You might have noticed that natural acids are becoming more and more prevalent as the preferred ingredients for a variety of products in the beauty and skincare industry. And for good reason - as our scientific understanding of nature and our bodies increases, we discover that these, mostly harmless acids, are powerful allies in helping our skin be healthy. So far, we’ve covered the amazing benefits of hyaluronic acid for acne, salicylic acid, L-lysine for acne, and we even compared hyaluronic acid and glycolic acid. And today, let’s look at the benefits of glycolic acid for the skin.
Glycolic acid is one of the many “fruit acids” going under the collective acronym of AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids). AHA acids are, as the name will tell you, mostly found in various kinds of fruit, with the main industrial source of them being the sugar cane. AHA acids, including glycolic acid, can be derived from many fruits. However, the AHA acids derived from sugar cane are considered to be some of the safest ones for human use. While the specific reasons for this are not well known, it can be speculated that humans are better adapted to sugar cane, than to this or that exotic fruit.
Or, it may be because the glycolic acid derivative from sugar cane is the most similar to the one our bodies naturally produce. That’s right - we’re not fruits, and yet we too, produce glycolic acid. As a product of our metabolic processes, glycolic acid is naturally produced in the human body, in small amounts. Scientists call this human-made glycolic acid hydroxyacetic acid. However, the amounts our bodies produce are far from enough, and besides - we can’t just extract glycolic acid from our bodies to then apply it on our skin. The amount would just be too small, and besides, If someone actually does that… It would be hella creepy.
So, glycolic acid is an AHA. But what does it do? Let’s find out.
Glycolic acid is sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Exfoliants.” There are good reasons for that title, but it’s mostly due to what glycolic acid naturally does. See, this AHA, like some of the others (say, hyaluronic acid) dissolves dead skin cells, typically found on the surface of the skin, by breaking the bonds that hold them together. Glycolic acid is therefore helpful in the natural cycle of the regeneration of the skin, helping our body renew itself.
But not only that - this acid performs a bunch of other important roles in the maintenance of good skin health. For example, glycolic acid stimulates the production of collagen and elastin, which are the building blocks of many tissues in the body, including the skin. Elastin makes our skin flexible and elastic, while collagen is the glue that keeps our skin cells together. Additionally, glycolic acid promotes the creation of brand new skin cells as well, speeding up the rejuvenation process of our skin. All of this makes glycolic acid a key friend in achieving a young looking, clear skin, and maintaining a flawless, glowing complexion.
As if that wasn’t enough, glycolic acid has a number of anti-aging properties as well, making it suitable for people who want to get rid of lines, wrinkles, blemishes and other kinds of discoloration.
The combined exfoliating and rejuvenating properties of glycolic acid make it a popular candidate for exfoliating products and chemical peels. Which is not to say that it can’t be found in many anti-acne creams, moisturizers, and skincare gels aimed at healing scars and so on. Glycolic acid is simply too useful to be reduced to one type of application. And when it comes to applications, let’s see the most useful ones.
As we pointed out above, glycolic acid can be used for a variety of purposes and in a variety of ways. However, some uses are, well, more useful than others, and conversely, other uses are less useful than others. For example, you wouldn’t want to use glycolic acid as a spot treatment, because the benefits of doing that would be negligible, making the entire procedure questionable at best.
Which is not to say that there are no applications of glycolic acid that are not useful. In fact, some applications are exactly what made this AHA so popular. So, here are some of the best and most useful ones.
By now, you’re probably aware of how acne comes to be. The cocktail of dead skin cells, excess skin oil (sebum), plus acne-causing bacteria and random dirt all clog your pores. And clogged pores are basically acne embryos because if you don’t take action, that’s what they’ll become - fully grown acne. In a sense, acne prevention can be done by disrupting or disabling any of the elements in the acne-forming chain we just described. And, glycolic acid is an expert in breaking one of them - dead skin cells.
As we mentioned above, glycolic acid breaks up the bonds that hold skin cells together. While this may give you some pause, you shouldn’t worry. Glycolic acid is too weak to dissolve your normal skin, and besides, it can’t even penetrate that deeply. However, these bonds are much weaker when it comes to aging, or dead skin cells, which become stuck on the surface of your skin. That makes them prone to clogging up your pores, and this is where glycolic acid comes in as super handy.
Introducing a glycolic acid cleanser in your skincare routine can thus help you prevent acne. By mopping up your skin of all the dead skin cells, it helps keep your pores clean and unclogged, instead of clogged and infected. Therefore, glycolic acid can be very helpful in acne prevention. Additionally, since this useful acid also promotes the production of collagen, elastin and new skin cells, it can be used as a regenerating treatment and applied after your active breakouts have healed.
As we mentioned briefly above, glycolic acid is often referred to as one of the best exfoliants out there. Its specific molecular structure allows it to dissolve the so-called “glue” that keeps skin cells attached to one another. Since this effect is only powerful enough to affect the surface layer of the skin, glycolic acid is harmless to normal skin. It only sloughs off the dead, and dying skin cells at the top layer of our skin.
Now, the top layer of our skin is the one that’s directly exposed to the elements. It has to deal with intense heat waves during summer and extreme colds during winter while suffering the corrosive effects of free radicals produced by pollution. Last but not least, the surface layer of the skin is constantly bombarded with the Sun’s harmful UV rays. All of this makes the surface layer of the skin more damaged, filled with rugged, dying cells, or hardened skin cells that have accumulated dust and dirt. That microscopic layer of damaged skin cells makes our skin look darker than it really is, acting like a sort of patina over our skin.
