As far as skin goals go, most of us want to glow. And there is almost no surer route to radiant, perfectly glow-y skin than adding a chemical exfoliant to your skin-care routine. Enter: glycolic acid, one of the most popular, effective and dermatologist-approved options out there.
Falling under the broader umbrella of alpha-hydroxy acids or AHAs (lactic, malic and citric acids are also common ones), glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and citrus fruits. According to Dr. Shereene Idriss, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City, it’s the “Holy Grail” of chemical exfoliators, in part because “it’s the smallest molecular weight alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), which allows it to penetrate deep between skin cells.”
How does it work? In essence, Dr. Idriss notes, glycolic acid “breaks down the ‘glue’ that holds skin cells together, therefore effectively exfoliating the most layer of skin, and in the process revealing smoother, brighter, younger looking skin.”
And though glycolic acid is most known known for its chemical exfoliation abilities, the ingredient is actually even more versatile than is commonly understood. In fact, according to Dr. Shari Marchbein, a board-certified dermatologist and fellow at the Academy of Dermatology, glycolic acid can also “improve moisture content in the skin and improve the appearance of wrinkles and enhance collagen formulation.”
During the aging process, Dr. Marchbein explains, skin cell turnover slows down — from “approximately every 28 days in our 20s to every 40 days by the time we’re in our 40s.” Though the buildup of dead skin cells can make skin look dull and lackluster, “gently sloughing them away can reveal a glowing complexion.”
Glycolic acid can require an adjustment period and may cause a stinging sensation on sensitive complexions, so it’s best to introduce slowly into a skin-care routine, especially for chemical exfoliation newbies. But it’s worth it: In addition to the aforementioned skin concerns it can address, glycolic acid can also go a long way toward helping with hyperpigmentation (or dark spots), blackheads and rough, uneven texture. At least in moderation, glycolic acid is safe for just about anyone — in fact, even pregnant women can use it.
As you shop (or click through our favorite glycolic-enhanced products below) you’ll notice that this powerhouse ingredient can be found in just about every form imaginable. A good entry point for testing the glycolic acid waters gently is cleanser, advises Dr. Idriss, since it’s “washed off, and doesn’t ‘sit’ on the skin.” She also recommends starting with a milder concentration of the ingredient, with around 5% glycolic acid.
Like so many other parts of any skin-care regimen, it’s important to stick with it to see the full impact of glycolic acid. “Persistent use will lead to gradual improvements,” says Dr. Marchbein. “Just don’t expect an overnight miracle.”
Click through the gallery below to see (and shop) our favorite glycolic acid masks, moisturizers, toners and more.