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Glycolic Acid for Skin: Benefits & Side Effects

Vicky Davis, FNP

Medically reviewed by Vicky Davis, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 2/2/2022

Regardless of your skin type — sensitive skin, oily skin, acne-prone skin or otherwise — we’re always looking for another way to boost our skincare game

But jeez… Take one step into a pharmacy and it’s rare not to be quickly overwhelmed by all the options available to you.

In this article, we’re going to take a concerted look at a popular skincare product — glycolic acid — to learn about what makes it unique, whether it’s effective and whether we’d recommend you give it a shot if you want to rejuvenate and enliven your skin.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid found in unripe grapes and sugar beets.

It’s used in textile and leather processing and, most pertinently to this article, in skincare products as an exfoliant.

Research indicates that glycolic acid products, which in academic circles is referred to under the umbrella of AHAs — or alpha hydroxy acids — has been effective exfoliant in promoting skin health.

Why Do We Use Glycolic Acid in Skincare Products?

Now, you may be asking us: what the hell is an exfoliant anyway?

Simple: an exfoliant is any chemical agent that you apply to your skin to remove dead skin cells from the surface of your skin.

By removing dead skin cells from your top layers of skin, you are in turn promoting greater skin health. The promotion of greater skin health lies in the rejuvenation of skin cells. 

Research has shown that by using an effective exfoliant, you’re promoting cell regrowth on the outer layers of skin.

Think of it as the circle of (skin) life.

That very same product we just talked about using to treat leather products? Research has shown that it’s been effective in combating wrinkled skin, aging dark spots, roughness, acne, scarring and a host of other prominent skin concerns.

So, when it comes to addressing the most significant signs of skin health, application of an effective AHA such as glycolic acid seems to be your ticket to brighter, healthier and more youthful-looking skin.

Want some more good news?

Researchers have also found in experiments on mice that glycolic acid works to repair sun damage from ultraviolet light, specifically tumor development in those with excess sun exposure. 

And some researchers also believe that it contributes positively to antioxidant activity within the skin.

It’s important to understand that there are few things more harmful to the skin than ultraviolet light.

When exposed to too much ultraviolet light — especially without the protection of a proper SPF — the skin in turn begins to show signs of increased aging. 

Among the signs of increased aging can be deepening, broadened wrinkles.

More dangerous and troublesome, excessive exposure to UV light over the course of time can increase the potential for skin cancer.

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This Sounds Great, But Is Glycolic Acid Dangerous?

Glycolic acids are found in common, everyday products such as home cleaning solutions and shampoos.

While glycolic acids provide the potential for skin rejuvenation, it’s important to remember that not everyone’s genetic and cellular makeup is the same.

If everyone’s a proverbial snowflake in the skincare routine game, it’s therefore important to remember that one person’s perfect remedy can be another person’s irritation.

When it comes to serious health risks, there hasn’t been conclusive data to suggest that the use of glycolic is dangerous to your health. That said, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its fair share of side effects. 

Glycolic acid may cause some skin irritation such as redness and itching.

Another side effect of using glycolic acid can be skin peeling. Skin peeling can manifest in dry skin and give off the appearance of having unhealthy skin. 

While this side effect is relatively common with most exfoliants, it’s still worth noting — especially for those of us with sensitive skin.

How Do We Balance The Pros & Cons of Glycolic Acid?

The truth lies in the potion — seriously.

Do a little poking around on glycolic acid — its downsides, its positive benefits — and you can go a bit cross-eyed in trying to determine whether to try it.

Well, there’s a bottom line when it comes to the use of glycolic acid, specifically that the benefits of using an AHA like glycolic acid are not in the product itself — they’re in the product’s concentration of glycolic acid.

When used in high or low concentrations, the purpose of glycolic acid is to act like a peeling agent. 

What’s important is that the concentration of the glycolic acid applying to your skin isn’t the same as the concentration of that magical AHA you’d apply to, say, cleaning your countertop after a night of making bolognese — or a leather handbag you’re treating.

Glycolic acid acts as a peeling agent to scrape away dead skin cells in order to rejuvenate ones that are waiting for a little pep in their step.

What Are Other Effective Skincare Treatments?

Let’s say you’re all about skin rejuvenation, but using something with glycolic acid just isn’t your cup of tea. We totally get it.

There’s a panoply of alternatives that can provide a boost to getting healthier, shinier skin in no time.

Want some suggestions?

Retinol

One of the most effective tools to prevent skin aging is retinol.

Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, is a chemical exfoliant that focuses on skin rejuvenation.

It’s used as a chemical peel of sorts that’s been proven to reduce wrinkles and fine lines on the skin.

Retinol works by increasing your body’s skin cell turnover process, thereby increasing the production of collagen

In the context of skincare, the better the collagen production, the better, healthier, youthful-looking skin tone someone has.


Improved collagen production means better skin texture, bringing about in the end smoother, healthier skin.

Moisturizing

Did you know that skin — yes, skin — is the body’s largest organ?

Think about it that way, and no wonder you should be giving it the care and attention it deserves.

Finding a proper skin moisturizer is key to maintaining solid skin health. 

The reason a moisturizer is so critical to maintaining healthy skin is that it provides the skin protection and vitamin infusion your skin thirsts for in order to maintain that shiny, glittery sheen that makes everyone notice you when you walk into the room.

A moisturizer with vitamin A and vitamin B5 can help increase firmness and moisture in the skin, bringing about that youthful glow you read about in all the magazines.

Also, if the moisturizer has vitamin C to contribute to the antioxidant production — well, that’s going to bring about new skin to fight old skin damage.

Don’t Forget Your Sunscreen

Of course, the best offense is a good defense. You know what the best way to treat the signs of skin aging really is? Doing your best to prevent them from the getgo. 

You may have been brought up thinking that sunscreen is just an add-on that you should only consider if you’re going to be out for long periods ot time on sunny, hot days — like at the beach or on a hike.

But you should actually apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily — regardless of what the sun outside looks like. Typically an SPF of 30 and above is preferable. 

You can also find a daily moisturizer that incorporates SPF right in the bottle, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. 

Age spots, sun spots, increased wrinkles, dry skin, irritated skin — who wants that?

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Glycolic Acid For Skin — The Bottom Line

No one’s skin journey is the same, but when it comes to the basic facts of maintaining your skin’s health, it’s clear that products like glycolic acid are really helpful.

As a natural exfoliant, this common skincare ingredient helps clear out dead skin on the surface to leave your skin looking happy and healthy.

When you’re ready, don’t hesitate to talk to a professional about finding the right combination of skincare products you need to look and glow at your best.

15 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.

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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. Learn more about our editorial standards here.