regular basis. This is also an effective treatment for ingrown hair.

  • Stimulates Collagen Production


Collagen is an essential protein that is responsible for your skin’s firmness and elasticity. Aging and environmental stressors slow down the collagen production in your skin, leading to fine lines and wrinkles. Glycolic acid-based products stimulate collagen production and make your skin look youthful (3).

  • Moisturizing


As you age, the skin on your face, hands, and feet starts becoming dry and flaky. Glycolic acid removes dead skin cells, smoothens your skin, and rejuvenates it. You can use it on your face as well as the rest of your body.

  • Skin Toning


Toning is one of the most critical steps in your skincare routine. It clears out your pores and removes oil build-up, makeup, and dirt. A glycolic acid-based toner unclogs pores, shrinks them, and hydrates your skin. It also improves the firmness of your skin.

Now that you know all the amazing benefits that glycolic acid has to offer, you must be dying to know how to use it. Keep reading to find out!

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How To Use Glycolic Acid For Skin Care

  • It is best to use products that contain glycolic acid instead of using glycolic acid directly on your skin as it can cause irritation and burning.
  • Look for products that contain glycolic acid in its potent form. They are safe to use.
  • Stay away from DIY recipes for masks and peels using glycolic acid unless you have relevant experience in the area or know what you are dealing with.
  • Stick to over-the-counter glycolic acid products.
  • Always remember to follow up glycolic acid with sunscreen because the former makes your skin more vulnerable to sun damage.
  • If you have sensitive skin, start off with a lower concentration of glycolic acid and slowly work your way up.

Glycolic acid skin care products are pretty popular right now, and you won’t have any trouble finding them. We’ve curated a list of the best products in each skin care category. Check them out!

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The Top Glycolic Acid Products

1. Cleanser And Exfoliant

Best Product: Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser


Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser is one of the best acid-based cleansers available in the market. It dissolves dead skin cells and reduces dullness to revive your complexion. This mild foam-based cleanser cleanses your skin thoroughly, unclogs pores, and gets rid of the dust, oil, and makeup that sit on the surface of and deep within your skin. It contains chamomile, yarrow, and sage extracts that act as soothing agents to fully regenerate the skin. It acts as a neutralizing antioxidant and gets rid of free radicals. You can use it up to 3 times a week in place of your regular cleanser.

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2. Skin Lightening And Brightening

Best Product: Pixi by Petra Glycolic Acid Peel Pads

Feel the instant rejuvenation these glycolic acid pads give you by deeply exfoliating your skin and leaving it feeling supple. The most common issues we face like open pores, fine lines, pigmentation, discoloration, uneven toning, and dry skin are all taken care of. While glycolic acid stimulates cell revival, rose water in the pads hydrates your skin, and retinyl palmitate boasts collagen production. It is paraben and cruelty-free too. Not tested on animals. Use it once a week or bi-weekly to see visible and radiant changes in your skin.

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3. Cure For Acne

Best Product: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

This is a 12% AHA/BHA serum for your nighttime skin regimen. It refines the texture of your skin, giving a smoother and more radiant complexion by morning. It enhances the performance of other products by maximizing absorption. Apply this serum and leave it on overnight.

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4. Skin Toner

Best Product: The Ordinary 7% Glycolic Acid Toner

With a 7% glycolic acid concentration, The Ordinary is a hot favorite among skin care enthusiasts. It is one of those products that are inexpensive but unbelievably good, which makes you question if a product needs to be overpriced to be effective. This one clears all doubts because it started selling out rapidly the minute it hit drugstore shelves. The glycolic acid in this toner makes your skin tingle a little bit while it works, while ginseng makes your skin radiant. It also contains aloe vera that soothes your skin.


5. Body Lotion

Best Product: Glytone Exfoliating Body Lotion

Glytone Exfoliating Body Lotion is an absolute bestseller. With a 17.5% glycolic acid concentration, this lotion is as good as it gets when it comes to over-the-counter products. It improves the overall quality of your skin and reduces the dryness and flakiness that you experience with age. It also reduces the discoloration and pigmentation caused by skin problems like psoriasis and eczema, making your skin brighter and softer. Use it after getting out of the shower and before you go to sleep, and let the lotion soak in thoroughly.

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While glycolic does work wonders on your skin, you need to take some precautions while using it because it does have some side effects.

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What Are The Side Effects Of Glycolic Acid?

  • Glycolic acid makes your skin susceptible to sunburn and tan, so you need to follow it up with sunscreen.
  • Using high concentrations of glycolic acid without guidance can cause burns and damage your skin.
  • Since it a strong exfoliant, it can dry out your skin. Therefore, moisturize your skin after using it.
  • It can cause mild irritation, redness, bumps, or itching on sensitive skin.

Glycolic acid is no less than a boon for all those who are facing skin troubles. Grab it right now and see the magic unfold on your skin. Have any more questions about this wonder ingredient? Drop a text in the comments section below, and we’ll get back to you.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the natural sources of glycolic acid?

The major source of glycolic acid is sugar cane. Other sources include beets, pineapple, milk, apples, and all kinds of citrus fruits. It can also be produced synthetically.

At what percentage concentration is glycolic acid effective?

Everyday products need to contain a minimum of 10% glycolic acid effective. Chemical peels and other dermatology treatments use about 20-30% potent glycolic acid. It is advisable that you do undergo these treatments only once every 6 months.

How long does glycolic acid take to work?

Just like every other skin care treatment, consistency is key when using glycolic acid products. The effects start showing in 2-3 weeks, and a complete skin transformation takes about 6-8 months.

What is the difference between glycolic acid and salicylic acid?

Glycolic acid is an AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) that is highly soluble in water, and it is best suited for hydration, exfoliation, and repairing sun damage. Salicylic acid is a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) and is soluble in oil. It penetrates through oily skin layers and helps with exfoliation, just like glycolic acid.


1. “An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids…” US National Library of Medicine
2. “Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review” US National Library of Medicine
3. “Increased in vivo collagen synthesis and in vitro cell proliferative effect of glycolic acid.” US National Library of Medicine

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Ramona is a journalist-turned-content writer. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature and has been writing for the digital world for over five years. She specializes in writing for Skin Care. She has done a certificate course titled ‘Dermatology: Trip To The Skin’, offered by Novosibirsk State University. She believes that beauty begins with a good skin care regimen and is on a mission to eliminate all toxins from her routine. She helps and guides readers in selecting products and ingredients specific to their skin type/issue. When Ramona is not working, her books and passion for music, good food, and traveling keep her busy.