If you are always up for discovering new ways to get your skin clear, smooth, and glowing, glycolic acid may be the secret ingredient you need in your routine to achieve this.
However, although effective at addressing multiple skin concerns, glycolic acid isn’t a harmless ingredient you can’t go wrong with and incorrect usage can lead to a damaged skin barrier, dryness, irritation, and discomfort.
Therefore, in this beginner guide on how to use glycolic acid, I will explain everything you need to know about the active ingredient, how to safely incorporate it into your skincare routine, and how to achieve the best results without experiencing side effects.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and a colorless, odorless, and hygroscopic crystalline solid that is highly soluble in water.
Known for its small molecular size, glycolic acid is naturally derived from sugar crops such as sugarcane, pineapple, and unripe grapes, making it a naturally occurring substance.
As an active compound, it’s often included in skincare formulations due to its ability to penetrate the skin easily and address various skin concerns.
How Does Glycolic Acid Work?
Glycolic acid dissolves the proteins that hold dead skin cells together on the skin’s surface and encourages them to shed and make room for newer, clearer, younger, and more even skin cells underneath.
This process is known as exfoliation, and it can help address concerns such as fine lines, wrinkles, acne, dullness, and uneven skin tone.
Aside from exfoliating, glycolic acid also has humectant properties and attracts moisture to the skin, making it a great ingredient for hydrating and plumping the skin.
Finally, glycolic acid also serves a pivotal role in boosting collagen, a protein that imparts firmness and elasticity to the skin by initiating a reaction in the amino acids that promote its production.
The increase in collagen contributes to a reduction in wrinkles, fine lines, and overall skin aging, leading to a healthier, more youthful appearance.
The Benefits of Glycolic Acid
Here are several glycolic acid benefits for the skin:
Even Skin Tone: By shedding the top layers of the skin, glycolic acid can help remove hyperpigmented cells and even out the skin tone.
Smoother Texture: With regular use, glycolic acid can help improve skin texture by smoothing out rough patches.
Reduced Acne: Glycolic acid’s exfoliating properties also make it effective in reducing acne breakouts by unclogging pores and reducing the overgrowth of acne-causing bacteria.
Faded Hyperpigmentation: The exfoliating effect of glycolic acid can also help shed away dark spots and hyperpigmentation caused by sun damage, acne scars, or hormonal changes.
Increased Hydration: Glycolic acid has humectant properties that attract moisture to the skin, making it an effective hydrator.
Anti-Aging: The increase in collagen production encouraged by glycolic acid can help reduce the signs of aging, making the skin appear smoother, firmer, and more youthful.
The Side Effects of Glycolic Acid
While glycolic acid is generally safe and well-tolerated by all skin types, incorrect use can often lead to adverse effects.
Here are the most common side effects of glycolic acid:
- Dryness: Overuse of glycolic acid will cause the skin to become excessively dry.
- Flaking: Increased dryness can lead to flaky patches, especially around the mouth.
- Irritation: Similarly, overuse or using products with high concentrations of glycolic acid can cause irritation, redness, and stinging sensation on the skin.
- Photosensitivity: Glycolic acid can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s essential to wear sunscreen and limit sun exposure while using products containing this ingredient.
- Allergic Reactions: Some individuals may be allergic to glycolic acid, resulting in rashes, hives, or other allergic reactions.
- Acne Flare-Ups: Overusing glycolic acid will compromise the skin barrier, which can lead to overgrowth of pathogens and acne-causing bacteria.
Glycolic Acid Step-by-Step Guide for Beginners
While glycolic acid is beneficial for addressing multiple skin concerns, it’s not a completely harmless ingredient.
In fact, glycolic acid can contribute to an array of skin issues, which typically stem from the incorrect usage of this potent active.
Therefore, it’s crucial to use glycolic acid correctly in a complete skincare regimen that nourishes your skin and helps it benefit from the active ingredient rather than suffer its side effects.
Here is a step-by-step beginner guide to using glycolic acid correctly to get the best results for your skin:
Step 1: Understand Your Skin
Before incorporating any new active ingredient into your skincare routine, it’s essential to understand your skin and its specific concerns.
For example, if you have dry or sensitive skin, you may want to opt for a lower concentration of glycolic acid or start by using it less frequently until your skin adjusts.
On the other hand, those with oily skin may be able to tolerate higher concentrations of glycolic acid and use it more often.
Additionally, you should also understand your skin concerns, as this, too, will contribute to which strength and frequency to use glycolic acid.
For example, if you have mature skin that’s thicker and more resilient, with the main concern being lines and deeper wrinkles, you may be able to use higher concentrations of glycolic acid and more frequent applications.
