How to Use Glycolic Acid for Skin Care

Glycolic acid is frequently used to correct skin problems, ranging from acne to signs of aging. We'll explain it to you in detail below.
How to Use Glycolic Acid for Skin Care

Last update: 10 June, 2021

Glycolic acid is a product that, if we have ever had acne, we have probably heard it mentioned or even recommended it to us. Now what exactly does it do and how does it contribute to healthy skin?

It’s an exfoliant that, depending on its concentration, can penetrate the outermost layer of the skin or reach the middle layer of it, to facilitate the elimination of everything that causes impurities: clusters of dead cells, dirt, and excess oil or sebum.

Let’s see more about it below.

Mechanism of action

Glycolic acid is good for skin health
Depending on the concentration of glycolic acid, it is able to act on deeper layers of the skin and generate benefits.

In general terms, we can say that glycolic acid is an exfoliating substance widely used in cosmetic and dermatological formulas because it stimulates cellular activity to renew the skin and thus improve its health. It is considered suitable for almost all skin types, although it is especially flattering for oilier skin types.

Glycolic acid is extracted from sugar cane, mainly. Although it can also be extracted from fruits such as grapes, apples and oranges. It is part of a set of water-soluble molecules known as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which contribute to epidermal renewal.

It has been shown to have moisturizing properties, as it stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid and optimizes the hydration of the outermost layer of the epidermis (stratum corneum). In turn, it promotes an increase in elasticity, as it stimulates the generation of glycosaminoglycans and collagen, and brings luminosity to the skin.

According to a recent review titled Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review, its mechanism of action is as follows:

“Glycolic acid is directed to the corneosome, enhancing rupture and decreasing cohesiveness, causing desquamation. The intensity of the peeling is determined by the concentration of the acid, the vehicle used to transport it, the amount of acid applied, and the technique used.”

Glycolic acid: benefits for the skin

According to experts, the use of glycolic acid can not only help treat acne effectively, but it can also provide the following benefits:

  • Provides greater elasticity
  • Improves skin texture
  • Provides greater luminosity
  • Helps hide enlarged pores
  • Prevents the development of impurities
  • Reduces fine lines and wrinkles
  • Provides greater uniformity to the skin in terms of tone
  • It favors the effectiveness of the products that are used on the skin later on

For all the above, in addition to being used in the treatment of acne, it is used as part of therapeutic strategies related to spots, stretch marks, melasma and signs of premature aging.

Where to find it

Glycolic acid is present in a wide variety of products for cleaning and skincare and, of course, the treatment of acne. Some of the brands that include it are the following: Glicoderm, Novaderm, Neutrogena, among others.

How to use

Glycolic acid should not be applied in excess
It’s important to apply a thin layer on the skin and not fall into excesses. This last practice could increase the incidence of adverse effects.

Glycolic acid is used in concentrations ranging from 20 to 70% on all skin types. The concentration varies, depending on what you want to treat and the severity of the problem. Thus, it can provide a very superficial peel or a deeper one.

The higher the glycolic acid concentration and the lower the pH in a product, the more intense the peel will be. This is reserved for conditions that reach deeper layers of the skin.

As stated in the review cited above:

  • Before applying glycolic acid, a dermatologist should evaluate the skin.
  • Once approved as a treatment, you can proceed to its application. To do this, the skin must be clean.
  • Ideally, the skin should also be pre-treated (with topical retinoids or hydroquinone, for example) to make glycolic acid more effective, experts say.
  • The product is applied with cotton buds or with a brush sequentially, starting with the forehead, left cheek, chin and right cheek to cover the entire face.
  • The areas around the eyes, nasal mucosa and lips should be avoided.

Final recommendations

If you have never used glycolic acid and you have doubts about how to do it safely, despite what the instructions of the products indicate or what the pharmacist may indicate, it is best that you go to the dermatologist.

The specialist will be able to indicate the most appropriate option for your case and indicate what else you should take into account to ensure that the product provides the desired results.

On the other hand, if you have already started using a product with glycolic acid for a while and still don’t notice any improvement, then consult a specialist. You may require a different concentration than the one you are using, or you may need to apply the product in combination with some other treatment.

Finally, keep in mind that, regardless of your case, the most important thing is that you should be patient with the treatments you apply. Keep in mind that some may take more than 3-4 weeks to provide results and that their effectiveness also depends on adhering to the specialist’s instructions.

  • Guerra Tapia, Aurora, Raúl de Lucas Laguna, José Carlos Moreno Giménez, Montserrat Pérez López, Ii Miquel Ribera Pibernat, Elena Martínez Prats, Rosa Senan Sanz, José Casas Rivero, and Universitario La Paz Madrid. 2015. “Consensus in the Topical Treatment of Acne.” Med Cutan Iber Lat Am. Vol. 43.

  • Rosa María Coro-Antich, Nelvys Subirós Martínez, and Varela y Carlos Domínguez-Álvarez. 2000. “Dermoabrasión con ácido glicólico sobre la piel facial.” Comunicaciones | Congreso Virtual Hispanoamericano de Anatomía Patológica.

  • Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013 Nov 11;6:281-8. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S34029. PMID: 24399880; PMCID: PMC3875240.
  • Varios. 2019. “Tratamiento Del Acné.” Boletín Terapéutico Andaluz 34 (4): 38–48.

  • Zaenglein, Andrea L., Arun L. Pathy, Bethanee J. Schlosser, Ali Alikhan, Hilary E. Baldwin, Diane S. Berson, Whitney P. Bowe, et al. 2016. “Guidelines of Care for the Management of Acne Vulgaris.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 74 (5): 945-973.e33.

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