Glycolic Acid: What does it do for the skin?

Glycolic Acid: What does it do for the skin?

For those of us with acne-prone skin or those who suffer with pigmentation from scarring, we are constantly on the look out for a product that can help keep our pores clear to prevent future breakouts and also remove the dull outer layer of dead skin cells, to reveal the fresh, glowy skin underneath. The powerful chemical that can do both is Glycolic Acid.
It's easy to add Glycolic Acid into your skincare routine as loads of beauty products now contain this clever molecule. Whether it be a toner, a moisturiser or a more targeted beauty item like a mask, this acid works hard to improve your skin overall vibrancy.

This blog will answer the question of "what is Glycolic Acid?" amongst many others, and discuss its properties and benefits for the skin. Feel free to skip through to the specific topics below:

1. What is Glycolic Acid and whats does it do? 
2. How does Glycolic Acid work?
3. What does Glycolic Acid do for your skin?
4. How long until you start seeing results?
5. Side effects of Glycolic Acid
6. Which skin type is Glycolic Acid suitable for?
7. How is Glycolic Acid made?
8. How does Glycolic Acid compare to Hyaluronic and Salicylic Acid?
9. How do you incorporate Glycolic Acid into your skincare regime?

What is Glycolic Acid?

A favourite in the skincare world, Glycolic Acid is the smallest of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids - or AHAs.

It’s actually probably the most-studied skincare ingredient, and has a whole plethora of benefits. It seems to be in everything - from acne-battling cleansers to anti-ageing skincare. 

What does it do?

We know, we know - putting acid on your skin sounds all kinds of scary. Trust us, though: you don’t need to fret. Bottom line? Glycolic Acid helps to sort out breakouts, smooth uneven skin, and even has some anti-ageing properties. It’s no wonder it’s all over the place!

How does Glycolic Acid work?

While most people are familiar with physical exfoliation, which involves manually buffing away the dead skin from the surface, Glycolic Acid is one of a class of chemical exfoliants.

Chemical exfoliants - despite the name - are often actually more delicate on the skin compared to manual exfoliants like scrubs, as they won’t cause microtears from friction. That’s why you’ll often find that facial exfoliants contain gentle chemical exfoliants like Glycolic Acid, while body products lean towards physical particles for the denser, less sensitive skin of your limbs.

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Glycolic Acid: The bond breaker

OK, we’re about to get technical. The topmost layer of your skin - or Stratum Corneum - is normally composed of tightly packed layers of dead skin cells, all of which are bonded together with a glue-like substance made up of tight junctions.
These junctions are designed to hold the skin cells together, dead or not - so sometimes they need a little encouragement to break down.

Glycolic Acid eats away at these bonds, freeing the individual cells to slide easily off your face - and thereby providing a very gentle exfoliation.

That’s not the end of it, though: Glycolic Acid is particularly useful - and interesting - because it’s the smallest of the AHAs and has such a low molecular weight. Deep in your skin, it has some serious benefits!

Glycolic Acid helps to stimulate a type of cell known as a fibroblast which - amongst other things - produces collagen. This stimulation means that your skin will start to produce more collagen naturally - which in turn means that your skin gets stronger, more elastic, and even maintains hydration levels more efficiently - hello plump, firmer skin!

Back on the surface of the skin, the dead skin cells are loose, and can simply be rinsed away, leaving your skin smooth and glowing. Think that doesn’t sound all that impressive? Think again.

Is this the same as a chemical peel?

Using a low concentration of Glycolic Acid on the face, say 10% and under, is not considered a chemical peel. You shouldn't experience any burning or discomfort, or any peeling!

When talking about chemical peels, the concentration of the chosen acid is a lot higher. For Glycolic acid, this can range from 20% up to 50% and can only be used when getting a treatment done at a clinic, with a doctor or qualified beautician. The acid is applied to the skin, then followed by a neutralising base to stop the reaction.

