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Oh, blackheads. Let us count the ways we hate you. You pester our skin with tiny black pinprick blemishes that are equal parts stubborn and exasperating. It seems like no matter how diligent we think we're being with our skincare routine, there are always a few rogue blackheads that refuse to leave our pores, littering the skin across our nose, chin, or forehead. They just sit there, taunting us while we wait for our pore-extracting face mask to work its magic.
As far as anti-blackhead skincare goes, we've tried our fair share. Some products have worked wonders (like select retinol serums and an under-the-radar Detoxifying Silt Gelee Mask, $60), while others have left much to be desired. One of our all-time favorite blackhead-removing product categories, though, has to be our varied collection of glycolic acid exfoliators. According to experts, our love of glycolic acid is founded on reason because the powerful skincare ingredient is basically the closest thing there is to a blackhead magic eraser.
- Type of ingredient: Exfoliator
- Main benefits: Minimizes pore size, regulates oil production, and brightens complexion.
- Who should use it: In general, anyone with acne-prone skin or blackheads. Glycolic acid is not recommended for sensitive skin.
- How often can you use it: To start, use glycolic acid less than 10% every other day for two weeks, then increase to once every night. Do not use it if you’re skin is feeling sensitive.
- Works well with: Gentle exfoliators like salicylic acid.
- Don’t use with: Retinoids, as doing so may irritate skin.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. Its exfoliating properties make it a popular ingredient in products aimed to improve skin's tone and texture.
According to Heather Wilson, licensed esthetician and director of brand development at InstaNatural, "Glycolic acid is an incredibly effective ingredient for reducing and clearing blackheads because it is an alpha hydroxy acid with a smaller molecule, which means it can penetrate deeper into the pores to dissolve excess dirt, sebum, and pore-clogging skin cells. While that action alone helps to dissolve the oil and dirt that causes blackheads, it also supports cell turnover, which means your skin is creating new, healthier skin cells at a more rapid pace, which results in clearer skin."
While other acids like lactic acid and malic acid are also exfoliants, due to their chemical makeup (read: larger molecules) they're unable to penetrate the skin as deeply as glycolic acid and are therefore less effective. Edyta Jarosz, lead esthetician at PFrankMD Skin Salon and global brand ambassador for MDNA Skin explains: "[Glycolic acid] has the smallest molecules in the [AHA] group so it is able to penetrate skin deeply and easily, making it the most effective for treating fine lines, acne, blackheads, oiliness, etc. Chemical peels use a high percentage of this acid, and it can be very effective if done safely and properly."
Benefits of Glycolic for Blackheads
"Glycolic acid (and salicylic acid) are my favorite, gentle way to loosen up the outer dead skin cell layer that clogs up pores," says Jennifer MacGregor, MD, a board certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. She explains: "These gentle chemical exfoliating agents allow the cells to come apart easier and just gently fall off, without too much irritation. (In contrast, abrasive pastes scrape at the skin, cause irritation and don’t do much to truly dissolve the keratin and dead cells.)"
- Prevents breakouts: Glycolic acid, like other chemical exfoliants, eliminates the buildup of oils and dead skin cells that can clog pores.
- Regulates oil production: By helping your skin retain moisture, glycolic acid keeps acne-prone skin from getting too dry and overproducing oil.
- Minimizes pore size: Clogged pores may appear stretched and enlarged due to trapped debris and excess sebum. Glycolic acid works to reduce pore size by reaching deep into pores and exfoliating.
- Reduces the appearance of acne scars: Glycolic acid’s ability to exfoliate and rejuvenate skin by stimulating elastin and collagen can improve skin's texture and acne scarring over time.
Other Skin Benefits
According to MacGregor, "If you use mild glycolics at home and follow it with a plumping moisturizer, you will notice an amazing, smooth glow to the skin. It’s incredible! Most people with sensitive skin can still tolerate mild formulations and reap the benefits. Over time, the skin smooths, pigment brightens, tone becomes more even, the glow returns, and the skin quality improves to become thicker and naturally spongy." She adds, "The other thing I love about glycolics is they open up pores and smooth away dead cells, oil, and debris so that your other skin products can actually penetrate and do their job. Now your acne regimen, your antioxidants, and your retinoids will be more effective."
- Fights signs of aging: Glycolic acid triggers collagen production, which in turn, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
- Treats hyperpigmentation: Acne scars, age spots, and sun damage carry extra pigment which is stored in dead skin cells. Glycolic works to rid skin of this excess pigmentation via exfoliation.
- Evens skin tone and texture: Thanks to its exfoliating properties, glycolic acid removes excess oil and debris, which leads to smoother, more even skin.
