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Glycolic Acid

This page was updated on Tue, Oct 15, 2019

Glycolic acid is one of the best and fastest acting skin care ingredients for younger looking skin.

But watch out, not all glycolic acid products work equally well. 

What is glycolic acid?

It is an alpha hydroxy acid that actually comes from nature. Yep, glycolic acid comes from sugar cane. It’s one of the alpha hydroxy acids that people have used since Cleopatra’s time. 

It is the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids and thus the best able to penetrate skin deeply. Other AHAs include lactic, malic, tartaric, mandelic and citric acids. Of them, glycolic acid is the most effective for skin aging and to exfoliate and clean pores. 

Glycolic acid works at an acid pH so it is an acid, though many consumer-friendly products are made to a less acid pH and don’t work as well. To achieve the benefits of glycolic acid, a product has to be properly formulated. AHAs and glycolic acid are well studied and used widely in dermatology, mostly for anti-aging and acne skin concerns.

What can glycolic acid do for your skin?

A good glycolic acid product can help you to get rid of wrinkles, crepey skin, lighten age spots, smooth crusty skin barnacles or unclog pores. Learn why, and find the best products to brighten your complexion and treat wrinkles, age spots, and acne all at once.

For non-prescription anti-aging skin care, glycolic acid products are the best for fixing many of the most stubborn skin problems that occur as your skin ages. Add a broad spectrum zinc oxide sunscreen along with the right professional glycolic acid product and you have a powerful anti-aging skin care routine.

I have always used professional level glycolic acid products in my dermatology practice because they are:

  • One of the best non-prescription anti-aging wrinkle creams you can use.
  • One of the best products to unclog your pores and fight blackheads and acne.
  • A skin brightener for glowing skin that works almost overnight by exfoliating and enhancing your skin using natural chemistry to reshape the outer dead skin cell layer in a way that almost polishes it to a shiny luster. This means you can get instant gratification when you add glycolic acid to your skin care!
  • A deep skin hydrator to give you more youthful, supple and hydrated skin. It does this by stimulating your skin to produce hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid is natural and important for moist, healthy skin that looks its best.
  • An excellent skin lightener that works by sloughing dead cells which hold excess melanin in melasma, age spots and skin barnacles. When patients ask me how to remove age spots and fight irregular skin pigment on the face and body skin, I always incorporate glycolic acid into their complete skin care routine.

6 scientifically proven benefits of glycolic acid for skin appearance and health.

Applying a strong glycolic acid lotion at 10% or higher in an acid pH formulation will,

  1. Increase epidermal thickness dramatically (by 17%). Meaning it can reverse some of the skin thinning that happens with age.
  2. Increase epidermal hyaluronic acid content (by 180%) and hyaluronic acid dermal content too (9%). This increases the water binding capacity of your skin. Your skin is plumper and the appearance of your wrinkles is lessened. Hyaluronic acid also helps to make your skin less fragile, and it’s healthier because cells and nutrients can move around in it better.
  3. Turn on the genes for making skin collagen (3 times greater than before). Meaning you might actually really get rid of some wrinkles because reversing wrinkles requires that your skin makes collagen in the dermis (the deeper part of your skin) below the epidermis (the top living layer).
  4. Even-out irregular skin pigmentation. Meaning it can get rid of your age spots and even help lighten hyperpigmentation from melasma.
  5. Reverse the signs of classic sun damage in the epidermis that we see under the microscope. Making the structure of your skin look more like a kid’s when we view it under a microscope (in doctor speak there is a reversal of basal cell atypia and return of the normal undulating rete pattern).
  6. Exfoliate the dead skin cells. Meaning your skin looks dewy and moist and feels softer.

How does glycolic acid exfoliate skin?

Glycolic acid dissolves the glue holding your skin cells together. The process by which glycolic acid exfoliates skin is called chemical exfoliation. This mostly happens in the dead cell layer called the stratum corneum. It can also work into the living epidermal layer. This reveals radiant, glowing, bright and smooth skin. Fine lines and wrinkles, hyperpigmentation skin problems, and acne scars are softened by this exfoliation.

How do you use glycolic acid?

The most popular ways are in creams, lotions and cleansers. They can also be applied to the skin for a glycolic acid skin peel. I’ve relied on it for my patients, both as part of their skin care product routine and for in office face peels for over 30 years.

