Anyone who struggles with dark spots and hyperpigmentation knows how difficult it can be to correct such skin concerns without going under a laser (or some other similar in-clinic treatment). Products that contain fruit enzymes and vitamin C can help substantially, which is probably why they're the most popular skin-brightening ingredients. But don't forget about glycolic acid. The safe-for-skin acid (that's derived from sugarcane) is an AHA—short for alpha hydroxy acid. Thanks to its small molecular size, it penetrates deep into the skin to exfoliate and brighten for noticeable results. It even offers anti-aging benefits that erase fine lines and plump wrinkles. No wonder why so many dermatologists and estheticians swear by this safe-for-skin acid for at-home use.
Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA). It works to dissolve sebum and other dead skin cells, therefore brightening skin and reducing blemishes, sunspots, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles.
While the most potent form of glycolic acid comes in a chemical peel, you can reap the benefits in other ways, too, such as in your daily moisturizer, toner, or (you guessed it) cleanser. The latter will cleanse the skin of dirt, oil, and debris while sloughing away dead skin and pore-clogging impurities that, if left alone, could cause dull skin, acne, and other blemishes. That's why we always keep our sights on a few favorite glycolic acid cleansers. Okay, we admit that we mean more than a few… more like 15 to be exact.
Boscia's cult-favorite black cleanser warms on contact with the skin, which makes for a relaxing end-of-day cleansing ritual. It's truly brightening too. It uses a combination of glycolic acid and vitamin C to lift dark spots and even skin tone. Then there's the namesake charcoal, which naturally purifies and detoxifies the skin. Its oil-controlling and pore-reducing properties make it a good option for anyone who has shiny summer skin.
Glytone is a skincare brand that specializes in glycolic acid products (take a look at any of its products and you'll see the ingredient listed somewhere along the way). This mild cleanser is suitable for sensitive skin types and does everything a glycolic acid cleanser should do. It cleans the skin while exfoliating, brightening, and fighting signs of aging too.
Glow Recipe is the online destination for all things K-beauty. The brand is famous for curating other products, though it recently started an in-house line of its own—starting with this cleanser and the ever-popular Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask ($45). This cleanser contains antioxidant-rich blueberry extracts, hyaluronic acid, and glycolic acid. In other words, it's anti-aging, hydrating, and brightening/exfoliating.
For a budget-friendly pick, look no further than Mario Badescu's glycolic cleanser. It combines the acid with herbal extracts to keep the skin's moisture barrier intact. Customers continuously leave glowing reviews like this one: "I've only been using this product for a week, but I can already tell that's it's working. I have dark marks, which are acne scars. The scars are getting lighter and my skin is so refreshed after each wash, plus the citrusy smell is great. I've also noticed that my skin is less oily, which is really good since I have combination skin that's more on the oily side."
Kate Somerville's purifying foaming cleanser combines glycolic acid with fruit enzymes for a true brightening and exfoliating effect. This product has over 30,000 "loves" on Sephora's website, with reviews to match. "I went into my local Sephora to find this, as my skin had really been acting up. I needed something that would clear out my skin without over-drying it. I normally follow any wash with a toner and moisturizer. They recommended this, and within two weeks, my skin looks amazing! It cleans without over-drying and can be used at least twice a day. I have skin prone to acne, but it isn't super oily, so this is perfect!"
Just keep in mind that glycolic acid can be a bit drying, so it's important to follow up with moisturizer. Also, some cleansers aren't meant to be used every day. Instead, they're formulated to be used one to two times per week with a gentler cleanser in between. It differs by product, so make sure you always read up on the recommended use before using a glycolic acid product for the first time.
This cleanser is formulated with 4.9% glycolic acid to exfoliate, brighten, smooth, and even release ingrown hairs. Soothing ingredients, like calendula, chamomile, and aloe vera, counteract any irritation that might have occurred otherwise. Finally, vitamins A, C, and E protect against environmental damage and keep natural collagen intact. Technically this is a men's skincare line, but does skincare really have to be gendered? At the end of the day, if it works for our skin, we'll use it.
Peter Thomas Roth's cleanser is from the same line as the brand's 8% Glycolic Acid Toner ($40). It's oil-free, which makes it a good option for people whose skin doesn't tolerate oil-infused skincare products. Reach for this one if you've found that oil triggers acne.
This cleanser is formulated with 10% glycolic acid, which makes it a powerful exfoliating and brightening product. It also has aloe to hydrate and soothe irritation, willowherb to refresh and cleanse, and green tea to provide anti-aging antioxidants. Take it from one reviewer, who writes, "I have dry sensitive skin. I love how soft my skin feels after using this. Because I have sensitive skin, it's hard to find something that will exfoliate without irritating my skin, but this does the job."
La Roche-Posay is one of our favorite French pharmacy brands (even though it sounds and looks high-end, you can find its products at places like Dermstore and Target). This glycolic acid cleanser is specifically formulated for clogged and/or acneic skin since it combines glycolic acid with salicylic acid. It also happens to be fragrance- and oil-free.
Just like how the La Roche-Posay product was formulated for oily sensitive skin, this product was formulated for mature and aging skin. Glycolic acid is combined with antioxidants that prevent free radicals from causing fine lines and wrinkles. What's more is that it's pH-balanced and soap-, oil-, and cruelty-free.
Credentials' cleanser was developed for both the face and body, which is why it's a good cleanser to take with you when traveling. It boasts 8.5% glycolic acid to exfoliate, smooth, and brighten, along with green tea to provide antioxidants. Camellia and licorice extracts are included to kill germs on the surface of the skin and fight inflammation.
If you're determined to live a vegan lifestyle and that extends to your choice of beauty products, then this cleanser is for you. It's 100% vegan-friendly and natural, with ingredients like vitamin C, vitamin A, and green tea. Thanks to those ingredients, along with its glycolic acid content, it promises to quickly and effectively address hyperpigmentation.
SkinCeuticals is another skincare brand that's universally adored by Byrdie beauty editors (it is, after all, the maker of our favorite C E Ferulic Acid Serum, $166). This glycolic acid cleanser is a lightweight, oil-reducing gel, which is why we like using it in the heat of summer. It's currently sold out on both Dermstore's and SkinCeutical's websites due to popular demand, but you can sign up for an email alert as soon as it's restocked.
Speaking of cleansing gels, Vichy's version combines glycolic and salicylic acids for the ultimate acne- and oil-banishing duo. What we like most about it is its texture. What starts out as a lightweight gel lathers up into a weightless foam. Once it washes off, our skin feels soft, smooth, and clean of oil and debris.
This InstaNatural product is one of the internet's most beloved glycolic acid cleansers. The reviews are in, and the vast majority are glowing. "It's really hard to pick a favorite cleanser among the lot I've acquired from Instanatural, as I have almost all of them and love them all for different purposes, but this cleanser has quickly become a top-ranking contender in my lineup. I've noticed since I started using it more frequently that I get less dry/dull patches on my face and my skin just looks overall more radiant and healthy. Using this on an almost daily basis has even cut down on the frequency of my use of masks because I don't feel like I need the rejuvenation as often. Honestly, as long as I keep up with my Instanatural morning and night routine, I've been able to keep my skin looking great consistently, and this cleanser is perfect for maintaining a fresh, bright complexion."
This story was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated.