Glycolic Acid is the holy grail for exfoliation, effectively removing the outermost layer of dead cells from the complexion, revealing brighter, fresher skin. Products that contain Glycolic Acid are used often to treat scarring, skin discoloration and signs of aging, like fine lines and wrinkles.

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is derived from sugar cane. It is one of the most well-known and widely used alpha-hydroxy acids in the skincare industry. Other alpha-hydroxy acids include lactic acid, malic acid, tartaric acid, and citric acid.

How Glycolic Acid Works

Glycolic acid has the smallest sized molecules of all the alpha-hydroxy acids. Because of these super tiny molecules, glycolic acid can easily penetrate the skin. This allows glycolic acid to exfoliate the skin more effectively than other AHAs.

Glycolic acid works by speeding up cell turnover. It helps dissolve the bonds that hold skin cells together, allowing dead skin cells to slough off more rapidly than they would on their own.

Glycolic acid also stimulates your skin to create more collagen. Collagen is the protein that gives skin its firmness, plumpness, and elasticity. (Collagen is also the protein that gives strength to your bones and connective tissues.) As you age, collagen production naturally slows down. It’s also destroyed by excessive sun exposure. Using glycolic acid regularly can help prevent this breakdown of collagen.

What It Does for Your Skin

Glycolic acid is an incredibly popular treatment because of the many benefits it has for the skin. It has effective skin-renewing properties, so it is often used in anti-aging products. It can help smooth fine wrinkles and improve the skin’s tone and texture. Glycolic acid plumps the skin and helps boost hydration levels.

It’s not just an anti-aging treatment, though. Glycolic acid can also help fight sun damage. It’s often used to fade minor fade hyperpigmentation too.

Because it’s an effective exfoliator, using glycolic acid regularly can help brighten the complexion. It’s this exfoliating property that also makes it an effective preventative against ingrown hairs. If you have large pores, glycolic acid can help make those appear smaller as well.

Many acne treatment products also contain glycolic acid. It isn’t an acne treatment per se, but glycolic acid can help keep pores clear from blockages, preventing comedones, blackheads, and inflamed breakouts from forming.

Although many sources claim glycolic acid gets rid of scars, this is one thing it simply can’t do. Glycolic acid can lighten dark discolorations left by acne or other wounds, and may soften the look of raised scars and pitted scars, but it will not make them disappear. For more efficient treatment, you are best to arrange a consult for scarring with our Clinic.

Choosing the Right Treatment for Your Skin

For treating specific skin issues like noticeable sun damage, dark spots or acne marks, and deeper lines and wrinkles, or for marked improvement of the skin quickly, a professional peel is a good option. But because peels deliver a higher percentage of glycolic acid than daily use products they will be more irritating and have a greater chance of side effects.

When choosing any glycolic acid treatment, the percentage of glycolic acid is just one factor. The product’s pH is the other. A more acidic product will deliver a stronger and more effective treatment than a less acidic product, regardless of the percentage of glycolic acid. So a product containing a low percentage of glycolic acid but with a lower (i.e. more acidic) pH will be more effective than a high percentage but low acidity product.

The glycolic acid treatment you choose depends a lot on your skin type and what your end goals are. A treatment regime can be planned with our Dermatology Nurse.

The Procedure

A glycolic acid peel done is a quick and effective way to rejuvenate the skin. Dermatologists use a 30- to 70-percent concentration of glycolic acid, and it stays on your skin for only three or five minutes. These are often called “lunchtime peels” because they can be done easily during your break, with little downtime.

While the term “peel” makes the treatment sound harsh, it’s actually quite gentle. You’ll feel some tingling, but there’s no burning, redness, or discomfort. The benefit of doing an in-office peel lies in the higher concentration of glycolic acid, which ultimately leads to better results

The benefit of doing an in-office peel lies in the higher concentration of glycolic acid, which ultimately leads to better results

According to Dr. Condon, “It is common to experience redness, dryness, and peeling. Typically, immediately after the peel, the skin will feel tight and look red. With some, by day two to three, post-peel skin can begin to slough and shed. The level of peeling again depends on the intensity of the peel. With mild peels, expect gentle sloughing, and with stronger peels, skin can peel more dramatically. The complete turnaround time typically is between five to seven days. In this time, be sure to treat skin gently. Do not use any exfoliation products or devices, and it’s imperative that precautions against UV exposure be taken to prevent hyperpigmentation.” Finally advice will be given on rehydrating your skin.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Over The Counter Products Safely

In general, glycolic acid is a very safe and effective skincare ingredient. To keep your skin safe, though, there are a few things to know before using glycolic acid.

First and foremost, you must wear sunscreen whenever you are using glycolic acid treatments.4

Like all alpha-hydroxy acids, glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. You don’t want to undo all the good your glycolic acid is doing, and you definitely don’t want to end up with a nasty sunburn. Wear SPF of at least 30, please.

Allow your skin to acclimate to glycolic acid. If you are using an OTC product, start off by applying it just three times per week for a week or so. If your skin isn’t red or irritated, try using it four times a week for a week or two. Continue slowly building up this way until you’re able to use it every day. If at any point your skin becomes irritated, scale back use for a period of time and try again.

For in-clinic peels

You will probably start off with a lower concentration of glycolic acid. If your skin tolerates that reasonably well, you will most likely be bumped up to higher strengths for subsequent peels.

In the initial few days of treatment, your skin may feel a bit more rough than typical. This is normal and just means that the glycolic acid is working. Unless your skin is irritated, keep using your glycolic acid product. Smoother skin is just around the corner.

Glycolic acid OTC products and professional peels have been around a long time and have a safe and effective track record. Most skin types can use them without much trouble. If you have very sensitive skin, you may want to stick with wash-off glycolic acid products like cleansers. These aren’t quite as irritating as leave-on glycolic acid treatments and allow your skin to build up a tolerance without (hopefully) too much irritation.

If you need any help choosing a glycolic acid product, Dr. Condon or his Nurses can help you do so.