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What Is Glycolic Acid? Uses and Benefits Of This Super Star Ingredient

What is glycolic acid? 

The effects of this AHA on skin can be remarkable – used smartly it can be a miracle worker…

What is glycolic acid?

Find out exactly what it is and how to use it in this article…

There are risks involved in using glycolic acid because it is an active compound – so it’s important to understand these to ensure you get only the best effects from this amazing treatment!

(On the next page we will look at how to use it for perfect results…)

What is Glycolic Acid and why does it work so well?

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

  • It has the smallest molecules in the group so is able to penetrate skin deeply and easily, making it the most effective for treating fine lines, acne, blackheads, dullness, oiliness etc
  • 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% – as this gives the same results as heavier peels but in a much safer, easier way (and often gives better results as the consistent application makes them cumulative)

Picture of Bona Fide Skin Care Glycolic Acid Exfoliator

How Does It Work?

Glycolic acid works like tiny ‘pacmen’ eating away at the glue between cells:

  • It reacts with the top layer of skin, breaking it down by dissolving sebum and other substances that bind cells together
  • Dead skin cells are sloughed off revealing smoother, brighter, younger looking skin (more benefits below)
  • Products range in percentage of concentration and pH levels. A product with pure glycolic acid in a lower concentration is much more effective than another which includes it along with other ingredients (for example in a moisturizer)
  • Get the full benefits from a focused glycolic acid product, and let your moisturizer do it’s proper job!

Benefits Of Glycolic Acid Use

  • Provides a remarkably even exfoliation of the skin
  • Releases and dissolves dead skin cells – clearing up blocked pores and blackheads
  • A very effective acne treatment – particularly cystic acne which is caused by deep blockages of dead skin cells and sebum
  • A good glycolic acid product helps to reduce fine lines and signs of premature aging by increasing cell turnover – meaning younger, healthier cells are now visible on the skin’s surface
  • Acne scars (and other scar lesions) respond well to consistent glycolic acid treatment
  • Further products and treatments can penetrate deeper as it removes the ‘barrier’ of dead cells and surface grime
  • The effects are compound – meaning frequent use will provide better and better skin
  • It minimizes the appearance of pores by keeping them clear and helping the surrounding cells to strengthen and regain elasticity

Are There Risks To Using Glycolic Acid?

Because its an active substance, if not used correctly it can cause damage:

  • Skin usually needs to get used to it – a percentage that is too high can cause redness, irritation and in severe cases ‘frosting’ – a flaky crusting of skin that develops as a protection reaction, and which can last for days
  • Picking at this ‘frosting’ can cause hyper pigmentation and scarring
  • Use of other products containing Vitamin A, AHA’s or some medications can cause reaction as the skin is already sensitized.
  • Retinol and AHA (glycolic acid) can be used together but it needs to be done carefully. See the page for details
  • It makes skin more sensitive to the sun – VERY important to wear sunscreen whenever using any sort of AHA to avoid pigmentation and further damage
  • Anything above a 10% concentration is high and needs to be used with knowledge and caution
  • Anything above 20% in everyday products isn’t necessary  – don’t mistake the highest percentage for the best effects!
  • Most at-home glycolic acid products are around pH 2 – 3 (slightly more acidic than normal skin), which is a good range for being effective
  • 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 drastic peel, without the possible irritating side effects – and daily use is often more effective at keeping blackheads away

Summary

What is glycolic acid? The smallest alpha hydroxy acid, derived from sugar cane.

What is it good for? Providing an even exfoliation, brightening skin, restoring healthy pH to skin, removing blackheads and fine lines, treating pigmentation, treating acne and other skin conditions.

What are the risks? A percentage that is too high – used on skin that is not ready – can cause redness, irritation, ‘frosting’, pigmentation and thinned skin.

Sun protection and proper knowledge is vital while using it.

16 Comments

  • I work outside is it ok to use a day cream with 15% glycolic acid solution Glycolic formulations day therapy cream is what it’s called to start out it says thin layer every other morning for week should I use it at night instead

    • If it is called Day Therapy Cream I would assume it has sunscreen in it? The main concern with using GA during the day is that sunlight can render it ineffective, so make sure to use a sunscreen with it (or preferably wear a hat/stay in the shade).. Otherwise, it just becomes a bit pointless!

    • Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser is excellent, I’m not sure what the exact percentage of AHA is, the manufacturer should be able to provide this info.

  • I do facial pimple treatment every two weeks but why I still have pimples? Even though I take Acne capsule still come and goes.

  • Thanks very much for your article.

    I purchased a face wash which has 4% glycolic, 2% salysidic and 1% lactic acids. What is your opinion on this combination? Is it better to use a product just with glycolic acid?

    Also, I read in numerous articles that you should use sunblock daily, but doesn’t it clog the pores? I use 30SPF.

    Thanks very much,

    • That is a good combination – each acid works slightly differently so a mixture can be good. Those 3 acids work well together for a nice exfoliation. As for sunscreen, it certainly can clog pores, especially the heavier/oily ones. Most “face” sunscreens are lighter and not as clogging, but it is still very important to cleanse thoroughly and exfoliant, no matter how much the product claims to be “non pore clogging”. SPF30 is good:)
      Thanks for your comment!

    • Hi Noha
      You can use glycolic acid “indefinitely”, as it provides such a nice even exfoliation it is an ingredient that works best with consistent use. However, it’s also a good idea to have a break from it perhaps every 3months for 1 – 3 weeks. This will also increase the effectiveness once you start using it again.
      As always, keep an eye on your skin when using glycolic – or anything else – and if it gets too dry or just feels like it needs some time off, listen to your skin 🙂

  • This is certainly a great write-up. Thank you for bothering to explain all this out for all of us. It’s a great help!

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