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Can You Use Glycolic Acid for Hair and Scalp?

Glycolic acid is a popular skincare ingredient and one of the most widely used chemical exfoliants for the skin. Recently, it has gained popularity on TikTok for its potential health benefits for hair and scalp. In this article, we'll take a closer look at what glycolic acid is, the benefits of glycolic acid for hair and scalp, and how to use it safely.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) widely used in skincare products. It's made from sugar cane and is the smallest AHA, which makes it effective at penetrating deeper into the skin's surface.

While glycolic acid has been used as a skincare holy grail for years, its use for the scalp and hair is a relatively new trend. Users of glycolic acid on TikTok have pointed out that it might work well for scalp exfoliation since it's a gentle exfoliant that works so well on sensitive skin.

How glycolic acid works for hair and scalp

Glycolic acid usually works by gently exfoliating the surface layer of skin, which helps reduce dead skin buildup and reveals smoother and brighter skin. This exfoliation process may help promote cell turnover (replacing dead cells with new cells) and boost hydration levels in the skin.

When it is used for your scalp, glycolic acid works pretty much the same way as it does on your face. It may be a good way to help improve hair health because it removes the buildup of hair products.

Can you use glycolic acid for hair and scalp?

Glycolic acid toner is generally safe for most people to use on their hair and scalp. In cosmetic products, the concentration typically falls between 5 and 10%. Lower concentrations are usually well-tolerated, but each individual's tolerance levels must be considered. Using higher concentrations may cause serious reactions on your scalp and should only be used under the instructions of a dermatologist.

When to avoid using glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is a very beneficial hair product, but as with any type of chemical exfoliant, this acid is not for everyone. For some individuals, using glycolic acid may have potential side effects, so before you try glycolic acid, talk to a dermatologist who will advise you on whether the product is right for you.

Avoid using this type of acid if:

  • You have a very dry scalp.
  • You have any open wounds or sores on your scalp.
  • You have very sensitive skin or you are experiencing dermatitis.
  • Have undergone recent scalp treatments such as perming or coloring.
  • You are going to be in direct sun exposure.
  • You are allergic to AHAs.

Benefits of glycolic acid for hair and scalp

Glycolic acid is not only beneficial for your skin but may also have potential benefits for your hair and scalp. However, while some dermatologists do agree that glycolic acid can be helpful for hair and scalp health, it's important to note that not enough scientific research has been done on the subject.

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Some potential benefits of glycolic acid for hair include:

Exfoliating the scalp

Glycolic acid is effective because its small molecule size allows it to penetrate deeper into the skin. When you apply it to the scalp, this acid works to remove dead skin cells from the scalp's surface by breaking down and lifting all the substance that causes dead skin cells to cluster together. It is proposed that glycolic acid also helps lift away excess sebum and dissolves product buildup, leaving your scalp cleaner and fresher.

May support hair growth

There is limited evidence that glycolic acid helps support hair growth, and most evidence is anecdotal. It is believed that glycolic acid may boost blood circulation in your scalp. Increased blood flow delivers important nutrients and oxygen to the hair follicles, potentially supporting the hair growth cycle. Additionally, using glycolic acid on the scalp may prevent hair follicles from clogging and generally support good scalp health, which could result in healthier hair growth.

May enhance hair texture and shine

Using glycolic acid for hair and scalp may lead to improved hair texture. Once again, the evidence behind this is mainly anecdotal. From the benefits mentioned previously, improving scalp health could contribute to healthier-looking hair. Using haircare products such as conditioners that contain glycolic acid may smooth the hair cuticle making the hair appear shinier.

Antibacterial properties

Research shows that glycolic acid has antimicrobial and antibacterial properties that may help treat skin acne. Glycolic acid may help cleanse the scalp and reduce the presence of yeast and harmful bacteria, which may minimize the risk of scalp acne and contribute to a healthier scalp.

pH-balancing properties

Glycolic acid may help balance the pH levels of the hair and scalp. It can promote a slightly acidic environment, which may be ideal for preventing issues such as dryness and breakage and maintaining healthy hair. Most shampoos usually have an alkaline pH due to detergents, which can cause the hair shaft to swell and damage the cuticle. Glycolic acid can balance the shampoo's pH and prevent the hair shafts from swelling due to the alkaline pH.

Reduces dandruff

Many people on TikTok who use glycolic acid for the scalp claim it may help reduce dandruff. Dandruff is often caused by an excessively oily scalp or a buildup of dead skin on the scalp. Glycolic acid can exfoliate the scalp, removing dead cells, unclogging pores, and clearing excess oil. This helps alleviate common scalp issues like itchiness and dandruff.

