You may think that the only exfoliators on the market are gritty little scrubbers, maybe even irritating. Think again. Chemical exfoliators offer the same smooth results, but are far less irritating to your skin.
Never heard of chemical exfoliators? Check out our Face Scrub 101 story to learn all about the difference.
Glycolic acid is one of the best chemical exfoliators out there. Small but mighty, docs and dermatologists alike can attest to glycolic acid yielding the best overall results for the largest crowd. Those results are thanks to glycolic acid’s small molecule makeup which allows it to penetrate almost any skin type without irritation. And don’t be scared of the word acid! This acid is one you’ll want to get your skin familiar with.
What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid falls into the category of alpha hydroxy acids, AHAs, which are naturally occurring substances found in milk, cane sugar and fruits. These are gentle and robust exfoliants that work well on almost any skin type and can treat a variety of skin concerns. In its raw state, glycolic acid is an unscented, colorless crystal powder and it can be found in both everyday cleansers and facial washes as well as in spa-grade skin treatments and facials.
How does glycolic acid work in skincare?
Glycolic acid easily penetrates through your top layer of (dead) skin cells thanks to its chemical makeup. What exactly does that mean? It’s got itty-bitty molecules that squeeze through small pores and then work hard to break down and dissolve all those dead cells, sebum and dirt trapped in your skin — and reveal a far more refreshed complexion.
It also has the ability to transfer water from the air into your skin to replenish lost moisture, making it effective in moisturizers and serums. It has also been shown to plump the skin by boosting collagen production and increasing cell turnover (aka telling your skin to shed it’s old cells and create new ones).
Who benefits from using glycolic acid?
If you suffer from acne, whether hormonal or situational, glycolic acid can be a great way to chemically exfoliate your skin without creating more redness or excessive irritation. If your skin has red undertones that can be brought out by using other acne treatments or exfoliators, glycolic acid could also be the right fit for you. If your skin is too sensitive even for glycolic acid and you experience peeling or flaking after introducing it into your routine, lactic acid, another AHA, might be a better fit for you.
Just because glycolic acid can boost your collagen production, which keeps your skin supple and diminishes with age, doesn’t mean it’s a replacement for your other anti-aging products, but it can be beneficial for early signs of aging.
If you’re experiencing dryness or dullness on the rest of your body, look for a glycolic acid-infused body lotion or body scrub, which will help exfoliate away all those patches of dead skin.
Got a stubborn ingrown hair on your bikini line or underarm? Resist the urge to pluck it out with your tweezers or fingers, which can lead to an infection from introducing new bacteria to an already infected area. Instead, reach for glycolic acid infused pads!
Where can I find glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is more common than you might think — look out for it as an active ingredient in face and body scrubs, acne-focused treatment products such as cleansers and serums, a wide range of anti-aging and acne-fighting face masks, and even in certain moisturizers. You’ll find it in washes — aka products that just sit on your skin temporarily — and in leave-on treatments, such as serums and hydrators, that let ingredients sink into the skin during the day or overnight.
All of these products will contain varying concentrations of glycolic acid. The max over the counter strength of glycolic acid that you’ll see is 15%, but you’ll more commonly read 8% and 10% on ingredient labels. Professionals will use much higher percentages, and prescription-strength glycolic acid is also available.
Finding a product with the right pH balance of any AHA for your skin is important, because it means you’ll actually feel the tingling sensation, instead of too much redness or nothing at all. To introduce this powerful ingredient into your routine, we’d recommend looking for a product with glycolic acid as an active ingredient, versus being listed at the bottom of the ingredient list.
When using an AHA like glycolic acid, you should always test a small amount of the product on your skin first, to make sure you’re not allergic or sensitive to the ingredient. As with any exfoliant, you shouldn’t be using it more than 2 or 3 times a week. Your skin will also be more susceptible to sun damage, so make sure to use an SPF when using these products!