Glycolic acid has become a skincare buzzword as of late, just like its hyaluronic acid, retinol, and collagen counterparts. Whether this safe-for-skin acid is the main component of your favorite product or it's hidden down the line in the ingredient list, it's likely that you already use it, as it can be found in everything from toners to chemical peels to lotions (the last one being today's particular area of interest). If it hasn't already been incorporated into your routine, then it's high time it is. After all, the beauty industry doesn't pull these skincare buzzwords out of thin air. Many people—ourselves included—swear by glycolic acid for exfoliating and illuminating our dull, dry skin.
It's all thanks to the acid's chemical makeup. It belongs in the AHA category, otherwise known as alpha-hydroxy acids. According to Krista Eichten, vice president of products and services at Sanitas Skincare and licensed esthetician, "Glycolic acid has a small molecular structure, giving it the ability to travel deep into the layers of the skin. Once there, the acid dissolves excess sebum and dead skin cells, revealing smoother, brighter, and younger-looking skin." It differs from other acids, like lactic acid, by its molecular size, which happens to be incredibly small. "This means that lactic acid is not able to penetrate as deeply into the layers of the skin." In other words, it penetrates more deeply than some other acids.
Meet the Expert
Krista Eichten is the Senior Vice President of Rocky Mountain Natural Labs in Denver, Co. Since getting her Esthetics degree in 2006, Eichten has been working in the skincare industry for brands such as Sanitas and Cowgirl Skincare.
As we mentioned before, one of our favorite ways to incorporate glycolic acid into our skincare routine is through our daily moisturizer. Since we apply it each morning and/or night, our skin is able to stay continually hydrated, fresh, and bright. And who doesn't love that? Especially when we're right on the heels of the summer season.
Mario Badescu's Glycolic Renewal Complex combines glycolic acid with papaya extract to achieve the utmost radiance. Those are then blended with oils meant to provide deep hydration and wrinkle-filling effects.
This Korean moisturizer has 3% glycolic acid and 0.45% salicylic acid meant to gently clarify and exfoliate, while birch juice is meant to hydrate. It's perfect for those with acne-prone skin since it's specifically formulated to prevent blemishes. (Plus, it's lightweight, creamy, and tingles upon application).
For those of us who are particularly ingredient-wary, this Clark's Botanicals cream might do the trick. It promises to smooth and soften skin (thanks to the clarifying and exfoliating glycolic acid found inside).
This face lotion combines the buzziest skincare ingredients out there. There's marine algae extract, collagen, hyaluronic acid, and glycolic acid meant to simultaneously hydrate, clarify, and protect the skin.
This cream offers all the glycolic acid benefits that we know and love, but with a soothing formulation that may be more apt for sensitive skin, thanks to hyaluronic acid, vitamin E, and chamomile.
If aging is your specific concern, reach for this pick from Juice Beauty. Vitamins, peptides, and green apple are meant to firm skin and delay and prevent fine lines and wrinkles.
This moisturizer includes a special time-release form of glycolic acid, which helps treat your skin throughout the whole day as you wear it, according to the brand. Its star ingredient, glycolic acid, works against fine lines and wrinkles while providing smoothness and radiance.
Glytone is a brand that specializes in glycolic acid-infused skincare products. This cream has a stunning 20% free acid value, so you know it's powerful and effective. There's also monoi butter and sweet almond oil to moisturize. Just be sure to use sunscreen after you apply this, as acids might make your skin more prone to the sun's harmful UV rays.
This moisturizing night cream from Dermalogica utilizes glycolic acid to refine skin overnight as you sleep. Simply apply to clean skin before hitting the hay, and the brand promises you'll wake up with a brighter and better-looking complexion.
This cream is formulated with 10% glycolic acid to exfoliate, dimethicone to seal in moisture, and various antioxidants meant to protect against environmental stressors.
Whichever formula and brand you decide to go with, make sure you're applying sunscreen afterward. Not to sound like a broken record, but glycolic acid can increase the skin's sensitivity to the sun. Make sure you're harnessing all of its benefits without added sun damage.
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National Center for Biotechnology Information. PubChem compound summary for CID 757, glycolic acid. Updated November 13, 2021.