Acne is a common problem for over 80% of the world population and it is a real pain for all of us. Depending on your specific case, genetics, environmental conditions, chemistry and a bunch of other reasons, it may be difficult to find a product/active ingredient that really helps deal with acne for good, and that’s exactly where we come in to help.
Today we will go over a well-known active ingredient – glycolic acid – to understand its strengths and weaknesses in terms of combating acne, which skin types is it suitable for, how to use it properly and which products you should try based on what you’re trying to achieve.
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) which is derived from sugarcane. It has the ability to penetrate deep into the skin thanks to having small molecules, making it one of the best, easiest and most affordable treatments for removing wrinkles, fine lines, excess oil and blackheads. It is primarily used as a peel to gently remove the outer layer of the skin (along with all kinds of impurities) and allow new skin cells to take its place.
Glycolic acid works by eliminating acne causing bacteria (p.acnes) and exfoliating the skin. Exfoliation is especially important for oily skin since its natural exfoliation mechanism is a lot slower compared to other skin types. This increases the time that excess oil, dead skin cells and environmental debris reside on top of the skin, making it more prone to clogging, and creating a favorable atmosphere for bacteria to breed.
Glycolic acid is often combined with various ingredients by manufacturers to create skin clearing agents and chemical peels. Chemical peels usually contain high concentrations (10% and above) of glycolic acid and are very effective at treating inflammatory acne, as well as ridding the skin of dead skin cells and impurities.
For glycolic acid to be effective, it needs to be applied at pH level 3 or 4. If the pH is greater, it may cause irritation and burning. Also, purely glycolic acid containing products (at low concentration levels) are much safer to use and produce better results than products that combine the acid with other chemicals. However, lower concentration glycolic acid is less effective as a peeling agent, so if you’re aiming for heavy exfoliation, chemical peels containing high concentrations of glycolic acid are the way to go.
Glycolic acid is primarily suited for oily skin types, since it helps regulate oil production while stripping the skin from excess oil, but it can also be useful for dry and regular skin types at low concentrations, when incorporated in the daily skincare routine. Sensitive skin types need to use low concentration levels of glycolic acid to avoid excessive peeling, irritation and burning.
Glycolic acid peels are also effective when trying to deal with mild acne scars as well as hyperpigmentation. By removing the outer layer of the skin, glycolic acid increases cell turnover and helps new skin cells generate faster, resulting in improved complexion and texture.
Pros and Cons of Glycolic Acid
Like all skin clearing ingredients, glycolic acid has its pros and cons. Let’s have a look:
- Can be used by all skin types.
- Promotes cell regeneration.
- Exfoliates the skin.
- Helps regulate sebum oil production.
- Is safe for pregnant women.
- Effective against inflamed acne.
- Can cause dryness and irritation when used in high concentrations.
- Can’t be used on active acne as a peel.
- Should be used in a very specific way to be effective.
How to use Glycolic Acid
There are a few ways that glycolic acid can effectively be used:
1. Regularly with Lower Concentration Levels
Including glycolic acid into your skincare routine on a regular basis helps keep the skin clear of excess oil, debris and dead skin cells while reducing the chance of breakouts.
Light concentration (2.5-5%) of the acid also keeps the skin moisturized, which, combined with removing damaged cells, restores the skin’s balance and helps regulate oil production.
2. Heavy Concentration Peels
Heavy concentration peels are very effective when trying to remove blackheads, whiteheads and inflammation, but it can also be highly irritating to the skin. You need to do everything correctly in order for this type of treatment to work, and not cause damage to yourself.
The best way to use glycolic acid as a peel is to cleanse the skin with a clearing agent that has moderate-high concentrations of benzoyl peroxide (5-10%), let the skin dry for 10 minutes, and then apply glycolic acid (10%). Repeat the procedure every day for 2 weeks. After that, stop the peels for 2 weeks to give your skin a break and allow it to regenerate essential oils, then do the procedure again. Repeat until the acne is cleared. Apply an oil-free moisturizer and sunscreen after each procedure as needed.
Keep in mind that higher concentration peels aren’t necessarily better. Surely, this will speed up the results but will also make you prone to burning, itching and redness if you’re not careful. If you’re a beginner, it’s advisable to 5-10% glycolic acid on a regular basis rather than try to exfoliate it faster with 30-60% glycolic acid peels.
3. Spot Treatment
During the early stages of a zits formation, glycolic acid can be an effective spot treatment to prevent the zit from developing into a fully grown pimple.
Right as you notice a pimple forming, treat it with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, and after 10 minutes, apply 10% glycolic acid. This combination can be used to treat even the thickest parts of the skin including chest, back and shoulders. Make sure to apply a good amount of both products to the blemish: don’t try to save up on that. In this case, make sure you’re using products that are purely glycolic acid, without any other chemicals in the mix.
Most glycolic acid containing products are designed to be incorporated into the daily skincare routine for healthy skin and have high concentrations.
