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There are plenty of skincare acids out there, but none quite as beloved—or universally effective—as glycolic acid. The alpha-hydroxy acid, or AHA, is derived from sugarcane and offers a litany of different benefits, working on multiple layers of the skin. “It’s one of the most potent alpha-hydroxy acids that help to exfoliate superficially while also stimulating deeper collagen production,” explains Dr. Shereene Idriss, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. In short, it’s great for fading spots and evening out skin tone, while also helping to smooth fine lines in the long-term.
You can find the ingredient in everything from masks to moisturizers, but glycolic acid-based cleansers offer some unique benefits, says Idris. “Glycolic acid cleansers usually contain the lowest-strength of the ingredient. In addition to being ideal for sensitive skin due to the short contact time, they’re also a good option for those who have dry skin, as the ingredient is even hydrating in of itself,” she explains. They’re also great if you’re starting to use a retinoid in your routine and want to minimize the risk of irritation, she adds. And, top tip, if you don’t have sensitive skin and want to really capitalize on the ingredient’s effects, you can even let the cleanser sit on your skin for five to 10 minutes before rinsing.
Bottom line: A glycolic acid cleanser is well-worth adding to your skincare routine. Check out our favorites, below.
Best Overall: SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser
Byrdie Editorial Director Faith Xue gives this pick her stamp of approval, a lightweight gel that’s extra-refreshing. The glycolic acid in the formula helps gently exfoliate, while glycerin in the mix delivers intense hydration, leaving your skin perfectly balanced. Bonus points for the lightly foaming lather that effectively removes dirt and oil without stripping your skin.
Best Drugstore: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleanser
It’s kind of tricky to find a glycolic acid cleanser at the drugstore, making this steal of a deal even more noteworthy. The formula gives you plenty of bang for your buck, combining glycolic acid with salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that is great at dissolving and keeping pores clear. Aloe extract ensures it’s never too drying, and it’s also fragrance-free and allergy-tested, something those with sensitive skin will appreciate.
Best Exfoliating: SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Glycolic acid is just one of four alpha hydroxy acids at work in this face wash; there are also citric acid, malic acid, and lactic acid in the mix. That means it does a truly stellar job at exfoliating, dissolving dead skin cells. As if that weren’t enough, jojoba beads offer some extra (gentle) physical exfoliation, while salicylic acid in the formula helps combat excess oil.
Best Foaming: Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Affordable and effective, this gel formula foams up beautifully. The namesake ingredients help retexturize and smooth the skin, but this also boasts a litany of plant-based actives for additional benefits. Think marshmallow extract to help balance the skin, chamomile to smooth, and sage to tamp down inflammation, just to name a few.
Best Cream: Glytone Mild Cream Cleanser
This brand focuses pretty much all of their products around glycolic acid, so you know this is going to be good. We like this pick both for the creamy texture and the fact that it relies on a fairly mild concentration, 3.4% of glycolic acid, making it great for dry and sensitive skin types alike. In related news, it’s also sulfate- and fragrance-free.
Best for Oily Skin: Boscia Detoxifying Black Charcoal Cleanser
Glycolic acid is a great choice for oily skin types, thanks to its pore unclogging prowess, but here it’s paired with other ingredients that really make this great for anyone combating excess oil. Namely, the charcoal acts like a magnet, attaching to and pulling out excess oil (and other gunk and grime) for deep purifying and detoxifying benefits. Also noteworthy is the addition of brightening vitamin C, and the fact that this gently warms up as you massage it onto the skin, making the cleansing experience feel extra-luxurious.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Replenix Acne Solutions Gly/Sal Exfoliating Acne Cleanser
Battling blemishes? Meet your new BFF. Think of glycolic acid and salicylic acid as the peanut butter & jelly of the skincare world, a dynamic duo that works perfectly together. Here, they’re all it takes to unclog pores, minimize oil, and even fade dark marks left over from pimples past.
Best Multi-Tasking: Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser
Unlike many of the other options on this list, where glycolic acid is the superstar, here it’s just one of a more varied cast of ingredients that make this formula perfect for addressing any and every complexion concern. Yes, there’s glycolic acid for exfoliating and brightening purposes, but there’s also hyaluronic acid for hydration, plus antioxidant-rich blueberry extract to protect your skin from environmental stressors. It smells subtly and pleasantly fruity, and rinses off completely cleanly, too.
Best on Amazon: InstaNatural Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser
There's a good reason(s) why this Amazon fan-favorite has somewhat of a cult-like following. The oil-free formula combines glycolic acid with a long list of natural ingredients—cucumber extract, organic chamomile, green tea extract, willow bark, and many, many more—to help exfoliate, cleanse, brighten, and even help fight lines and wrinkles. Not convinced? Just take a look at any of the glowing (pun intended) rave reviews that refer to the product as ‘miraculous,’ ‘life-changing,’ ‘best’...you get the picture.
Best Extra-Strength: Sobel Skin Rx 27% Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser
Fair warning, this option, another favorite of Xue’s, is best reserved for glycolic acid veterans who really want to up the ante. True to its name, it touts a whopping 27% concentration of glycolic acid for some mega-exfoliating, brightening, and skin-tone evening effects. That being said, there’s also a trio of soothing ingredients—allantoin, aloe, and chamomile—to help minimize the likelihood of any irritation.
Best Clean : Alpyn Beauty PlantGenuis Creamy Bubbling Cleanser
Product purists will appreciate that this formula is free from over 2,700 questionable chemicals and ingredients. Instead, it relies on all kinds of natural ingredients; glycolic and lactic acids are paired with papaya enzymes and pomegranate extract to achieve the ideal level of gentle hydration that makes this great for everyday use. As the name suggests, it goes on creamy, but bubbles up nicely, and (not that appearance really matters) but we’re also obsessed with how pretty it looks.
Best Splurge: Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Pricier than the others on the list, this derm-developed choice is well-worth every penny. Credit not only a litany of different exfoliants (both chemical and physical, and glycolic acid included, of course) but also hydrating ingredients to keep skin plump and elastic, and the skin barrier functioning properly.
Glycolic acid cleansers are a good choice for pretty much any and every skin type, offering all kinds of benefits. The SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser is our all-around fave, a gel formula where glycolic acid is the star of the show. If your skin is acne-prone, consider the Replenix Acne Solutions Gly/Sal Exfoliating Acne Cleanser, which relies on several different acids to help keep skin clear. And while glycolic acid cleansers can be tough to find at the drugstore, the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleanser is a great wallet-friendly pick that’s also fragrance-free.
What to Look For In a Glycolic Acid Cleanser
While not all formulas disclose this on the packaging, Idriss says it’s best to look for a concentration of anywhere from 4% to 10%. Top tip: If it’s not listed, pay attention to where glycolic acid falls on the ingredient label. The higher up on the list, the more of it is in the product.
Again, this may require some research into the product to determine, but Idriss says you ideally want a glycolic acid with a pH of 4 or less.
If your skin isn’t super sensitive, consider choosing a face wash that contains other acids. Glycolic plays nicely with other AHAs such as lactic and citric acid, as well as BHAs like salicylic acid.
Why Trust Byrdie?
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. Glycolic acid is one of her all-time favorite skincare ingredients, no matter what type of products it’s in.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Shereene Idriss is a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology in New York City. She specializes in cosmetic dermatology and is known for giving candid skincare advice on her #pillowtalkderm sessions on Instagram stories.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find any glycolic acid cleansers from a Black-owned and/or Black-founded business. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at email@example.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.