The client then has to carry out the rest of the treatment at home by applying moisturisers as directed, avoiding sunlight and also not give into the temptation of picking at the skin! Over the course of a couple of weeks, the strong acid breaks down the top layer of skin and the skin begins to peel, revealing fresh, new skin underneath.

What does Glycolic Acid do for your skin?

One of the major causes of breakouts - whether acne or blackheads - is the accumulation of dead skin cells in our pores.

Sadly, that’s not the only cause: a build up of sebum - the oil your skin naturally produces - and proteins that your skin generates can also lead to breakouts. That’s why people with oily skin are more prone to the occasional blemish.

Luckily for us, though, Glycolic Acid is a bit of a miracle worker here. Not only does it break down the bonds between dead skin cells, thereby immediately battling one of the factors for acne; its tiny size means it can really get down into the follicles - which is where you’ll find the piles of sebum and protein.
Once there, the acid works to loosen these troublemakers, leaving you clear-faced and breakout-free.

So, Glycolic Acid is great for acne. But is that enough to keep our attention?

The benefits of Glycolic Acid on the skin

As we age, we often find that our skin becomes drier. Those with oily skin - rejoice! Fewer breakouts are on the horizon. However, ageing brings with it its own problems! Those same dead skin cells that clog up our pores also tend to stick around on the surface - which can lead to a general dullness, as well as settling into fine lines.

When we’re young, our naturally faster skin cycle counteracts this to a great extent, but as we age and our skin cycle slows down, newer cells are produced at a slower rate, and the defunct dead cells tend to stick around longer.

By using a gentle exfoliant like Glycolic Acid, the old cells are encouraged to detach from the newer, more vibrant cells, leaving your face looking radiant.
Its collagen-stimulating properties also mean that fine lines are filled out and skin appears more elastic.

If you couple Glycolic Acid with an ingredient which stimulates cellular renewal, like Retinol, you’re onto a winner!

Even more impressive is the fact that just by using a product containing Glycolic Acid, you’re prepping your skin to absorb other ingredients with more efficacy. It even helps makeup to cling to the skin!

A blue and gold gift box with the title The Glow Boosters on a table with a vase and plant and three skincare products: Liquid Radiance Glycolic Toner, Bio-Retinol + C Booster and Bio-Retinol Gold Mask by Evolve Organic Beauty

How long does it take for Glycolic Acid to work?

Because Glycolic Acid is relatively gentle, it can be used in a number of ways, and so it’s difficult to say how long it will take to see the full results.

However, some benefits of Glycolic Acid can be seen instantly. If you use a mask formula, which can deliver a more potent dose than something like a cleanser or moisturiser, you’ll notice your skin looking plumper and glowing as soon as you wash it off.

If you’re using a product containing Glycolic Acid regularly and over a sustained period of time, you’ll start to see the full wonders!
  •  After about a month, you’ll notice that you have fewer blemishes, as the Glycolic Acid works to keep your pores clean.
  • Two months in, you’ll notice your skin tone has become more even and is less prone to discolouration.
  • Between one and six months - depending on your skin and skin cycle - your new boosted collagen production means that you’ll see a decrease in fine lines and wrinkles, your skin will be firmer and more elastic, and you might even notice a reduction in the appearance of scars.

The side effects of Glycolic Acid

We hope we’ve convinced you of the good reasons to be using Glycolic Acid by now, but there are some possible side effects to consider, along with questioning whether the balance between side effect and benefit is worth it.

In most commercial skincare products, you’re unlikely to find a concentration of any AHA, including Glycolic Acid, above 10%. This low concentration means it’s generally safe for skin - anything higher is usually used by skincare or medical professionals.

However, even though it’s generally safe for the skin, Glycolic Acid, as well as others in the AHA family, can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. This is because it removes the layer of dead skin cells, leaving new cells on the surface. Just like when you wax body hair, a layer of skin is removed as well, and the underlying fresh skin is more susceptible to UV damage.

