Everything you need to know about glycolic acid (including how often you should be using it)

If there’s one beauty lesson that the recent surge in popularity of powerful skincare ingredients has taught us, it’s that as a skincare consumer in 2019, it’s really important to know what you’re putting on your face. Gone are the days of skincare claims being written off as marketing baloney, skincare means business.

And, while we’re the first to admit that the ‘miracle’ product claims that saturate the skincare industry should be approached with caution, there are a handful of terms to keep an eye out for – because they actually work. Sitting up high on this pedestal, alongside the likes of retinol and vitamin C, is glycolic acid.

Even if you’re not massively into skincare (i.e. if a simple cleanse, tone, moisturise is enough to please you), it’s likely you’ve come across the word ‘glycolic’ plastered across products far and wide. From the super luxe to drugstore regulars, all of the major beauty brands have an impressive glycolic offering. So what’s the fuss all about?

Well, it’s got a lot to do with its seriously effective exfoliating properties. Unlike a physical exfoliator (or scrub), glycolic acid works to chemically exfoliate the skin, making it a hero ingredient amongst those that suffer from breakouts, dullness and pigmentation. But glycolic isn’t just your average skin acid, its low molecular weight makes it exceptionally effective and able to penetrate the skin at a much deeper level than its other acid counterparts.

But, as with everything in skincare, there’s some caveats to its success. The powerful abilities of glycolic acid mean it can be damaging if used too frequently or incorrectly. So how exactly should glycolic acid be used if you want to reap all of its complexion-rescuing benefits? Here’s your handy guide…

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What is glycolic acid?

An Alpha Hydroxy Acid, glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant derived from sugar cane. Dr Maryam Zamani, Aesthetic Doctor at Cadogan Clinic explains: “Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is used in skincare or treatments for anti-ageing benefits such as fine lines and wrinkle reduction, as well as reducing the appearance of pigmentation.” As mentioned earlier, unlike other AHAs like lactic and citric acid, the light molecular weight of glycolic makes it the most powerful and effective of all the Alphas.

What are the benefits?

Just like all AHAs, glycolic acid works to weaken and dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together and speed up cell turnover. “As an exfoliant, glycolic acid is used in the treatment of several skin conditions such as acne, scars, pigmentation, skin dryness and wrinkles by acting on the epidermal and dermal layers. Clinical trials have shown the effectiveness of this ingredient in reversing the effects of photoageing and improving wrinkles, skin elasticity, tone and hydration,” reveals Dr Zamani. In short, you can expect clearer, more even, glowing skin with regular use.

Are there any risks?

As with all acids, glycolic comes with its baggage. And, due to its low molecular weight, incorrect use can actually prove more problematic than it might with other AHAs. Dr Zamani says: “Overusing glycolic acid can leave the skin red, dry and more sensitive to the sun. This can cause premature ageing, thinning of the skin and heightened risk of pigmentation.”

As a result of these risks, there are some other ingredients you need to steer clear of if you’re using glycolic. “If you have sensitive skin then it is best to be cautious with some products. For example, skin that is sensitive to retinol may also have a similar effect when using glycolic acid. Using products that contain both those ingredients at the same time could cause problems. This is due to the retinol accelerating cell turnover and the glycolic acid contributing to exfoliation. Also, ingredients such as peptides should not be used with glycolic acid as this will alter the pH of the skin and reduce the efficacy of the peptides,” says Dr Zamani.

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Skin type must be taken into consideration before you reach for the glycolic. Dr Jonquille Chantrey, Surgeon and International Beauty Lecturer advises: “I recommend patients with uncontrolled skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis should not use glycolic acid as it can increase irritability causing further symptoms. A sunscreen should always be used concurrently so those that continue to not adhere to sun protection should avoid high strength glycolic acid. I have seen many cases over the years of inappropriate application leading to uneven skin tone areas and even superficial surface scarring.”

How do you use it?

When it comes to choosing your preferred glycolic product, you’re actually quite spoilt for choice. “There are so many delivery options of this versatile acid. It is most commonly used in facial cleansers, toners, exfoliating creams and of course peels. I personally like it in either a wash off cleanser or an exfoliating cream,” says Dr Chantrey.

How often you use glycolic is also of vital importance. It’s key to make sure that you are not over-exfoliating. Many experts argue that even products that advise daily use should only be used a few times a week. Dr Chantrey says: “For an oily skin type that tolerates salicylic acid well for sebum control, the addition of glycolic acid twice a week can stop dead cell build up.”

And remember, if you’re using glycolic, it’s key to be vigilant with daily SPF application.

Sound like something you might benefit from? Here’s our pick of the best glycolic products available…


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