To balance it out, manufacturers usually include various comedogenic oils and moisturizers to make the product a lot gentler. When combating acne, make sure to buy oil-free glycolic acid (or at least products containing non-comedogenic oils) containing products to prevent pore clogging.
Exfoliators containing glycolic acid are much better suited for pregnant women than those containing salicylic acid, since there is a high risk of allergy.
High concentrations of glycolic acid (10% and more) can cause severe burning, irritation and redness if you’re not careful, especially for sensitive and dry skin types. When using glycolic acid in combination with benzoyl peroxide and/or Vitamin A containing products, which are both a powerful combination, you need to be careful not to irritate the skin since benzoyl peroxide increases sensitivity.
Make sure you’re not using glycolic acid peels on inflamed/active acne and open pores. Though a lot gentler than many other chemicals, glycolic acid is still an active ingredient and it can cause severe skin damage if you’re not careful with it.
Best Glycolic Acid Containing Products
Here are some of the best glycolic acid containing products on the market.
#1 Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Cleanser by Body Merry – Best to Include in Daily Skincare Routine
This face wash is designed to be included into your daily skincare routine. The product contains 2.5% glycolic acid, which is a fairly low concentration, but it is still effective at exfoliating the skin, removing dead skin cells and excess oil.
The formula also contains a number of natural oils like Olive, Rosehip and Tea Tree, and also includes cucumber (great moisturizer) and organic aloe (promotes clean complexion).
- Removing dead skin cells and excess oil
- Contains Natural Oil
- alleviate clogged pores
- slough away dead skin, dirt and oil build up
- prevent or treat breakouts and acne
- not good for sensitive skin
- too drying and cause irritation
In terms of acne, the product will be effective with consistent use, but it will primarily act as a prevention mechanism rather than treatment. If you have mild acne and want to minimize it in the future, give this product a try.
As for customer reviews, the product enjoys a solid 4.5 star user rating on Amazon with over 1600 reviewers sharing their, mostly positive, experience and recommendations.
#2 Insta Natural Glycolic Acid Serum – Best for Combating Breakouts and Supporting Peels
This product is best suited for dry, sensitive and irritated skin, and helps deal with acne breakouts and sunburns while improving overall complexion and balance, and accelerating cell turnover.
It contains 8% glycolic acid, which is great when used regularly. The pH of glycolic acid is 3.5, which is also very good for clearing mild to moderate breakouts.
Other ingredients include Vitamin C, Hyaluronic acid (helps repair damaged tissue), Argan and Rosehip oils (used to moisturize the skin) and a unique complex of herbal ingredients.
- Herbal Ingredients
- suites for dry, sensitive & irritated skin
- perfect clarifying solution to nourish skin
- Boost the skin’s natural cell turnover
- increase the production of healthy skin cells
- Depending on your skin’s level of sensitivity
Customer reviews are mostly positive, with over 300 reviewers sharing their experience on Amazon and earning the product a solid, 4.5 star user rating.
#3 Glycolic Acid Toner by Lavo – Best for Moderate Breakouts/Stubborn Acne
With consistent, daily use the product helps reduce inflammation, stubborn/moderate acne-breakouts and mild acne scars.
The product can be safely used every day, but no more than once per day. It is also effective at preparing the skin for serums and/or creams – the final step of a skincare routine.
- suited for oily, scne-prone skin
- reduce inflammation
- fights acne causing bacteria
- Prepares face for Serums and Creams
- No Parabens
- will dry out if daily use
- Strong effect – not good for sensitive skin
#4 Glycolic Acid Gel Peel by Divine – Best for Weekly Peels
The product is designed for weekly, professional peeling procedures and contains pure (up to 99%) glycolic acid. The only other ingredient is distilled water.
A single bottle is enough for 5-10 full facial feels and comes at 3 different concentrations – 10% (light peel), 40% (medium peel) and 60/70% (deep peel). If you’re planning to do the procedure at home, I’d strongly recommend to try the 10% version to minimize any risks that you can inflict to your skin on accident, or due to the lack of proper knowledge. If you have stubborn acne or severe breakouts, you may use the peel up to 3 times a week, but don’t try to use it every day. Your body needs at least 24 hours to recover from a previous procedure.
- professional peeling
- single bottle is enough for 5-10 full facial
- Ideal for brown spots and uneven skin tone
- increase cell regeneration
- not safe for intimate areas
- peel is very stingy
Glycolic acid is a fantastic active ingredient for fighting acne, fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and improving the skin’s overall texture and complexion. While it may not be as fast and strong as other chemicals like antibiotics, remember that there are close to no side effects related to glycolic acid and with consistent use, you’ll absolutely notice positive results.
Have you used glycolic acid before? What results did you experience? How long did it take you to notice improvements? Did you use it as a peel or included it into daily skincare routine? Share your thoughts with everyone in the comments!