One easy way to get around this is to use products containing Glycolic Acid at night, and then follow with an SPF during the day - which you should be doing anyway!

Sadly, Glycolic Acid can also cause some mild irritation to the skin. Because of this, it’s always a good idea to do a patch test before applying the product to your entire face. If you do use Glycolic Acid and feel your skin becoming itchy, swollen or turning red, rinse off the product immediately.


Which skin type is Glycolic Acid suitable for?

Glycolic Acid can be used by those with any skin type, but its full benefits are most obvious in those with oily, dull, or ageing skin.

The clearing, pore-declogging action can be useful for everyone, especially if you live in a city or regularly do something that leaves residue on your face.

Similarly, regular exfoliation is beneficial to everyone: it removes the dull top layer and lets your skin glow. However, mature skin, which is more likely to accumulate skin cells due to the slowing down of the skin cycle - will have the most marked improvement.

Meanwhile, the stimulation of fibroblasts means an uptick in collagen production, which again is most obvious in mature skin, which is typically lacking elasticity.

Acne prone skin

Can Glycolic Acid be used on sensitive or acne prone skin?

Those with sensitive skin are prone to being cautious about trying new products - and rightly so. This skin sensitivity might mean you’re more prone to irritation, but it doesn’t mean you have to avoid Glycolic Acid altogether.

If you know you have sensitive skin but want to try using Glycolic Acid, you could always build up to it: use a diluted formula, or use a product containing it once a week to start with. Then, when your skin has adjusted, you can up the frequency or concentration, using it more often.

When it comes to acne, one of the best ways to combat it is to regularly exfoliate skin, which is where ingredients like Glycolic Acid come into their own.

Using Glycolic Acid is keep blemishes at bay

Because Glycolic Acid is so much gentler than its physical counterparts, it doesn’t pull or tear at the skin, meaning there are fewer opportunities for acne bacteria to take hold.

Keeping your skin intact and healthy is one of the key ways to keep acne at bay - that’s why picking at or squeezing blemishes is so terrible! Regular exfoliation - physical or chemical - will allow your skin to purge any build up of proteins and sebum as well as losing the top layer of skin.

Furthermore, Glycolic Acid is able to help your skin regulate sebum production in the first place - which banishes oily skin and reduces the chances of clogged pores and acne.

The increase in collagen is also responsible for mild scar reduction - so if you’ve been suffering from acne for a while and have the scars to prove it, you might also see some relief from those by using Glycolic Acid.

However, if you’re using prescribed acne medication like Roaccutane, your skin is likely to already be very sensitive - so consult your doctor and do a patch test before use.


How is Glycolic Acid made?

Glycolic acid can be extracted from natural sources like sugarcane, sugar beets, pineapple, cantaloupe and unripe grapes.

In fact, you can make your own with ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen. Combine cane sugar with plain yogurt for a moisturising scrub that utilises the benefits of both Glycolic and Lactic Acids.

Is it a natural product?

It is traditionally a natural product, although it can now be synthetically generated too. It can be synthesized by combining formaldehyde and synthesis gas, which is a low-cost but non-natural option.

In most organic and natural skincare, Glycolic Acid is derived from natural agents like sugarcane - though it’s always worth checking to see where the Glycolic Acid in a product has come from.

How does Glycolic Acid compare to Hyaluronic and Salicylic Acid?

Here’s further evidence that acids need not be scary: Glycolic Acid certainly isn’t the only one we like!

Skincare giants Hyaluronic Acid and Salicylic Acid are frequently used, and have become pretty commonplace in certain products.