Your skin has to adjust to glycolic acid. As an acid, it has the potential to irritate sensitive skin. Start with lower concentration products and use them a few times a week.

Test a small patch of skin first. Gradually increase from 10, to 15 and finally to 20 % products if your skin allows. If skin ever becomes irritated, or if you have a sun burn or injury, do not apply glycolic acid until skin is healed.

When you use these products in your complete skin care routine they act as powerful skin lightening products that fight crepey skin, wrinkles and skin roughness, moisturize dry skin and brighten skin tone.  With so many benefits, you can see why glycolic acid is an important component in so many facial and body skin care products.

How do you tell if a glycolic acid product will work?

Products need to be made to a pH of about 4 and with a very high concentration of glycolic acid over 10% to work for anti-aging skin problems. As a consumer it is hard to know if a product meets these formulation criteria. My creams and lotions to fight the skin problems of aging and sun damage are formulated to these criteria. Acne and pore cleaning glycolic acid products will work with less stringent criteria. 

Don’t be fooled. Not all glycolic acid products deliver results. Product pH and free acid content determine effectiveness. You can’t tell this from reading the product label. Only the lab that made the product knows this information and it takes effort to find it.

Even if the percentage of glycolic acid is listed on a product you still don’t have enough information to judge a glycolic acid product. It’s the chemistry of all the ingredients together that determines how much ‘free’ glycolic acid is in a product to fix your skin problems.

My glycolic acid creams and lotions have high ‘free acid’ content; they are the most powerful products available for home use. These are the products that I’ve used to treat my patients for years in my dermatology practice. My family and I have also used these products for years. In fact, my entire family has at least one of these glycolic acid products in their personal complete skin care routine.  

I’m a big glycolic acid fan. I've watched products come and go and change over the years and I know that the glycolic acid products I have on are the best available. Without fail, these products deliver the best results for all those benefits I listed above.

How do you pick the right glycolic acid product for your facial skin type?

To make your choices simple I have a Glycolic Acid Facial Skin Care Kit that fits all skin types. It provides your glycolic acid cleanser and oil-free cream in 3 different strengths. Start at 10% and work up as your skin adjusts. Add one of my zinc oxide sunscreens, also based on your skin type, and you have a powerful anti-aging skin care routine that will transform your complexion and fight the signs of skin aging over the course of your lifetime. 

How do you combine glycolic acid products with other acne and anti-aging products?

If your goal is to use the most powerful anti-aging products possible for your skin, consider combining one of my Glycolic Acid Kits with my Retinol Intensive Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream.

Use your Glycolic Acid Kit products during the day followed by one of my Facial Zinc Oxide Sunscreens and use the Retinol Cream at night. If you have really tolerant skin you can layer the Retinol Cream followed by the Glycolic Acid Cream at night.

To get every single proven age-fighting ingredient into your complete facial skin care routine, you will want to combine:

  1. My Antioxidant Antiaging Skin Care Kit
  2. A Glycolic Acid Kit 
  3. Retinol Anti-Wrinkle Night Cream

Use the Antioxidant Antiaging Kit during the day. Use the Glycolic Acid Kit products at night, layered over the Retinol.  Sensitive skin complexions may need to work up to this powerful routine. My kits come with instructions for step-up therapy to build skin fitness. 

This really is the best of the best from science and nature for today's intelligent anti-aging skin care. Whether you choose glycolic acid alone or in combination with my Antioxidant Kit and/or my Retinol Cream, the results are astounding!

What is the best way to use glycolic acid on your body skin?

My Ultra Fast Body Smoothing Triple Action Skin Care Kit comes with everything you need. Add a broad spectrum zinc oxide body sunscreen daily and you are set.

Know that all the other proven age-fighting ingredients such as vitamin C and Retinol are difficult to formulate into products that have meaningful penetration through thick body skin. This means that your best results are going to come from using powerful professional glycolic acid products like those in my Glycolic Acid Body Kit.


Bernstein, EF, et. al. (including Van Scott, E), Glycolic Acid Treatment Increases Type 1 Collagen mRNA and Hyaluronic Acid Content of Human Skin, Dermatologic Surgery 2001;27:429-433

Ditre CM et. al. (including Van Scott, E), Effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on photoaged skin; A pilot clinical, histologic, and ultrastructural study, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 1996;34:187-195