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.
The first step to understanding how glycolic acid works is understanding how acne itself works.
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.
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.
But wait — don’t run to the pharmacy just yet.
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.
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.
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.