If your main skin concern is acne, your skin is likely inflamed, irritated, and reactive, which means you should opt for a lower concentration and less frequent use of glycolic acid to avoid further inflaming your skin and compromising its barrier.
Finally, if your main skin concern is hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and texture, but your skin is clear, non-inflamed, and can be described as normal, you can start using low to moderate concentrations of glycolic acid and gradually increase the frequency as your skin adjusts.
Step 2: Choose the Right Product
If you can’t determine your skin type or specific concerns on your own but still want to try glycolic acid, you can’t go wrong by choosing a product with low concentrations of the active ingredient that you can use once to twice a week as the only active in your skincare regimen.
For instance, a cleanser, toner, or serum containing up to 5% glycolic acid can be a safe starting point.
These products are mild yet effective, allowing your skin to gradually adjust to the ingredient without experiencing excessive irritation or dryness.
It’s equally important to consider the formulation of the product. Look for glycolic acid products that are pH-balanced and free from added irritants like alcohol, fragrance, and dyes.
If you have dry or sensitive skin, look for a product that also includes soothing and hydrating ingredients such as Centella Asiatica, hyaluronic acid, panthenol, etc.
For oily or acne-prone skin, choose a non-comedogenic formula that won’t clog your pores.
Yes, glycolic acid can help reduce acne severity; however, if the product you are using contains other clogging ingredients, it may exacerbate this inflammatory condition.
Lastly, remember to always do a patch test on a small area of your skin before fully integrating the product into your routine to ensure you’re not allergic to any of the ingredients.
If your skin shows no signs of adverse reactions after 24 hours, you can proceed to use the product as directed.
Step 3: Correct Glycolic Acid Application
Here is an easy step-by-step guide on how to correctly apply glycolic acid as a beginner:
- Cleanse with a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser and allow your skin to dry naturally.
- Apply a thin layer of toner or essence to balance your skin’s pH and prepare it for the active ingredient.
- Apply a small amount of glycolic acid over your face and neck, avoiding the eye and lip area. If you are using a glycolic acid serum, apply a pea-sized amount. If you are using a glycolic acid toner, apply a thin layer to avoid over-exfoliation.
- Frequency: Initially, use glycolic acid once a week in the evening. After 1-2 weeks of use with no adverse reactions, you can gradually increase the frequency to twice a week and a maximum of three times a week. Avoid using glycolic acid more frequently than three times a week to give your skin cells time to rejuvenate without stripping them away too often.
Step 5: Post-Application Care
- Moisturize: Wait until the glycolic acid is absorbed into the skin and follow up with a nourishing, non-comedogenic moisturizer to soften the skin, prevent moisture loss, and minimize potential irritation.
- Sun Protection: The next morning, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher as glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun and increase the risk of sunburns, hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and other signs of sun damage.
Step 6: Monitor Your Skin’s Reaction
- Observation: Look out for signs of irritation like redness, burning, dryness, peeling, and flaking. If these occur, reduce the frequency of glycolic acid use.
- Adjustment: Depending on your skin’s tolerance, you can gradually increase the frequency of use and the concentration of glycolic acid over time.
Step 7: Integrate into Routine
- Routine Integration: Once your skin has adapted, incorporate glycolic acid into your regular skincare routine, balancing it with other skincare products.
- Avoid Overuse: Be careful not to over-exfoliate. Pay attention to your skin’s needs and responses.
- Active Integration: Since glycolic acid is an exfoliant, it’s best to avoid combining it with other active ingredients with exfoliating properties, as this can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation.
Glycolic Acid Dos and Don’ts
Here are some final dos and don’ts to keep in mind when using glycolic acid:
- DO Start Slowly: Begin with a lower concentration and gradually increase as your skin becomes more tolerant.
- DO Use at Night: Glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s best used in your nighttime routine.
- DO Use Sunscreen: To avoid sunburns and discomfort, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 daily.
- DO Moisturize: Follow up glycolic acid application with a nourishing moisturizer to hydrate and soothe the skin.
- DO Have a Complete Skincare Routine: Glycolic acid is not a standalone product and works best alongside a complete skincare routine.
On the other hand, here are some don’ts to keep in mind when starting to use glycolic acid:
- DON’T Use on Wet Skin: Applying glycolic acid on wet skin can increase irritation. Always apply it on dry skin.
- DON’T Mix With Certain Actives: Avoid combining glycolic acid with other exfoliating ingredients to prevent barrier damage.
- DON’T Overuse: Overusing glycolic acid can compromise the skin barrier and lead to dryness, irritation, and discomfort.
- DON’T Use on Broken Skin: Applying glycolic acid to damaged skin can lead to further irritation and damage. Wait for the skin to heal before using it.