How to use glycolic acid on hair and scalp

There are several ways you can use glycolic acid for hair. Make sure you follow instructions based on the product you are applying. Here are simple ways to use glycolic acid:

  • Pre-shampoo treatment. Glycolic acid for hair works well as a pre-shampoo treatment. Just apply it directly on your scalp and massage gently. Leave it on for about 30 minutes, then rinse off with your shampoo followed by conditioner as normal.
  • Shampoos. A shampoo containing glycolic acid can be very beneficial for oily scalps or those prone to product buildup. Apply a generous amount to your scalp and massage it gently for 30–60 seconds. Then rinse thoroughly and follow it with your regular conditioner.
  • Scalp toners or leave-in treatments. These can be a really good option for most hair types, especially if you have concerns about scalp health. Always make sure you apply these products to clean, damp hair. Apply a few drops directly to the scalp, and massage it gently. Ensure you follow your product instructions for either rinsing or leaving the product in.
  • Scalp scrubs. You should apply a scalp scrub to a dry scalp, before washing your hair. Applying the scrub on wet hair may dilute the product, which may be desired by some for gentle exfoliation. Once you've applied the product, massage it into your scalp with gentle, circular movements for a few minutes. Rinse thoroughly and then shampoo as normal with a gentle shampoo.

Glycolic acid products are usually safe and beneficial for most hair types. However, if you have colored hair, be cautious when using glycolic acid products regularly because they can strip your hair of color. Look for gentle products that won't have any impact on your hair color.

Tips and safety precautions

The glycolic acid products you choose will highly depend on your hair type and needs. Selecting these products may be challenging, so make sure you take the time to determine the best product for you or ask for guidance from a professional.

Here are a few safety precautions to keep in mind when using glycolic acid for hair:

  • Start with lower concentration. If you're new to using glycolic acid for hair, start with a lower concentration, then gradually increase it as your scalp becomes used to the product.
  • Use in the evenings. It's best to use glycolic acid later in the day because it can make your scalp more sensitive to sunlight.
  • Follow the instructions on the bottle. Pay attention to the recommended usage as well as frequency of use.

Frequency of using glycolic acid

You should not use glycolic acid more than once a week. Just like how you would approach using an exfoliant on your face, it is important not to over-exfoliate your scalp as this can damage the scalp barrier and lead to unwanted reactions.

Risks and side effects

Glycolic acid is generally safe for hair and scalp, but it might cause some side effects in certain people. Some of the glycolic acid side effects include:

  • Allergic reactions. Allergic reactions are the most common side effect of using glycolic acid for the scalp. Some people may experience irritation, redness, itching, or a burning sensation. To avoid this, always ensure you do a patch test first to see how your skin will react.
  • Dry scalp. Using glycolic acid excessively can strip your scalp of natural oils and lead to dryness and flakiness. Make sure you don't overuse it.
  • May interfere with other treatments. Using glycolic acid with other hair treatments like coloring might cause unexpected results. Consult a dermatologist before combining glycolic acid with other treatments.

Alternative treatment for glycolic acid for hair health

Glycolic acid is a powerful alpha-hydroxy acid that is known for deep exfoliation. However, it might not be suitable for everyone. Let's quickly go through some common alternative treatments for glycolic acid.

TreatmentBenefitsAlternative treatments
Lactic acid (AHA)A milder AHA with similar exfoliating properties as glycolic acid, suitable for sensitive skinIf you can't tolerate glycolic acid and you're looking for a milder alternative
Apple cider vinegar (natural)Can cleanse product buildup and add shineIf you are looking for a natural alternative to chemical exfoliants
Tea tree oilHas antimicrobial properties and is beneficial for treating dandruff and scalp irritationIf you prefer natural remedies for scalp issues

Overall, glycolic acid is a versatile ingredient with many benefits for your hair, though it is important to note that scientific research based specifically on scalp and hair health is limited and some evidence is mainly anecdotal.

As a type of AHA, it's a powerful exfoliator that can help remove product buildup, excess oils, and dead skin. It also helps support hair growth, reduces dandruff, and may potentially enhance texture and shine. Some haircare products contain glycolic acid, including shampoos, conditioners, hair scrubs, and serums.

Due to side effects such as allergic reactions and irritation, it's always best to consult with a dermatologist before you start using glycolic acid. Make sure you start with lower percentage formulations that can help your scalp adjust and reduce risks of irritation.


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