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Glycolic Acid in Your Skincare Routine: Things to Know

Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring chemical exfoliant that provides numerous skin benefits beyond simply removing dead skin cells. It has been around for over a hundred years and is a popular ingredient in many antiaging products. Read on to learn about glycolic acid, how to use it, and the possible side effects.

Key takeaways:

What is glycolic acid?

Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) are a group of natural acids derived from plants, such as glycolic, malic, lactic, and citric acids. Glycolic acid is water-soluble and made from sugar cane. It is the smallest AHA, so it is the best absorbed and deepest penetrating AHA. In fact, glycolic acid is the most popular and widely utilized AHA on the market.

Difference between glycolic and salicylic acid

Glycolic and salicylic acids belong to the family of hydroxy acids. They both unclog pores, improve the skin's texture, help treat acne, and remove dead skin cells. However, glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid that is water-soluble and derived from sugars. It is better at treating the signs of aging than salicylic acid because glycolic acid increases collagen production to help fade wrinkles.

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid and oil soluble which allows it to penetrate deeper into the pores to unclog them and decrease sebum (oil) production. It also has antibacterial effects, making it better at treating acne than glycolic acid. It also some anti-inflammatory properties, making it more well-tolerated than glycolic acid.

Benefits of glycolic acid for the skin

Glycolic acid is popular for good reasons. It helps aging skin in several ways, but it can take time to see all the benefits. Consistency and patience are key to success with any topical skincare product.

Here are some ways it can rejuvenate your skin:

  • Exfoliation. Glycolic acid dissolves the bonds between skin cells to help remove dead skin cells. These dead skin cells easily wash away without scrubbing or damaging the skin like some physical exfoliants (beads, scrubs, and loofahs) can. This removal of dead skin cells will help improve the skin's overall texture, brown spots, and clogged pores.
  • Humectant. Glycolic acid is a humectant moisturizer, meaning it can draw in water from the surrounding environment to hydrate the skin.
  • Antibacterial. Glycolic acid can inhibit the growth of certain bacteria, which can improve some cases of acne.
  • Anti-aging. Glycolic acid increases the production of collagen and the quality of elastin in our skin. The loss of collagen and elastin leads to wrinkles and sagging skin.

Tips for using glycolic acid

Depending on the product, it is best to use it once or twice a day. Always follow the instructions on the product for best results. Often, patients need to start slow and build up to using it as directed, especially if they have sensitive skin. You can start using it twice a week for two weeks, then three times a week for two weeks, then every night.

If you are concerned about the possible side effects of glycolic acid or how your skin might react, try a test spot first on the inside of your forearm. Use it there for a week or two and see how your skin tolerates it. You should also start using the lowest concentration of glycolic acid and slowly build to higher ones.

It is also best to use it at night because it can make your skin sensitive to the sun and burn more easily. Always wear sunscreen when using glycolic acid products. Exfoliants remove layers of protective skin, making it easier for the sun to harm us. Wide-brimmed hats and sun protection clothing are also beneficial.

Side effects of glycolic acid

Because glycolic acid is an exfoliant, it can cause some side effects, especially when first beginning a regimen. In most cases, once your skin becomes accustomed to it, you will no longer have any side effects. If you have sensitive skin or are concerned about how your skin will tolerate it, ask your dermatologist for help and guidance.

Here are some possible side effects to be aware of:

  • Sun sensitivity and sunburn
  • Redness and irritation
  • Dry, flaking skin
  • Skin darkening
  • Itching
  • Burning
  • Soreness

Who should not use glycolic acid

While glycolic acid may benefit most people, not everyone can tolerate it. Since it does exfoliate the skin, it may be too irritating for patients with certain skin issues. Patients with sensitive skin, sunburns, open areas, and eczema may not be able to use it every day or at all. If you are considering glycolic acid products, talk to your dermatologist first.

Glycolic acid and pregnancy

Glycolic acid products, with concentrations less than 10%, are generally considered safe during pregnancy. However, it is recommended that you check with your obstetrician before using any products during pregnancy. Another consideration is the changes that occur to your skin during pregnancy. You may find that the products you tolerated before pregnancy may irritate your skin during pregnancy.

How to choose the right glycolic acid product

It is best to base your choice of glycolic acid product on your skin type. If you have oily skin, you may prefer cleansers, toners, gels, serums, exfoliators, and peels that contain glycolic acid. You would want to avoid products that might make your skin too greasy, such as creams or lotions. On the other hand, if you have dry skin, serums, creams, hydrating masks, and lotions are ideal. If you want quick, dramatic results and do not mind downtime, glycolic acid peels may be a good choice.

Glycolic acid is an ingredient found in various types of products and formulations. It is available in cleansers, toners, lotions, creams, gels, serums, exfoliators, masks, and peels. Some may find it daunting to determine which product is right for you, so always ask your dermatologist for help.

How long until I see results from using glycolic acid?

It can take time and patience before you can see the visible results after starting new skincare products. You may begin to see exfoliation within the first week of using glycolic acid. However, it can take a month or more before you notice fewer clogged pores and brown spots. The anti-aging effects, such as fewer fine lines, can take six months or more to become apparent. This is how long it takes for the increase in collagen to lessen the appearance of wrinkles.

Glycolic acid is a beneficial anti-aging product to add to your skincare routine. It is available in various products and formulations, so it should be easy to find one that is right for you. Be sure to use it correctly to avoid side effects. Before starting any new products, talk to your dermatologist first.

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