What is Glycolic Acid and Why Should You Use It?
Glycolic acid is the smallest of all alpha hydroxy acids, which are acids used in skincare for exfoliation. Since its molecule size is so small, glycolic acid can reach deep into pores and sweep away dead skin cells and unclog pores.
This helps to speed up cell turnover, which supports a fresh and radiant complexion and a host of other skincare benefits.
If you are wondering how to use glycolic acid in your skincare routine, in this post, we’ll review how to incorporate a glycolic acid product into your routine and look at some fantastic affordable glycolic acid products.
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The Benefits of Glycolic Acid
What does glycolic acid do? Well, brighter fresher skin is just the start when it comes to the benefits of glycolic acid.
- Glycolic acid stimulates collagen production which helps the skin become firmer while minimizing fine lines and wrinkles. If used consistently, glycolic acid can noticeably reduce the signs of aging.
- Glycolic acid clears out pores which can lead to reduced breakouts and acne.
- Glycolic acid improves skin texture revealing a smoother and more even complexion.
- Glycolic acid improves skin tone helping to minimize discoloration, dark spots, and hyperpigmentation.
Glycolic Acid and Skin pH
The pH of a glycolic acid product will affect how your skin responds. A lower pH means that it is more acidic, and while it may be more effective, essentially it is more irritating.
On the other hand, if the pH of the glycolic acid product is too high, glycolic acid could be neutralized. So the trick is finding a balance between effectiveness and irritation.
Skincare products containing glycolic acid range in concentration from under 10% to as high as 30%. Look for lower concentrations if you are a beginner glycolic acid user to see how your skin responds.
Glycolic acid at 10% or less and a pH is 3.5 or higher is generally considered the optimal concentration, per FDA guidelines.
How to Add Glycolic Acid to Your Skincare Routine
When To Use Glycolic Acid?
In regard to the time of the day to use glycolic acid, it is best used at night, when your skin will not be exposed to the sun.
If you do use glycolic acid in the morning, be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher.
When first starting out with glycolic acid, start slowly to see how your skin responds.
Since it is a chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid can cause some tingling or itchiness, but it should not cause burning and redness.
Apply your glycolic acid product of choice during the step of your skincare routine that you would normally use that type of product.
For instance, if you are using a glycolic acid toner, use it right after cleansing your skin.
If you are using a glycolic acid serum, use it in the serum/treatment step of your skincare routine after cleansing and toning and before your moisturizer.
Related Post: AHA vs BHA Skincare Exfoliants: What is the Difference?
What To Use After Glycolic Acid?
If you use a glycolic acid toner, follow it with hydration and moisture. Consider using a hydrating serum, such as this one, that contains hyaluronic acid for hydration and ceramides to replenish the delicate skin barrier.
If you have sensitive skin, consider using a serum that contains soothing ingredients like aloe vera, Centella asiatica, allantoin, or chamomile.
Regardless of the type of glycolic acid product that you use, be sure to follow with a moisturizer that locks in moisture and soothes your skin.
Glycolic acid can be drying, so a rich moisturizer at the end of your skincare routine will help to offset this side effect of glycolic acid.
Effective (and Affordable) Glycolic Acid Products
Glycolic acid is available as an ingredient in a wide range of skincare products, such as cleansers, toners, serums, peels, masks, and creams.
Please note that only one of the following glycolic acid products should be used at the same time.
Here are a few effective and affordable glycolic acid products:
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Targeting dullness, hyperpigmentation, and congested skin, Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser removes makeup, oil, dirt, sunscreen, and other impurities. This cleanser goes to work on fine lines, wrinkles, acne scars, dark spots, and discoloration.
It is formulated with glycolic acid, plus chamomile, marshmallow, sage, St. John’s Wort, and yarrow extracts to increase cell turnover and balance the skin.
This glycolic acid cleanser deep cleans without stripping and leaves your face brighter with a more even skin tone.
NOTE: This cleanser should replace your regular cleanser 1-2 times a week if you have dry skin, and 2-3 times per week if you have combination/oily skin.
You can also use it 1-3 times a week on chest and back breakouts or discoloration. This cleanser is not recommended if you have sensitive skin, acne-erupted skin, or are using topical prescriptions.
Related Post: The Best Mario Badescu Products
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution is a best-seller for a reason. It is formulated with 7% glycolic acid at a pH of 3.6.
It also contains hydrating and reparative amino acids, soothing aloe vera, the emollient ginseng root, and a Tasmanian pepperberry derivative that helps to reduce irritation associated with acid use.
This is the ideal introduction to glycolic acid since this toner’s formula isn’t too strong at 7%, but it’s still very effective and affordably priced. It really helps to improve skin texture and tone.
