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Does Glycolic Acid Work for Acne?

Jill Johnson

Medically reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/17/2022

If you’re living with acne-prone skin, you’ve likely noticed that there are a plethora of products available that claim to combat the condition. So many, in fact, that finding the active ingredient that works best for your skin can be a challenge.

Today we’re talking about glycolic acid — a chemical peel derived from sugar cane that can be used to treat acne and has a similar mechanism of action to other chemical peels like lactic acid salicylic acid and azelaic acid.

We’ll cover how it can be an effective acne treatment, how to know if it may work for your skin and what to know before using it.

Let’s jump in.

How Does Acne Work?

The first step to understanding how glycolic acid works is understanding how acne itself works.

Acne occurs when the pores in our skin become blocked by a combination of dead skin cells, bacteria, and sebum.

Sebum is an oily substance naturally produced by sebaceous glands within the hair follicles of our skin, helping to keep the skin moisturized. 

In people with acne, these glands produce an excess of sebum, creating the perfect environment for it to combine with dead skin cells and result in clogged pores.

When these plugs form, the bacteria that naturally live on our skin will sometimes join the party, getting below the surface to cause inflammation that can result in pustules, nodules, papules or cysts.

If you deal with acne on your skin, you’re far from alone — a majority of people deal with the condition at some point in their lives. 

What Is Glycolic Acid?

At its simplest, glycolic acid is an ingredient found in many chemical peels — medications that work to exfoliate the layers of skin.

Chemical peels are also known as hydroxy acids and are divided into two classes — alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), like glycolic acid, and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), like salicylic acid.

Alpha-hydroxy acid specifically works on the outer layer of skin, the epidermis and the dermis, which is right below. It’s used for the purposes of moisturization, exfoliation, the reduction of fine lines and wrinkles and to encourage collagen production, lighten skin and provide firming benefits.

Various studies have shown glycolic acid may be an effective treatment for acne and the clearing of acne scars, as well as a variety of other skin conditions. 

Specifically, since alpha-hydroxy acids work to slough away dead skin cells, they help break down those plugs that form within our pores while also removing scar tissue.

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What Should I Know before Using Glycolic Acid?

The best piece of advice we can give you on the use of glycolic acid to treat acne-prone skin is to consult with a dermatology professional first.

Research that touts glycolic acid as a safe treatment also stresses the importance of dermatology professional’s guidance to ensure that it’s a good treatment for your unique skin. 

When used incorrectly — or when applied to inappropriate skin types — glycolic acid can result in side effects and damage.

Some things to know about glycolic acid use are:

  • Skin Tone Matters. Individuals who have a dark skin type — tones that don’t easily burn in the sun — should generally use weaker concentrations of glycolic acid or any chemical peel to avoid hyperpigmentation.

  • Prep Your Skin. Skin preparation is important and needs to be guided by a dermatology provider. It can include the application of a retinoid to prevent hyperpigmentation as a side effect.

  • Use the Correct Concentration. Using the correct concentrations of glycolic acid is important to avoid skin damage, as is the correct amount of application time.

  • Neutralize the Acid. Neutralizing the acid is critical to stopping the peeling process. Therefore, glycolic acid products must be rinsed away with water or another solution with a basic pH.

  • Know the Side Effects. A stinging or burning sensation is a common negative side effect of glycolic acid use, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin.

  • Use SPF Protection. Anyone who uses chemical peels— whether glycolic acid or another type — needs to be sure to protect their skin with SPF after treatment. These medications make the skin particularly vulnerable to sun damage.

What Are Alternatives to Glycolic Acid for Acne Treatment?

For a variety of reasons, glycolic acid may not be the right choice for your skin. You may have severe acne combined with a dark skin tone, or skin that otherwise doesn’t tolerate the treatment well.

Individuals who don’t find luck with glycolic acid may find some with products that contain other alpha-hydroxy acids like azelaic acid, or beta-hydroxy acids like salicylic acid.

While alpha-hydroxy acids work to break down dead skin cells, beta-hydroxy acids are oil soluble and instead work to break down the sebum in the skin. This can make them particularly helpful for individuals with oily skin.

The benefit they hold over alpha-hydroxy acids is that they cause less skin irritation, which may make them more tolerable for sensitive skin types. They also have anti-inflammatory properties, which can be beneficial to individuals who have inflammation along with their acne.

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Glycolic Acid’s Effect on Face Acne — The Bottom Line

Glycolic acid can be an effective acne treatment for individuals with a skin type that handles it well.

To determine whether it’s the right choice for you, you’ll want to consult with your dermatology provider. They’ll be able to evaluate your skin and guide you through a treatment plan.

No matter what you choose, be sure to follow the instructions provided to you and ensure that you’re practicing good skin care techniques like regular face washing and wearing SPF protection.

6 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

  1. Sharad J. (2013). Glycolic acid peel therapy - a current review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 6, 281–288. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3875240/
  2. Acne. (2020, September 1). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12233-acne
  3. Titus, S., & Hodge, J. (2012). Diagnosis and treatment of acne. American family physician, 86(8), 734–740. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1015/p734.html
  4. Moghimipour E. (2012). Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur journal of natural pharmaceutical products, 7(1), 9–10. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941867/
  5. Samargandy S, Raggio BS. Skin Resurfacing Chemical Peels. Updated 2021 Jul 25. In: StatPearls Internet. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK547752/
  6. Beta Hydroxy Acids. (2020, August 24). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Retrieved from https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-ingredients/beta-hydroxy-acids

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.