Skinfluencers on social media champion glycolic acid for its ability to quash breakouts. But it actually does much more than that. It also treats hyperpigmentation, dullness, and signs of skin aging, such as lines and wrinkles. But before you track some down online, it’s important to know what exactly glycolic acid is, how you should be using it, and whether it’s safe for your skin type. For those answers, keep reading.
What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid, or AHA, that’s derived from sugar cane. Of the AHAs, glycolic acid has the simplest structure and it’s the smallest. It also has the lowest molecular weight. That’s significant because it enables glycolic acid to penetrate the skin easily.
From there, glycolic acid helps shed dead skin cells and reveal the brighter layers underneath by acting on the outermost layer of the skin. Normally, the outermost layer is comprised of tightly packed layers of dead skin cells that are tightly bonded together. Glycolic acid loosens those bonds, allowing the layers of dead skin cells to slough away more easily.
But that’s not all. Because glycolic acid is so small, it can go even deeper, stimulating fibroblasts in the dermis to produce more collagen. With that, the skin will feel firmer, and fine lines and wrinkles will be minimized.
Ultimately, you’ll be left with smoother, even-toned, radiant skin.
How should I use it?
As with any exfoliant, it’s safest to start small if you have sensitive skin or are prone to irritation. A glycolic cleanser can get your skin used to it and allow you to see how well your skin tolerates glycolic acid without risking a severe reaction.
The next progression would be to try it in a peel. Glycolic acid is most effective when it’s administered as a chemical peel in a board-certified dermatologist’s office. The medical-grade peel pads are stronger than the over-the-counter kind, and their effects are more potent.
One last note on this front. While glycolic acid works well in conjunction with other gentle exfoliators, like salicylic acid, you should avoid using it in combination with more abrasive exfoliating ingredients, like benzoyl peroxide and retinol.
Is glycolic acid safe for my skin type?
It tends to work best for normal, combination, and oily skin types. If you have dry, highly-sensitive skin, there’s a good chance glycolic acid might irritate your skin.
There’s more to consider. Our skin’s barrier function can be compromised in the winter, which can allow glycolic acid to penetrate even deeper. And that can cause irritation in people who would normally tolerate it well. And in the summer, glycolic acid can make you sensitive to sunlight.
Basically, start small. And don’t assume that just because glycolic acid didn’t irritate your skin before, it won’t the next time, especially in the middle of winter.