Plus, it helps to reduce breakouts and acne scars. For more on this acid toner, please see my The Ordinary glycolic acid toner review.
They also note that this toning solution should not be used on sensitive, peeling, or otherwise compromised skin.
I have somewhat sensitive skin, and this toner causes a tingling and itchy sensation for a few minutes after application.
NOTE: The Ordinary suggests patch testing this and every new product that you try prior to using it for the first time.
- How to Build A Skincare Routine with The Ordinary Products
- Pixi Glow Tonic vs The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toner
The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Toner
Another affordable, slightly stronger glycolic acid toner, The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Toner contains 10% glycolic acid to reduce blackheads and fine lines.
This glycolic acid exfoliator also contains 5% witch hazel to reduce excess oil. Perfect for oily skin!
Related Post: The Inkey List Skincare Review
Beauty Pie Dr Glycolic Multi-Acid (6.5%) Micropeeling Pads
Beauty Pie Dr Glycolic Multi-Acid (6.5%) Micropeeling Pads are formulated to reduce clogged pores by removing dead skin cells that make skin look dull and tired.
The glycolic pads contain 5% glycolic acid plus lemon, bilberry, and orange fruit extracts (natural AHAs), skin brightening and pore-minimizing niacinamide, plus soothing and calming polysaccharides.
These glycolic acid peel pads are so easy to use. Just swipe them across your face after cleansing. You can also use them on your neck and chest, too.
The pads help to reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles texture, breakouts, hyperpigmentation, and scarring while brightening the skin.
These glycolic peel pads can be used 1-2 times a week on dry skin, 2-3 times a week on normal/combination skin, and daily on non-sensitive oily and acne-prone skin.
NOTE: Beauty Pie is a subscription-based buyers club for luxury skincare, makeup, haircare, and fragrance.
I’ve been a member for a while now, and I am never disappointed. I purchase mostly skincare products and they are excellent!
Related Post: Beauty Pie Review: Luxury Skincare at Drugstore Prices
Mad Hippie Exfoliating Serum
Mad Hippie Exfoliating Serum (now called AHA Exfoliating Peel), while on the pricey side for a drugstore-type face serum, contains 10% glycolic acid and 1% lactic acid at a pH of approximately 4.0 plus several other actives to exfoliate the skin.
It helps to reveal a brighter complexion with the reduced look of fine lines, wrinkles, discoloration, and age spots.
This serum also contains apple stem cells for additional wrinkle-fighting power, Gigawhite, a complex of 6 organically grown alpine plants to reduce the look of uneven skin tone, Matrixyl Synthe ‘6, a peptide that firms and rejuvenates, and sodium hyaluronate for hydration and moisture.
White tea and goji berry offer antioxidant benefits, while ceramides support the skin barrier.
This glycolic acid serum is a little stronger than the toners and peel pads since it contains 10% glycolic acid.
It not only increases cell turnover but also helps to minimize the appearance of acne and acne scars while revealing a smoother, more radiant complexion.
It could even be considered an affordable alternative for Good Genes. Sunday Riley Good Genes is a cult favorite AHA serum with a steep price tag.
Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Mask
Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Mask is a 10-minute facial mask that offers the benefits of a glycolic acid peel, exfoliation, and a facial mask.
This mask is formulated with glycolic, lactic, malic, and tartaric acids to remove dead skin cells and improve skin radiance.
The mask also contains squalane and hyaluronic acid to plump and hydrate the skin and uses licorice root to calm redness and irritation.
Fine mineral spheres act as physical exfoliants to polish and smooth your complexion.
The result? A reduction in the appearance of fine lines, discoloration, and enlarged pores. This glycolic mask works best for those with normal, dry, and combination skin.
Alpha Skin Care Renewal Body Lotion
Uneven, textured, and bumpy skin can occur all over your body, so the perfect product to address these issues is Alpha Skin Care Renewal Body Lotion.
This glycolic acid body lotion is formulated with 12% glycolic acid to exfoliate skin and reduce the signs of aging on your chest, neck, hands, and the rest of your body.
The glycolic acid lotion evens skin tone and texture and supports healthy collagen and elasticity in your skin while leaving your skin super smooth and soft. It’s neither sticky nor greasy.
Use this glycolic lotion or the scrub below to help reduce keratosis pilaris, the annoying skin condition of blocked hair follicles that results in tiny bumps and rough skin.
Alpha Skin Care also makes an effective glycolic acid body wash, too!
Olay KP Bump Body Scrub with Glycolic Acid
Keratosis pilaris, commonly called KP, is a condition that causes tiny bumps on the skin. Keratosis occurs when your skin produces too much keratin, which can block pores and cause annoying little bumps.
