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 can easily penetrate the skin. When we have a dull, uneven complexion it is normally due to the top layer of the skin dying and gradually wearing away. What glycolic acid does is break down the bonds that hold these dead skin cells together to reveal healthy, fresh skin - making it a great addition to your skincare routine.
We've spoken to the skincare experts to get the low down on when and how to use glycolic acid. Plus, we've searched high and low to bring you the best products on the market harnessing this hero ingredient.
The Best Glycolic Acid Products 2021
The Best Glycolic Acid Beauty Products
These nifty ampoules containing 10% glycolic acid are gentle enough to be used every day, exfoliating the skin without causing irritation.
Formulated with 8% glycolic acid, this gentle foaming cleanser visibly brightens and clears skin. It's a great way to maintain chemical peel results.
This cleanser also incorporates an old-school exfoliator, amber micro-beads, to give you double the glow.
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.
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.
At just £6.99 this Glycolic Acid Toner is an absolute steal. Use before serum and moisturiser for a radiant, even complexion.
Another glycolic champion – apply this treatment in a thick layer twice a week, rinse off after 10 minutes and revel in your newfound glow.
Massage this formula into cleansed skin three times a week for a smooth, even complexion and reduced fine lines.
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, wait until the salons reopen and 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,' states Consultant Dermatologist, Dr Justine Kluk.
What are glycolic acid benefits?
Think glowing, fresh, brightened skin – these are just a few of the benefits you’ll discover after incorporating glycolic acid into your routine. 'The overall quality of skin is boosted and skin looks plumper making fine lines and wrinkles less visible. By helping to reduce oil on the skin, it also reduces the appearance of pore size,' explains 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.