How to Use Glycolic Acid in Skin Care

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) made from sugar cane. It is one of the most widely used AHAs in skin care products.

AHA is a natural acid derived from plants. They are made up of tiny molecules that are very easy for your skin to absorb. This makes them ideal for smoothing fine lines, improving skin texture and other anti-aging uses.

This article takes a closer look at what glycolic acid is and how it can help your skin. It also includes tips on how to choose the right product for you and how to use it safely.

How Glycolic Acid Works

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecule of all AHAs. This allows glycolic acid to absorb into the skin and exfoliate better than other AHAs.

Glycolic acid works by accelerating cell turnover. In other words, it dissolves the bonds that hold skin cells together. In fact, your skin is able to shed dead skin cells faster than itself.

Glycolic acid also triggers your skin to produce more collagen. Collagen is the protein that makes the skin firm, plump and elastic. It also provides strength to your bones and connective tissue.

As you age, your skin produces less collagen. Collagen can also be destroyed when you spend too much time in the sun. Daily use of glycolic acid helps prevent collagen breakdown.

What is Liquid Collagen?

what it does to your skin

Glycolic acid is a very popular treatment for a number of reasons, including:

  • Anti-aging: Smoothes fine lines and improves skin tone and texture.
  • Hydration: It plumps the skin and prevents it from drying out.
  • Sunburn: It lightens dark spots caused by sunburn and protects collagen from sun exposure.
  • Skin Tone: Brightens skin tone with regular use.
  • Exfoliating: It prevents ingrown hairs and makes pores appear smaller by helping the skin slough off dead skin cells.
  • Acne: It cleans pores and prevents pimples, blackheads and inflamed breakouts.

Although many sources claim that glycolic acid can eliminate scars, this is one thing it simply cannot do. Glycolic acid can lighten dark spots left by acne or other wounds. It also softens the appearance of raised and indented scars without making them disappear.

A better scar treatment is a professional strength glycolic acid peel or a completely different scar treatment.

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Glycolic acid is made up of tiny molecules that are well absorbed by the skin. It protects collagen and helps your skin slough off dead skin cells. This process smoothes and brightens your skin, keeps pores clean, and prevents ingrown hairs and acne.

where to find it

If you are looking for glycolic acid, you have many options. This skincare darling can be found in many over-the-counter (OTC) products.

Try your local drugstore, market, or skin spa. You’ll find many cleansers, masks, toners, and moisturizers that contain glycolic acid. OTC glycolic acid products are often at concentrations as high as 10%.

For stronger treatments, glycolic acid is also present in chemical peels. Beauticians can perform a light glycolic acid peel of up to 30% intensity in a salon or skin spa. Powerful peels of up to 70% can be obtained in a dermatology office.

Although glycolic acid is made from sugar cane, the sugar you buy at the store is not exactly the same. Rubbing your face with sugar can exfoliate and leave your skin feeling smoother. But it won’t give you the same results as glycolic acid treatment.

Choosing the Right Skin Treatment

The glycolic acid treatment you choose will largely depend on your skin type and your ultimate goals. OTC products containing glycolic acid may be enough to make your skin brighter and healthier. They may also be enough to prevent breakouts and reduce fine lines without the need for a stronger professional peel.

Professional skin peels are a good option if you want to treat a specific skin problem. For example, a professional peel can help treat sunburn, dark spots, acne, or deeper wrinkles. They will give you better results faster. But because these peels contain a higher percentage of glycolic acid, they carry a greater risk of irritation.

The percentage of glycolic acid it contains is only one factor to consider when choosing any glycolic acid treatment agent. The pH of the product is another. The more acidic a product is, the stronger and more effective it will be on your skin, despite how much glycolic acid it contains.

Of course, most skin care products only list the percentage of glycolic acid used. They don’t need to list pH, which makes comparing products a bit difficult.


OTC skin care products contain up to 10% glycolic acid and are a good choice for daily skin care. Pro peels contain up to 70% glycolic acid. They can quickly reduce stubborn pimples, deep wrinkles and sunburn, but are more prone to bothering your skin.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Safely

In general, glycolic acid is very safe and works well for your skin. However, to keep your skin safe, there are a few things to know before using glycolic acid.

First, you must apply sunscreen when you are using glycolic acid treatment. Like all AHAs, glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. You don’t want to destroy all the benefits your glycolic acid does, and you don’t want to end up with a sunburn.

Get your skin used to glycolic acid. If you are using an over-the-counter product, start with 3 times a week for about a week. If your skin is not red or irritated, try using it four times a week for one to two weeks.

Continue to slowly build up usage in this way until you are able to use it every day. If your skin becomes irritated at any point, give your skin a break before trying again.

For in-office or in-salon peels, you might start with a smaller amount of glycolic acid. If your skin tolerates it well, you will most likely get a higher intensity with your next peel.

Your skin may feel a little rough after the first few treatments. This is normal and just means that glycolic acid is working. Keep using your glycolic acid products unless your skin is irritated. You should slowly start seeing smoother, healthier skin.

Do not use glycolic acid, even over-the-counter, if you are currently using a topical retinoid such as Retin-A (retinoic acid) or Dufferin (adapalene), Accutane (isotretinoin), or anything that quickly exfoliates the skin product.

Most importantly, if you’re under the care of a dermatologist, make sure to get their approval before using any glycolic acid product or completing a peel.


Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid derived from sugar cane. When absorbed into the skin, it promotes cell turnover. This makes glycolic acid a great exfoliator for healthier-looking, more radiant skin.

Glycolic acid is a common ingredient in many OTC and professional skin care products, especially anti-aging products. It also supports collagen production, protects skin from sun damage, and prevents clogged pores.

If you need any help choosing a glycolic acid product, your dermatologist can help you.

VigorTip words

Glycolic acid OTC products and professional peels have been around for a long time. They have a safety record and are known to do wonders for the skin. Most skin types can easily use them.

If you have very sensitive skin, you may want to stick to a wash-off glycolic acid product, such as a cleanser. These are less likely to bother your skin than leave-in glycolic acid treatments. They also allow your skin to build tolerance in a way that doesn’t bother your skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does glycolic acid do to your face?

    Glycolic acid exfoliates, accelerates cell turnover and boosts collagen production. Glycolic acid helps clean pores, smooth fine lines, improve skin tone, lighten dark spots and sunburn, and hydrate skin for younger-looking skin.

  • Is it safe to use glycolic acid every day?

    Not at first. Glycolic acid can irritate your skin, and it may take a while for your skin to get used to it.

    Start with 3 applications per week. If your skin is not red or irritated, apply it four times over the next week. As your skin begins to tolerate glycolic acid, slowly increase the number of days you use glycolic acid.

    If at any point your skin starts to become irritated, stop using glycolic acid until the redness and irritation go away.

  • Can Glycolic Acid Treat Scars?

    Will not. Despite marketing claims, there is no scientific evidence to support the use of glycolic acid for scarring. Glycolic acid may help soften the appearance of scars, but it won’t make them disappear.

  • What should you know before using glycolic acid?

    Glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. When using glycolic acid, sunscreen must be applied outdoors.

    Do not use topical tretinoin and glycolic acid at the same time. Avoid other products that quickly exfoliate the skin while using glycolic acid.

    If you’re currently seeing a dermatologist, talk to them before using any products that contain glycolic acid.