If you deal with keratosis pilaris bumps on your skin, Olay KP Bump Body Scrub with Glycolic Acid can help.
This scrub contains Olay’s Vitamin B3 Complex and glycolic acid, which exfoliates dead skin cells and helps reduce KP on the upper arms, legs, and butt.
This glycolic acid scrub contains lactic acid, another alpha hydroxy acid and chemical exfoliant, that can help smooth and soften your skin.
The scrub also contains niacinamide, a form of vitamin B3 that can help brighten your skin and replenish your skin barrier. You can use the scrub a few times a week on dry skin and then rinse.
Neutrogena Rapid Firming Peptide Contour Lift Cream
Neutrogena Rapid Firming Peptide Contour Lift Cream is an anti-aging peptide face cream that is enriched with glycolic acid to improve skin elasticity and firmness.
It is formulated with Neutrogena’s patented micro-peptide that has a small size so that it can be absorbed deeper into the skin’s surface for younger-looking skin.
Peptides are short chains of amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins and support collagen production for firmer skin
Glycolic acid supplements the micro-peptides to provide a more youthful appearance by diminishing the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
The cream also contains shea butter and squalane, which are moisturizing ingredients that help to hydrate and nourish the skin.
The cream has a non-greasy, fast-absorbing formula that feels super lightweight on the skin.
You can use the cream twice a day for lifted, plumper skin with improved cheekbone definition and the look of a more contoured jawline.
Related Post: Neutrogena Rapid Firming Peptide and Collagen Review
Glycolic Acid Side Effects
While there are many benefits of glycolic acid in skincare, it is important to note that there are some drawbacks when it comes to using glycolic acid on your skin.
Because glycolic acid has the smallest molecule size of all alpha hydroxy acids it can be the most effective, yet it also can be the most sensitizing.
Those with sensitive skin may experience redness, irritation, and dryness when using glycolic acid.
So while glycolic acid is good for normal, oily, and combination skin types, those with sensitive skin should be careful when it comes to glycolic acid.
Glycolic acid (and all alpha hydroxy acids) makes your skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays, so it is very important to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher when using glycolic acid and for a week after.
Can You Use Glycolic Acid with Retinol or Other Acids?
When determining whether or not to use glycolic acid with other potent actives like retinol, vitamin C, salicylic acid, or lactic acid, it really comes down to the formulas of the products.
Please note that these are general guidelines and depend on your skin type.
Combining Glycolic Acid with Other Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs)
In general, it is best to stick to applying one glycolic acid (direct acid) product at a time, as combining a glycolic acid product with other exfoliating acids, like lactic acid, may cause irritation and redness.
With that being said, some glycolic acid products are formulated with more than one alpha hydroxy acid for optional performance.
These products are formulated with the proper percentages of acids so that they don’t over-irritate the skin.
These multi-acid products can be effective depending on your skin tolerance.
Combining Glycolic Acid with Salicylic Acid
Glycolic acid and other alpha hydroxy acids are water-soluble, whereas salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid, is oil soluble.
So while glycolic acid is excellent for treating dull uneven skin, salicylic acid is excellent for reducing oil production, which can lead to acne.
Glycolic acid and salicylic acid can be combined, depending on your skin tolerance.
There are many products on the market that combine AHAs and BHAs at optimal percentages and with added ingredients like hyaluronic acid and emollients to minimize irritation.
Combining Glycolic Acid with Retinol
Using glycolic acid and retinol at the same time can be irritating. Retinol and glycolic acid both increase cell turnover and both have the ability to irritate and dry out your skin.
Also, each product may decrease the potency of the other product, since they are formulated to work at specific pH levels.
Your best bet would be to alternate the usage of products containing these ingredients on different nights. Or, use glycolic acid in the morning and retinol at night.
Combining Glycolic Acid with Vitamin C
Vitamin C, or L-Ascorbic Acid, is formulated at a specific pH for effectiveness. Combining glycolic acid with vitamin C will risk losing the potency of vitamin C.
Try using vitamin C products in the morning and glycolic acid products in the evening.
Related Post: How To Use The Ordinary Lactic Acid
Final Thoughts on Using Glycolic Acid in your Skincare Routine
Glycolic acid has multiple benefits for the skin and is available in a wide variety of skincare products.
In recent years drugstore brands have started to offer glycolic acid products, making this superstar anti-ager more accessible and affordable.
Thanks to glycolic acid, you can say goodbye to dull skin and dead skin cells for a brighter and more youthful complexion!
Thanks for reading!