Glycolic acid, an organic, carbon-containing molecule typically derived from sugar cane, is an Alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). Other AHA family members include malic acid, tartaric acid, citric acid, and lactic acid.
Glycolic acid is a small water-soluble molecule. When put on the skin, it acts as a humectant and can penetrate readily to revitalize dull and acne-prone skin. It is a common ingredient in many skin care products where it works as an exfoliator, cleanser, or toner used to curb anti-aging, hyperpigmentation, and dryness.
How glycolic acid works
Glycolic acid is made of small molecules which help it penetrate the skin deeply. It unbinds dead skin cells, bringing newer, healthier skin to the surface. Glycolic acid also has antibacterial and antioxidant activity, which can also help improve your skin’s appearance, especially when you have acne.
Effects of glycolic acid on the skin
As a plant-derived active ingredient, glycolic acid possesses many benefits for the skin. It is good for almost all skin types except very sensitive skin or patients with rosacea.
● Exfoliation: This is one of its main functions. When applied to the skin, glycolic acid helps to separate the connections between keratinocytes (skin cells) in the skin’s outer layers, including dead skin cells and the next skin layer. In this way, it creates a peeling effect by artificially speeding up cell turnover and bringing newer cells to the surface, making the skin appear smoother. This is due to its relatively small molecular size, making glycolic acid a more potent exfoliator than the other alpha-hydroxy acids.
● Fights Acne: Acne is caused when excess oil, dirt, dead skin cells, and bacteria clog up pores and hair follicles. Glycolic acid has the ability to invade the hair follicles and loosen any built-up sebum and proteins that could otherwise lead to blackheads and breakouts.
● Stimulates collagen production: Collagen is a fibrous protein that helps to keep skin tissue firm and resist wrinkling. Glycolic acid has been shown to stimulate collagen production, which will help reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and sagging skin.
● Acts as a humectant: It can draw water molecules from the air and lock them on the skin, replenishing lost moisture. This makes it an ideal ingredient in moisturizers when used at low strengths.
● Curbs hyper-pigmentation: Hyper-pigmentation is a term used to describe darker patches of skin. Glycolic acid exfoliates and removes darker, dead skin cells from the skin’s surface to reveal a new layer of skin with an even skin tone. With repeated use, this process curbs hyper-pigmentation.
Glycolic acid also causes better absorption of other acne medications like retinol and other anti-aging products and antioxidants like Vitamin C. In addition, it sets up your skin for better makeup application.
Incorporating glycolic acid in your skincare routine
Glycolic acid is one of the most widely used alpha-hydroxy acids in the skincare industry. This acid occurs naturally in sugar cane but is most effective when synthesized in a lab because its potency and concentration are optimized for skincare. Glycolic acid is the key ingredient to look out for when it comes to shopping for face masks or peels and anti-aging moisturizers, as it is ideal for smoothing out and refreshing your complexion.
Glycolic acid makes the skin sensitive to sunlight. You are advised to apply it in the evenings to give it time to do its work without damaging your skin in the sun. It can be incorporated into your skincare routine by finding suitable products that contain between 8-30% of Glycolic acid. Your routine can include this AHA as:
● A face wash or exfoliant
● A mask or peel
● A toner
Dermatologists recommend slowly introducing your skin to glycolic acid. At first use, slight stinging or redness is normal, but the skin will get accustomed to it over time. While there are numerous benefits in using this magic ingredient, there are some things to take note of:
● It is advised to use it only as much as your skin can tolerate, that is, reducing the amount when the skin begins to feel too sensitive.
● Glycolic acid products make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so it’s extra important to wear sunscreen when using it.
● Glycolic acid, as with any type of exfoliator, can dry out the skin. To counter that, it is advised to seek out products that also have moisturizing ingredients to offset the acid’s drying effects.