- DON’T Ignore Adverse Reactions: If your skin experiences severe burning, redness, or peeling after using glycolic acid, discontinue use and consult a dermatologist.
Can You Combine Glycolic Acid With Other Actives?
You can combine glycolic acid with the following skincare ingredients:
These ingredients can help enhance the effects of glycolic acid and provide additional benefits to the skin.
Niacinamide can help regulate oil production and reduce hyperpigmentation, while hyaluronic acid provides hydration and plumps the skin.
On the other hand, vitamin C can help brighten the skin and protect it from environmental damage; however, due to the potency of both actives, glycolic acid, and vitamin C should be used in separate skincare routines (for example, glycolic acid in the evening, and vitamin C in the morning.)
On the other hand, don’t combine glycolic acid with the following skincare ingredients:
These are strong exfoliating ingredients that, when combined together, can damage your skin barrier and exacerbate skin concerns rather than improve them.
The Best Glycolic Acid Products for Beginners
Here are some of the best glycolic acid products for beginners:
The Inkey List – Glycolic Acid Toner
Best for all skin types.
The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Toner is a budget-friendly, lightweight solution that’s gentle on the skin, absorbs quickly, and addresses various skin concerns without irritating the skin or damaging its barrier.
Besides glycolic acid, the toner also contains propanediol to keep the skin hydrated and prevent potential dryness and irritation from the main exfoliating active.
Paula’s Choice – 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant
Best for mature skin with fine lines and wrinkles.
The Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant contains a cocktail of exfoliating glycolic acid along with skin-repairing antioxidants and irritation-soothing components such as chamomile and green tea extract.
Fantastic for glycolic acid beginners with normal, dry, and even sensitive skin, the 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant will refine uneven skin texture, fade hyperpigmentation and acne scarring, and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Paula’s Choice – Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA Serum
Best for oily, resilient skin or advanced glycolic acid users.
The Paula’s Choice Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA Serum is formulated with a blend of exfoliating acids that help refine uneven skin texture, fade hyperpigmentation, even out uneven skin tone, and improve the overall skin appearance.
Glycolic, lactic, and malic acids work together to gently exfoliate the skin, while licorice root extract helps brighten and even out skin tone while green tea extract and chamomile help soothe and hydrate the skin.
Drunk Elephant – T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Best for dry skin.
Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum is a powerful blend of AHAs and BHAs that work to resurface the skin, improving texture, tone, and clarity while reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Formulated with a 12% AHA blend of glycolic, tartaric, lactic, and citric acids, this serum gently exfoliates and brightens the skin while also addressing concerns like hyperpigmentation, uneven skin tone, and enlarged pores.
It is also enriched with soothing aloe vera, grape juice extract, and several skin-softening emollients to soothe the skin and prevent moisture loss, making it suitable for dry skin.
Vichy LiftActiv B3 Serum
Best for all skin types.
The Vichy LiftActiv B3 Serum has a mild yet effective formula that targets uneven skin tone, dark spots, and rough, bumpy texture due to a combination of glycolic acid and brightening niacinamide as its main active ingredients.
Lightweight, easily absorbed, and suitable for all skin types, this gentle serum will help improve the skin’s overall health and appearance after as little as several uses.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Does it Take for Glycolic Acid to Work?
The effects of glycolic acid vary from person to person, but on average, it can take anywhere from 4-8 weeks to see results.
It’s essential to be patient and consistent with use for optimal results.
Can You Use Glycolic Acid Every Day?
It’s generally not recommended to use glycolic acid every day, especially for those with sensitive skin.
Overuse of glycolic acid can lead to a compromised skin barrier, wich will trigger dryness, redness, and irritation.
Start by using glycolic acid once a week and gradually increase up to two or three times a week as your skin adjusts to it.
What Percentage Of Glycolic Acid Is Most Effective?
The most effective percentage of glycolic acid depends on your skin type and tolerance.
For beginners, a 5% glycolic acid concentration is recommended, while experienced users can opt for higher concentrations of up to 10%.
Can Glycolic Acid Clear Acne?
Glycolic acid can help clear acne by exfoliating the skin, unclogging pores, and reducing inflammation caused by bacterial overgrowth.
Can Glycolic Acid Fade Hyperpigmentation?
Yes, glycolic acid can help fade hyperpigmentation by exfoliating the top layer of skin and promoting cell turnover, revealing brighter, more even-toned skin from underneath.
Glycolic acid is also effective in reducing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation caused by acne.
Should You Moisturize After Glycolic Acid?
Yes, you should always moisturize after using glycolic acid.
You should always top it up with a hydrating moisturizer that will create an occlusive barrier on your skin in order to help it retain moisture.
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.
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