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Skin Care Ingredients

What is Glycolic Acid Good For?

How to use this skin-care star

What is glycolic acid good for? Used smartly, it can be a miracle worker for your skin. This active ingredient dissolves dead skin cells, clears pores, and increases healthy cell turnover. So get the details below and say hello to smooth, clear skin, younger-looking skin!

Girl with clear skin asking what is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid can be remarkable for skin. Often its a miracle worker when used smartly—most people should be using it in their skin care routine. This article details exactly what glycolic is, what it does, and how to use it properly for great skin.

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is part of the group of active compounds known as AHA’s (alpha hydroxy acids). Derived from cane sugar:

  • Glycolic acid has small molecules that are able to penetrate skin deeply, so its very effective for treating fine lines, acne, blackheads, dullness and oiliness.
  • Heavier chemical peels use a high percentage of this acid and can be very effective if done safely and properly.
  • An even better way to use it is with a lower percentage on a consistent basis, like our Glycolic Daily Exfoliator 7.5%. This gives the same results as heavier peels but in a much safer, easier way. It applies easily like a glycolic acid toner, and works cumulatively to clear and smooth your skin.

Where Does Glycolic Acid Come From?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. So, can we just apply some raw sugar to our skin?

Not quite. Glycolic acid needs to be extracted, and only works for skin if it is the right pH (an effective peel is around pH 1.5-3). Further, this AHA is water soluble so needs to be liquified in water before it can actually be applied to skin.

How Does This AHA Work?

Picture of Pacman like glycolic acid
Glycolic acid works like Pacman, munching the glue between skin cells for an even exfoliation

Glycolic acid works like tiny “pac-men” that eat away at the glue between skin cells. It reacts with the top layer of skin and breaks it down by dissolving sebum and other substances that bind cells together:

  • Dead skin cells are sloughed off to reveal smoother, brighter, younger looking skin (more benefits below).
  • Over the counter glycolic acid products range in percentage of concentration and pH levels. A product with pure glycolic acid in a lower concentration is much more effective than a product that contains other ingredients. When there is other ingredients, the glycolic acid becomes diluted and that “10%” on the label effectively works like 0.5%.
  • So it is best to get the full benefits from a focused glycolic acid product, and let your other products do their job.

What is Glycolic Acid Good for in Skin Care?

So, exactly what does glycolic acid do for your skin? You know it works by dissolving and sloughing off the top layer of skin cells. This makes it excellent for any conditions or goals that need exfoliation.

It also stimulates the lower layer of skin and increases cell turnover—which makes it very effective for anti aging concerns like fine lines and pigmentation. These concerns are partly caused by a slow down in cell turnover as we age, so speeding this process up is a good thing! More specific benefits below.

Glycolic Acid Products:

Image of Bona Fide Skin Care Glycolic Acid Daily Exfoliator
Bona Fide Skin Care Glycolic Acid Daily Exfoliator

The best way to use this AHA is in a peel. This ensures the acid can do its work by reacting with the top layer of skin. Try an at-home glycolic facial peel, or use our Glycolic Acid Daily Peel 7.5% for easy results.

You can also use lotions, which aren’t as strong (even if the percentage it higher), but can work well for more sensitive skins or as a way to get your skin used to it before doing a peel. See this article for the best glycolic acid moisturizer.

8 Benefits of Glycolic Acid for Skin

  1. As a chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid gets down to the lower layers of skin and stimulates collagen. Used consistently it can help improve suppleness and strength.
  2. A good glycolic acid product helps to reduce fine lines and signs of premature aging by increasing cell turnover, so younger, healthier cells are now visible on the skin’s surface.
  3. Provides an even exfoliation. No more over or under-exfoliated patches from manual scrubs and less effective products.
  4. Dissolves dead skin cells to clear blocked pores and blackheads.
  5. It’s an effective acne treatment, particularly cystic acne which is caused by deep blockages of dead skin cells and sebum. However, salicylic acid is really the star for acne treatment
  6. Acne scars (and other scar lesions) respond well to consistent glycolic acid treatment.
  7. Further products and treatments can penetrate deeper as glycolic acid removes the “barrier” of dead cells and surface grime.
  8. Helps minimizes the appearance of pores by keeping them clear and helping the surrounding cells regain strength and elasticity.

Are there any Side Effects from Glycolic Acid?

Because glycolic acid is an active substance there are possible side effects. It is generally a very safe ingredient but needs to be used correctly.

  • Skin usually needs to get used to it. A percentage that is too high can cause redness, irritation and in some cases “frosting” – a flaky crusting of skin that develops as a protection reaction. This usually goes away in a few days.
  • But picking at this “frosting” can cause hyper pigmentation and scarring.
  • Use of other products containing Vitamin A, AHAs or some medications can cause reaction, as the skin is already sensitized. Check with your doctor before using.
  • Retinol (vitamin A) and AHAs can be used together, but it needs to be done carefully. Build up using one before starting the other.
  • It can make skin more sensitive to the sun as it is exposing younger layer. Be sure to wear sunscreen daily to avoid pigmentation and any irritation.
  • Anything above a 10% concentration is high and needs to be used with knowledge and caution. This is a peel treatment concentration which you can read about doing at home here. Except, of course, in products that contain other ingredients (like lotions), because then that 10% is really more like 0.5%…
  • Most at-home glycolic acid products are around pH 2 – 3 (slightly more acidic than normal skin), which is a good range for effectiveness.
  • Bona Fide Skin Care’s Glycolic Daily Exfoliator 7.5% has a pH of 1.5 – 2.5, so it is highly effective!
  • The smart use of milder concentrations can provide the same benefits as a heavier peel, without the possible irritating side effects. Daily use is often more effective at keeping blackheads away and the results can accumulate much more successfully.


What is glycolic acid? The smallest of the alpha hydroxy acid group, water soluble, and derived from sugar cane.

What is it good for? Glycolic acid provides an even exfoliation, brightens skin, restores healthy pH, removes blackheads, reduces and prevents fine lines, treats pigmentation, and helps with acne and other skin conditions.

What are the risks of using glycolic acid? A percentage that is too high and used on skin that is not ready can cause redness, irritation or “frosting.” These side effects are usually temporary and will reduce in a few days if you stop using it and take care of your skin. See a doctor if you have any concerns.

Just remember: sun protection and the right knowledge go a long way when using glycolic acid.

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