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Glycolic Acid: All about the IT skincare ingredient

Still not quite figured out how to get that supermodel glow? It’s time to checked out glycolic acid. Well, although the word acid may sound a little intimidating, low quantities of this AHA can work wonders. So we’ve spoken to some of the top industry insiders to find out everything you need to know…

So, what actually is glycolic acid and where does glycolic acid come from?

For the uninitiated, glycolic acid belongs to the alpha hydroxy acid family (AHAs), a group of exfoliating chemical compounds that are derivatives of natural things like sugar cane and fruit.

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecules of the family so works extremely well as a chemical exfoliant as it easily penetrates the skin. When we have dull, uneven complexion it is typically due to the top layer of the epidermis dying and gradually wearing away. What glycolic acid does is break down the bonds that hold these dead skin cells together and reveals healthy, fresh skin, making it a great addition to your skincare routine.

So, how do you use glycolic acid?

A chemical exfoliant is a little different to the harsh, grainy scrubs we’ve become accustomed to. Expert Facialist, Debbie Thomas, explains “there are so many options when it comes to at-home glycolic products from glycolic acid serums, glycolic toners, glycolic acid peeling pads, glycolic acid moisturisers, glycolic masks and glycolic acid cleansers.” She advises that you start with a lower strength and build up a tolerance for best results.

For those wanting a quick and noticeable change, try a glycolic salon peel. “When done correctly these can really improve many aspects of the skin from reducing pigmentation, clearing mild congestion, reducing fine lines and smoothing the texture of the skin”, says Debbie.

Who can use glycolic acid?

Aesthetician and founder of the Black Skin Directory, Dija Ayodele advises that pretty much all of us can use glycolic acid in our routines – other than those with extremely sensitive skin. “It’s a good all-rounder as both oily and dry skin types can use it – and all skin tones”.

When to use glycolic acid:

“How often you use glycolic acid will depend largely on your skin. If you haven’t used a product containing this ingredient before, start with a wash off product like a face wash. For leave-on products, perhaps taper in the frequency gradually and alternate nights you use it” says consultant dermatologist Dr Justine Kluk.

What are glycolic acid benefits?

Think glowing, fresh, brightened skin – they’re just a few of the benefits you’ll discover after incorporating glycolic acid into your routine. “The overall quality of skin is boosted and plumping of the skin makes fine lines and wrinkles less visible. By helping to reduce oil on the skin, it also reduces the appearance of pore size” says Dija Ayodele. Sounds good to us!

Can glycolic acid damage skin?

As with any product, you have to be cautious when first using it. Dr Justine Kluk stressed that care should especially be taken when combining acids or potential irritants such as retinol, “unless you are a seasoned user who has built up some tolerance already, as the risk of peeling, redness, stinging or burning becomes much higher.”

We’ve all been told that we must wear sunscreen every day (although many of us don’t listen) but you cannot skip this step after using glycolic acid. “It’s even more important to protect against UVA/UVB damage after using acids in your routine as they make skin more sensitive to the sun”, says Dr Kluk.

What about glycolic acid peels in salons?

Salon peels use much higher concentrations of glycolic acid compared to our diluted home formats. “It can be up to 70% and they also have a different PH level meaning they penetrate the skin more effectively. The after effects of these peels are monitored by your practitioner to ensure the best and safest results.” Says Debbie Thomas. If the sound of it freaks you out, there are hundreds of fantastic at-home versions that shouldn’t leave you with any irritation.

Glycolic acid products we love:

Glycolic acid cleanser:

Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Overnight Purifying Gel, £14.95

Wake up and glow with this overnight gel from Nip + Fab. The formula also includes a beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid, to purify and cleanse just that little bit more.

REN Micro Polish Cleanser, £22

This cleanser also incorporates an old-school exfoliate, amber microbeads, to give you double the glow.

NeoStrata Foaming Glycolic Wash, £25.99

Dija Ayodele’s personal favourite is this potent formula containing 18% glycolic acid. Thankfully, with a pH of 4.5 it’s still easy on the skin but this one might be for the glycolic veterans.

Clycolic acid pads:

Malin + Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Pads, £42

Easy and effective sums up these glycolic pads from Malin + Goetz. Simply sweep your face with one of the pre-soaked pads and you’re well on your way to better skin.

Glycolic acid toner:

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution, £6.80

This daily-use formula not only boasts 7% glycolic acid but also Tasmanian pepper berry derivative which helps to reduce the irritation you often get with acid use.

Glycolic acid moisturiser:

Peter Thomas Roth 10% Glycolic Solutions Moisturiser, £36

Packed full of our new favourite chemical exfoliant, this moisturiser promises to improve skin’s strength and suppleness and you can even use it twice a day.

Glycolic acid peel:

Caudalie Glycolic Peel, £22

Another glycolic champion – apply this treatment in a thick layer twice a week, rinse off after 10 minutes and wait for the beautiful results.

Rodial Glycolic Booster Drops, 10%, £75

Massage this formula into cleansed skin three times a week for smooth, even complexion and reduced fine lines.