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
Lightweight gel texture
Foams up nicely
A little on the runny side
Who else recommends it? Who What Wear also picked SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser.
What do buyers say? 200+ SkinCeuticals reviewers rated this product 4.1 stars or above.
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.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, glycerin | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 6.8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Drugstore: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleansing Gel
Not overly drying
Can cause tightness if used too often
Not sulfate-free or Byrdie Clean
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.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic and salicylic acids | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses | Size: 6.7 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Exfoliating: SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Skin feels smoother
Helps control oil
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.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic, lactic, citric, malic acids | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 6 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Foaming: Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
Helps to clear breakouts and uneven skin tone
Works on both face and body
Contains fragrance and sulfates
Affordable and effective, this gel formula foams up beautifully. The namesake ingredients help retexturize and smooth the skin. Plus, it also boasts a litany of plant-based actives like marshmallow extract, chamomile, and sage and can help balance and smooth the skin while fighting inflammation.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, marshmallow extract | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 6 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
“I think the cost per use is great. Compared to other exfoliating cleansers on the market, it's definitely on the more accessible end of the spectrum as well.” — Emily Algar, Product Tester
Best Cream: Glytone Mild Cream Cleanser
Feels creamy and hydrating
No sulfates or fragrance
Packaging could be improved
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.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, glycerin | Skin Type: Sensitive | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 6.7 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Oily Skin: Boscia Detoxifying Black Charcoal Cleanser
Deeply cleanses without stripping skin
A little goes a long way
Not Byrdie Clean
Glycolic acid is a great choice for oily skin types, thanks to its pore unclogging prowess. Here it’s paired charcoal, an ingredient thought to aid in purifying the pores (though more research is needed to back up this claim). It's also worth noting it contains anti-aging and brightening powerhouse artichoke leaf extract. The fact that this gently warms up as you massage it onto the skin makes the cleansing experience feel extra-luxurious.
Active Ingredients: Activated charcoal, artichoke leaf extract | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 5 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"The Boscia Detoxifying Black Cleanser is ideal for the oily-to-combination-skinned who need a little something extra to balance out and calm their overactive skin. Great for both everyday usage as well as a deep treatment a few times a week, this detox cleanser delivers fresh, balanced, poreless skin." — Bryan Levandowski, Product Tester
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Replenix Acne Solutions Gly/Sal Exfoliating Acne Cleanser
Helps fade dark spots
Can be a little drying
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.
Active Ingredients: Salicylic and glycolic acids | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses | Size: 6.8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Multi-Tasking: Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser
Light, fruity scent
No residue left behind
Not ideal for acne-prone skin
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.
Active Ingredients: Blueberry extract, hyaluronic acid | Skin Type: All | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 1 / 5.4 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best on Amazon: InstaNatural Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser
Skin looks radiant
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—and can help to exfoliate, cleanse, brighten, and even minimize the look of 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.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, cucumber extract | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 6.8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Extra-Strength: Sobel Skin Rx 27% Glycolic Acid Facial Cleanser
Strong, effective formula
Helps fade dark spots
Contains hydrating ingredients
Not for sensitive skin
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 extract, and chamomile—to help minimize the likelihood of any irritation.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, allantoin | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 5 fl. oz | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Clean : Alpyn Beauty PlantGenuis Creamy Bubbling Cleanser
Creamy, gentle formula
Foams up nicely
Skin feels smooth
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.
Active Ingredients: AHAs, papaya enzymes | Skin Type: All | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 4 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Splurge: Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Available in multiple sizes
Skin feels smooth
Contains sulfates and parabens
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.
Active Ingredients: Salicylic, lactic, glycolic acids | Skin Type: Oily, acne-prone | Benefits: Exfoliates, cleanses, hydrates | Size: 2 / 6.8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
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.
How We Researched & Tested
To compile this list, our team of editors and contributors spent hours researching the best products on the market in this category, evaluating their key features—like ingredients, shade range, or design—in addition to reviews from customers and other trusted sources. Our team also incorporated their own personal experiences testing products in their own lives. We then used these insights from our research and testing to assign a star rating from one to five (five being the best; one being the worst) to certain products on the list.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and we will evaluate the product ASAP.
People Who Have Truly Radiant Skin Use This Holy-Grail Product. Who What Wear. https://www.whowhatwear.co.uk/glycolic-acid-cleansers
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