You know your friend with the amazing skin—glowy but not oily, and never a hint of a blemish or red spot? Unless she’s genetically blessed, we’d bet glycolic acid is part of her skincare routine. The alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) is praised by dermatologists and researchers alike for helping with various skin issues like fine lines, acne, and dark spots. So, yeah, you should def consider getting your hands on the stuff.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about this powerhouse ingredient, from how to use it to where to find it.
What’s glycolic acid, exactly?
Glycolic acid is naturally found in plants such as sugar cane. All AHAs exfoliate the skin, but since glycolic acid is the smallest molecule in the AHA family, it more effectively penetrates the skin. And that makes it more beneficial. “It’s the most effective of the alpha-hydroxy acids,” says dermatologist Flor A. Mayoral, MD, of Mayoral Dermatology in Miami.
So, what can glycolic acid do for my skin?
Exfoliating isn’t just about smooth skin—it also may help fight signs of aging, diminish dark spots, and improve acne.
“Glycolic acids helps get rid of dead skin cells. When this happens, younger-looking skin is revealed,” explains dermatologist Debra Jaliman, MD, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Research also suggests that glycolic acid may help reduce damage caused by the sun and increase collagen production. (More collagen = smoother, plumper skin.)
At the same time, glycolic acid may help fade dark spots and even out skin tone. Glycolic acid inhibits tyrosinase, one of the enzymes that produces pigment on the surface of the skin, Dr. Mayoral explains. In fact, studies suggest that it’s just as good as—if not more effective than—other therapies at treating hyperpigmentation. One thing to keep in mind, though: For people with darker skin tones, “using it too often or using strengths that are too strong can make hyperpigmentation even worse,” Dr. Jaliman cautions.
As for acne, “glycolic acid inhibits the growth of [acne-causing bacteria] and gets rid of dead skin cells, unclogging pores,” Dr. Mayoral explains. In a small study, people with mild acne who used a 10-percent glycolic acid product daily saw improvements after 45 days.
Lastly, glycolic acid may help you get the most out of your other skincare products. “When your skin’s outermost layer is sloughed off, this will allow other products to penetrate better,” Dr. Jaliman explains.
What skin types is glycolic acid best for?
If you have oily skin or are prone to acne, glycolic acid may become your new bestie.
On the other hand, if you have very sensitive skin, glycolic acid’s exfoliation effects may lead to some irritation and/or redness if you use high concentrations of it. Which leads us to…
What should I look for in products with glycolic acid?
Although you can find OTC products with high concentrations of glycolic acid, this is not a case where more necessarily means better. A serum with 10 percent glycolic acid is gentle enough to use every day, even if you have sensitive skin, Dr. Mayoral says.
Need a product reco? We’re fans of L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum. In an independent study, women using the product had younger-looking skin after just one week and a reduction in dark spots after two weeks. Plus, it also contains aloe, which helps soothe your skin.
Are there any precautions I should take?
“Glycolic acid is gentler than other acids such as salicylic acid, and one of the great things is that it can be used safely during pregnancy and breastfeeding,” Dr. Jaliman says.
That said, glycolic acid can irritate some people’s skin. So start with lower concentrations, apply only once or twice a week, and don’t slather it on like guac on a burrito. Also, use sunscreen, as glycolic acid tends to make the skin more sensitive to the sun. (But you already wear SPF 365 days a year…right?)
TL;DR: Glycolic acid is our secret to clear, glowing, younger-looking skin that makes you that friend.
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