Everything You Need to Know about Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid has immense capabilities, ranging from improved skin texture, fine lines, and tone. It has been observed to work as an antioxidant in the skin, aiding in the healing process and it is also an anti-inflammatory that can be helpful for acne.
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We have talked about chemical exfoliants before on this blog, including Glycolic Acid. Hydroxy acids are of course amazing exfoliants but they also possess other properties that improve the skin. Every hydroxy acid is unique and deserves its own spotlight, in this blog I want to shine that light on Glycolic Acid. 

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic Acid is extracted from sugarcane and is unlike any other alpha hydroxy acid because it has the smallest molecular weight. This tiny weight allows it to penetrate more deeply and quickly into the skin, than any other AHA. Glycolic Acid (GA) is of course a keratolytic (exfoliant), it loosens the glue that binds our skin cells together and helps them to slough off and reveals fresh skin. This makes it an effective treatment for acne, specifically non-inflamed acne or congested and textured skin; it is my favorite acid to recommend for my thick and textured skin clients. The benefits of GA are vast; it assists in evening skin tone by shedding the pigmented skin cells, whether they are age spots or pigmented acne scars, it has been observed to work as an antioxidant in the skin, aiding in the healing process and it is also an anti-inflammatory that can be helpful for acne as previously mentioned. (However, gentler hydroxy acids such as mandelic are better suited for moderate to severely inflamed acne.) More recently it has been discovered that GA can actually help in the synthesis of both hyaluronic acid and collagen, meaning it can aid in hydration and has stronger antiaging properties than previously known!

How to Use Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid has been around for centuries. Dermatologists as well as Estheticians, like myself have long known and utilized the benefits and applications of Glycolic Acid to treat varying skin types and concerns. Glycolic is the most commonly used acid for chemical peeling, ranging from 20%-70% concentrations, this level of concentration is what can cause abundant desquamation or peeling. The strength of a peel can also depend on the pH of the acid. The lower the pH, the stronger the peel will be despite the concentration percentage. As with any active ingredients, it is best to start at a lower concentration and increase as the skin increases its tolerance.

For at-home use, formulations can range from cleansers, toners, serums, masks, and peels. If you are new to Glycolic a cleanser or toner are good options to start with as the concentrations are usually lower. A serum is the most effective formulation as they are usually higher concentrations and can deliver results quicker. At home, product concentrations will most likely be under 30%, so the concentration is not high enough to cause actual peeling. I mentioned pH a bit earlier, it is best to look for products with a lower pH to get the most benefit.

An ideal Glycolic acid serum would be a 10% formulation with a pH of about 3.5. It would depend on your skin type and tone whether you could use this daily or not. A good rule of thumb with most acids in a serum form is to use it every other night for 2 weeks and if your skin tolerates that you can increase to every day. It is normal for a Glycolic Acid to tingle a bit more than other acids since it does penetrate into the skin faster and deeper than other acids do.

Contraindications and Glycolic Acid

If you have a deeper skin tone ranging from a Fitzpatrick IV-VI (4-6) it is best to either consult with a skincare professional before using Glycolic Acid or start at a very low concentration. Since glycolic acid enters the skin extremely fast it has the potential to irritate darker skin tones and cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH), especially if the skin has recently been exposed to the sun, or has recently been either chemically or physically exfoliated. 

Another contraindication may be sensitive skin or conditions like rosacea as glycolic acid does have the tingling sensation and may be too harsh for these skin types. Overall glycolic acid products for home use are safe and can be effective. As with any active ingredient, start slow and build your tolerance. Always listen to how your skin is feeling and don’t push its limits if it is feeling sensitized. Of course, with any exfoliating ingredients make sure you are being diligent with your sunblock and protecting your freshly exfoliated skin!

Glycolic Acid has immense capabilities, ranging from improved skin texture, fine lines, and tone. It has been one of my favorite tools for my own skin as well as my clients. If Glycolic Acid sounds like a good fit for you, feel free to chat with a Pomp Esthetician to discover what Glycolic Acid product would be a good start for your skin! 

Nicole Hatfield
NBC HWC & Certified Esthetician, Founder of Radiant Beings Wellness & Beauty Coaching

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