And that is where glycolic acid enters the picture. It provides a painless, effortless method for exfoliation since it doesn’t require rubbing or the use of microbeads. Glycolic acid simply dissolves most of that damaged, darkened surface layer of the skin by way of a chemical reaction. Once all that dirt, dust and gunk gets removed from your body, a healthy, clean layer of skin becomes visible. Even the age lines, spots, and wrinkles become less pronounced, since one of their layers has been chipped away. Suddenly, your face looks a lot brighter, smoother, and in one word - younger.
What makes glycolic acid such a popular exfoliator is its relatively safe and effortless action. In comparison to other exfoliants, glycolic acid doesn’t require much physical action in order to work its magic. It simply unglues the connections between your healthy skin and all the dead and damaged skin cells. In contrast, other scrubs and exfoliants will contain microbeads and will need you to rub those beads over the desired area. I don’t have to tell you how irritating that can be, and that it often makes your skin worse than better. Trust me, you don't want to over-exfoliate your skin.
Additionally, chemical peels or exfoliants that use glycolic acid have a more uniform effect over a broader area. You simply apply the glycolic acid product, and when it’s done, the entire area is evenly cleaned and rejuvenated. But that is not so with the other, classical exfoliants. A product that contains microbeads and requires rubbing will not work its magic on all areas equally. You’ll quickly lose patience, rubbing more intensely over one area and neglecting another, and sooner or later you’ll feel that familiar burning sensation. You wanted to clean your face, not make it all sore and red.
None of that happens with glycolic acid. Which is why its title of “Queen of the exfoliants” is well deserved.
As we age, our bodies become less and less efficient in supplying themselves with a number of important ingredients. Among these are several AHA acids, most notably hyaluronic acid and glycolic acid. The already tiny amount of glycolic acid that the body produces becomes tinier and tinier, contributing to the overall aged look, wrinkles and all.
However, there is no room for despair. Thanks to modern science, we can still harness the benefits of glycolic acid to combat aging. There is a vast selection of products that contain glycolic acid out there, so it’s entirely on you to choose which one. As we mentioned before, glycolic acid has a number of beneficial skincare properties.
As a moisturizer, glycolic acid protects your skin from drying by retaining moisture in your skin. Additionally, it’s collagen and elastin producing properties act to smoothen out wrinkles and help the skin regenerate itself. All of this combined makes the use of glycolic acid one of the most powerful skincare ingredients in achieving a smooth, youthful look.
We’ve mentioned before that glycolic acid, and most of the AHA acids, are fairly safe. Just because they’re technically referred to as acids doesn’t mean they’ll burn your skin or hurt you in any way. After all, our own bodies produce glycolic acid, so why would there be any concerns, right?
Well, the human body being as complex as it is, there are still people who can react adversely to glycolic acid. And yes, their bodies produce it too, but there’s something about them using the AHA topically, on their skin, that produces an allergic reaction. While these allergic reactions happen in like one person out of a million, it’s still wise to do a patch test first before using a glycolic acid product. It’s super unlikely that you’ll have a reaction to glycolic acid, but in case it does happen, you should stop using the product immediately, and talk about it with your doctor and dermatologist.
Additionally, glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to photoaging, leaving you scratch your head as to what just happened. To counter this, it is recommended that you always use a good sunscreen whenever you apply glycolic acid. The sunscreen will counter the acid’s sensitivity to sunlight, while keeping its beneficial properties untouched. Name a better duo, right?
It needs to be said that pregnant women should not be taking glycolic acid in the form of oral supplements. Oral supplements of glycolic acid are, after all, something that falls well outside of the scope of this article, but, better safe than sorry. Now you know, and it’s better than if you didn’t.
Additionally, people who are trying to treat acne can sometimes be taking Accutane (also known as Roaccutane). However, Accutane can also make your skin sensitive to sunlight, and glycolic acid, while harmless, can exacerbate those effects. For this purpose, it’s always wise to consult with your doctor or dermatologist whether you should use glycolic acid while taking Accutane.
Glycolic acid is a completely natural ingredient that works wonders for our skin. It dissolves the bonds that hold our dead skin cells together, cleaning our skin painlessly and effortlessly. That is why it finds great use in many exfoliating products and procedures.
Additionally, glycolic acid promotes the production of collagen and elastin, two key ingredients in charge of human skin elasticity and flexibility. That makes glycolic acid suitable for treating acne as well, especially when it comes to helping the body repair itself faster and reduce the formation of scars.
Finally, all of the above make glycolic acid an effective anti-aging substance as well. By removing the worn-out surface layer of the skin, and producing collagen and elastin, glycolic acid removes old skin and creates new skin - simultaneously.
All of the above makes glycolic acid one of the best and safest allies to your skin, its health, and your well-being. Give it a try, and I promise you - you won’t regret it.
This information is meant to supplement, not replace advice from your doctor or healthcare provider and is not meant to cover all possible uses, precautions, interactions or adverse effects. This information may not fit your specific health circumstances, and its goal is to offer a general view of the subject. In case you are suffering from a severe case of acne, you should consult with a dermatologist or a certified medical professional.