 Used primarily as a hydrating agent. It binds to water molecules and so maintains and boosts skin’s moisture levels. There are many molecular weights of Hyaluronic Acid, and the smaller the molecule, the deeper into the skin it can penetrate.
Used primarily by those battling acne as it's great at reducing redness in the skin. In many ways, it’s quite similar to Glycolic Acid: both exfoliate the skin and both can combat blemishes.
Amber pump bottle containing Hyaluronic Serum 200 by Evolve Organic Beauty

Hyaluronic Serum 200 - £32


Salicylic Rescue Serum - £23 


However, while Glycolic Acid is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid, Salicylic Acid is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) - which means that it’s oil soluble, rather than water soluble.

BHAs generally penetrate skin more deeply than AHAs because of their oil soluble properties. However, Salicylic Acid has a bad habit of drying out and irritating skin, especially when used in concentrated doses over a prolonged period of time.

That’s why you’ll often see topical spot treatments containing Salicylic Acid, with warnings to use them on just the affected area as opposed to the whole face.

How to incorporate Glycolic Acid into your skincare regime?

Glycolic Acid can be used at almost any stage of your skincare regime. However, due to the likelihood of it increasing your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight, it’s better to use it regularly at night time. If you choose to use it in the mornings, we suggest you apply it under your moisturiser. Remember, Glycolic Acid can make your skin slightly more sensitive to the sun so make sure you follow with some sun protection too!

There are plenty of cleansers, serums and moisturisers out there which all contain Glycolic Acid, all of which work over time to exfoliate your skin.

However, if you’re using a targeted solution like a face mask, you should use it after cleansing, and follow with a serum of your choice and a soothing moisturiser to counteract any skin irritation.

Is it good under make up?

Yes, Glycolic Acid is great under makeup! It allows the skin to ‘grip’ base layers like foundation, making it longer lasting.

The smoother your skin, the less chance that your makeup will flake off, and equally the less oily your skin, the less chance that foundation will slide off. Glycolic Acid helps to regulate oil production and evens out the skin, so your makeup should stay flawless all night long!

Once all the products have sunk in, you’re free to apply makeup.

One of the brilliant things about Glycolic Acid is that it helps to prep skin to absorb other ingredients, meaning your serum and moisturiser will be the most effective they can be.

Is Glycolic Acid okay for everyday use?

Depending on the concentration, yes, you can use Glycolic Acid every day. If you’re new to chemical exfoliants, you should work up to using it every day slowly rather than overdoing it at the beginning.

There are toners and cleansers that use low doses of Glycolic Acid, combined with other soothing ingredients, that are suitable for use every day.

However, many products containing Glycolic Acid are designed as targeted exfoliants, and so shouldn’t be used too often - once or twice a week at most.
It’s best to follow the instructions on the packet when it comes to how often you should use a product.

You should also be particularly careful if you’re going to be exposed to more sunshine than usual. For example, you might be happy using Glycolic Acid every day when you’re at home, but when you jet off on holiday to spend a week outside, it’s an idea to cut back the usage until you’re home - and remember to wear SPF!
A warm throw blanket with an jar of Tropical Blossom Body Polish and Tropical Blossom Body Butter plus a cinnamon stick on a wooden table

For your body, you can exfoliate with our Tropical Blossom Body Polish and finish with our Body Butter
Suitable for all skin types - £32
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What part of your body should you use Glycolic Acid on?

Due to its gentle exfoliating nature, Glycolic Acid is best used on the more sensitive skin of your face.

Tougher areas of your body - like the skin on your legs or arms - will probably benefit more from a physical scrub.

However, if you suffer from Keratosis Pilaris (or ‘chicken skin’) - which is a collection of keratin under your skin that leads to small white bumps on the surface - Glycolic Acid can be instrumental in clearing this up.

Realistically, using products containing Glycolic Acid on any part of your body will still have exfoliating effects - you’re just most likely to see the benefit on your face.

So, what does Glycolic Acid do? Aside from ticking almost all of our ideal-ingredient boxes, that is! Glycolic Acid works to battle blemishes and fight fine lines, as well as gently exfoliating skin and banishing dullness.

Is it something you’ll be incorporating into your skincare routine?

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