- Brightens complexion: Glycolic sheds dead skin cells to reveal newer and more radiant skin underneath.
Side Effects of Glycolic Acid
When beginning to use glycolic acid, it's important to monitor how your skin reacts. Experiencing sensitivity or redness may be an indication that you should reduce the concentration of glycolic acid (Note: 10% should be the maximum for at-home glycolic treatments) and the frequency of application. Those with sensitive skin are not recommended to use glycolic acid; instead, opt for a gentler alternative like lactic acid.
How to Use It
"Glycolic acid is a powerful ingredient and should be introduced into skincare routines slowly," says Wilson. "For those new to glycolic acid, start with a gentle product, such as the InstaNatural Glycolic Acid Serum ($24) or Glycolic Acid Cream ($22), every other day for one to two weeks." Only then, after ensuring your skin tolerates the ingredient, should you increase the frequency of use. Or you may consider trying a peel. "A weekly (or biweekly) glycolic peel is a great product to use because it will provide a visible improvement in the tone and texture of your skin," Wilson explains.
Whatever you do, be sure to wear sunscreen. Take it from Wilson, who says, "Glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun so it is recommended to use glycolic acid products only at night, follow with an SPF 30 during the day, and discontinue its use 24 to 48 hours before spending an extended amount of time in the sun." If you use these blackhead-busting acids correctly (and wear sunscreen during the day), then brighter, clearer skin is in your future.
The Best Products with Glycolic Acid
As far as specific glycolic acid products go, Wilson recommends this InstaNatural serum, which is combined with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid to provide antioxidants and hydration. "Additionally, using a glycolic acid serum or cream in your regular nighttime routine is a great way to maintain the results of your weekly peel. I personally love the InstaNatural Glycolic Peel ($24), because it only requires 30 to 60 seconds of my time and is gentle enough to be used alongside the InstaNatural Glycolic Acid Serum ($24)."
We like to use these peel pads from Cane + Austin, which have 30% glycolic acid (plus a bevy of other safe-for-skin acids) to slough away dead skin, oil, and pore-clogging debris. We use them a couple of times a week after we wash our face and before we add moisturizer. They feel tingly and refreshing. Plus, they're so effective at exfoliating, we can see a visible difference in the way our makeup applies the next day. It looks smoother and more refined.
These First Aid Beauty exfoliating pads work similarly to the Cane + Austin ones. We use them after we cleanse our faces and before we apply moisturizers and serums. A combination of glycolic and lactic acids exfoliate, dissolve blackheads, and smooth the surface of the skin, while cucumber tones and lemon peel and licorice impart radiance. We've been using them for years; this product is kind of a classic in our skincare collections.
Glossier's Solution is an acne treatment and exfoliating toner that uses a combination of acids, including glycolic, lactic, and salicylic, to dissolve the "glue" that holds dead skin and debris together. Thanks to this acid combination, along with calming aloe, glycerin, and niacinamide, it clears, brightens, and smooths the skin.
This exfoliating gel contains 8% glycolic acid, which reaches deep into the skin to scoop out and neutralize pore-clogging impurities (aka those dreaded blackheads). It can be used up to twice per day, after cleansing and before moisturizing. Like with all other glycolic acid products, make sure you're applying sunscreen, especially if you use it in the morning.
Drunk Elephant's T.L.C. gel uses an AHA/BHA mix to slough off dead skin, clear blackheads, and smooth skin. In the 12% concentration, there's almost every acid imaginable, including glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic acids. Even though it certainly has a steep price tag, customers seem to love it. It has over 200,000 "loves" on Sephora's website, along with glowing reviews.
If pre-soaked exfoliating pads aren't your thing, try a peel like this vegan one from Earth Science. It uses glycolic acid along with papaya fruit enzymes to break apart pore-clogging (and blackhead-causing) impurities on the surface of the skin. Simply apply it to your skin after cleansing, wait 10 to 15 minutes until it dries, and then wash it off. It will unveil clear skin, even tone, reduce dark spots, and even do a number on signs of aging.
For people with sensitive skin, traditional exfoliating pads can sometimes prove too irritating, which is why many people opt for a glycolic acid moisturizer instead. They still contain enough of the active ingredient to work their exfoliating and refining magic, but it's not as concentrated as other glycolic acid products, such as chemical peels. They moisturize at the same time, which saves a skincare step and ensures we aren't stripping our skin. This one from Glytone, which is a skincare brand that specializes in glycolic acid products, has 10% free acid value, along with sweet almond oil and vitamin E for hydration and softness.