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Glycolic Acid – The Sting of Beauty!

When it comes to skin care, there are some ingredients that are just more effective than others. Glycolic acid is one such ingredient and should be a ‘must have’ in any skin care and antiaging arsenal.

Glycolic acid is an Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHAs).  AHAs are chemical compounds that are both naturally occurring and synthetic.  As such, they are mild acids that are usually derived from fruit and milk sugars (fructose and lactose).  However, glycolic acid originates from the sugar cane, is soluble in alcohol and has been proven to have an anti-inflammatory as well as antioxidant effect on the skin.   Its main function is to exfoliate the skin, hence its popular application as a peeling agent in the cosmetic industry.  As an exfoliating agent, glycolic acid helps to smooth out the skin, reduce dark spots, and help in the management of acne as well as hyper-pigmentation and issues of photo-aging. 

On application, especially for first time users, it may cause a tingling or what some users call a ‘stinging’ sensation.  However, this has not stopped individuals from rushing to cosmetic counters in search of products with this ingredient for an opportunity to reap its myriad benefits.  As such, while the ‘sting’ or ‘tingling’ doesn’t last, the benefits sure do. So, sting or no sting, let’s discuss some of the benefits of this unique ingredient as a staple of any skin care arsenal. You can read more on AHAs here.

The Discussion

Glycolic acid is a member of the AHAs family which includes lactic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid, malic acid and mandelic acid. 

Since of late, it has been receiving raved review as it relates to its skincare benefits, especially as it pertains to its antiaging effects such as that of the smoothing out of fine lines and wrinkles as well as acne.  Along with acne, it is also said to be effective against scars, hyperpigmentation, melasma, skin roughness, age spots and seborrhea (Sharad, 2013).  To this extent, glycolic acid has become a popular ingredient in many cosmetic formulations due to these highly regarded skin care benefits.  A part of its famed is due to the fact that it has a smaller molecular weight among all the other AHAs.  As such, it is able to penetrate the skin easily (Landau, 2008). 

Fortunately, research has shown that it can be used safely on all skin types with little or no risk (Sheau-chung and Hung Yang, 2018).  However, concentrations above 70% can through off the PH levels of the skin and cause mild irritation.  Additionally, the risk of over-peel and scaring is said to be higher for dark skin individuals (Moy, 1996; Monheit, 1989 and Monheit, 2006).  However, for peeling treatments, it is recommended that the pretreatment solution – 5-fluorouracil five percent (5%) be used as this will increase the efficacy of the treatment as well as shorten the healing time (Marrero and Katz, 1998).  Nonetheless, it is best to stick best to stick to lower concentrations for daily or frequent at home use and allow the application of higher concentration, usually those used for peeling treatments for trained professional. 

In this article, we will discuss three (3) main benefits of glycolic acid for skincare – acne, hyper-pigmentation and as an overall anti-aging gem.

3 major skincare Benefits of Glycolic Acid:
Glycolic acid and acne or acne vulgaris

Acne or acne vulgaris is one of the most common skin conditions that usually have its onset in adolescents, even though it can affect one at any age (Rathi, 2011). The condition of acne is said to affect over eighty-five percent (85%) of males and females between the ages of 12 and 24 years of age (Ilknur et al. 2010).  As such, globally, the market for the treatment of acne was estimated to worth over 3 billion US dollars in 2016 and slated to reach over 7.35 billion US dollars by  year 2025 (

Many factors have been attributed to the effects of acne, from developmental issues to lifestyle and even certain types of medications (Rathi, 2011).  As such, due to the fact that a sole factor cannot be pinpointed as the cause, dermatologist often finds the treatment of acne a challenging endeavour.  While incidences of acne can be treated with over-the-counter treatments along with diet change and natural Do-It-Yourself (DIYs) solutions, depending on the severity of the issue, a visit to the dermatologist may be a worthwhile venture.  Additionally, glycolic acid creams as well as peels can be a viable option.

While uncommon, the use of glycolic acid has been shown to be successful in the treatment of acne (Abels et al. 2011).  Among the many types of Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs), glycolic acid is found to be the most stable and is naturally present in such foods as grapes and the juice of sugar cane (Abels et al. 2011; Ilknur et al. 2010).  However, the efficacy of any glycolic solutions will be dependent on the level of concentration. 

The most common formulations usually have between 5-20% glycolic acid (Abels et al. 2011).  One must bear in mind though, that the higher the concentration, the more the possibility of adverse reactions.  As such, for daily use, it is best to use a product with a concentration of five percent (5%) or less.  Some of the common side effects of applying glycolic acid to the skin include stinging or burning sensation, dryness, redness and other types of skin irritation (Abels et al. 2011; Ilknur et al. 2010; Kessler et al. 2008).

The efficacy of glycolic acid as an acne treatment option was observed in a split-face double-blinded study conducted by Edward Kessler in 2008 with twenty (20) volunteers – males and females. The volunteers were between the ages of 13 and 38 years of age.  All the patients had acne lesions.  The volunteers went through a six (6) weeks treatment period of both a glycolic acid solution and salicylic acid, both of thirty percent (30%) concentration.  As such, the solution of thirty percent (30%) glycolic acid was applied to one side of the face and the salicylic acid on the other side every two (2) weeks. 

The results showed that the glycolic side experienced greater improvement in acne.  However, thirty-five percent (35%) indicated greater improvement with the salicylic acid peel while over twelve percent (12%) noted no significant improvement.  Further, while the side effects of peeling, scaling, redness and even hyperpigmentation was experienced for both solutions, the incidences were reduced over the treatment period (Kessler et al. 2008).

In another study by Christopher Abels of one hundred and twenty (120) participants (males and females), a solution of 10% glycolic acid using an oil-in-water method was used. The treatment was conducted over a 90 day period.  All the participants experienced improvement of acne, as such, their acne was reduced (Abels et al. 2011).  Importantly though, it must be noted that the outcome of any treatment will be dependent on the product’s glycolic acid concentration as well as the method of application.  For peel treatments, the concentration of glycolic acid is usually high in comparison to those solutions meant for daily use (Stokes, 2014). 

Therefore, it is always best to seek advice from a dermatologist before using any glycolic acid solution.  In this regard, the dermatologist will assess the skin and make an informed decision as to the concentration level.  Additionally, for over-the-counter products, always look for those with low concentrations as those products are usually meant for daily or frequent use and minimal adverse reactions.

Glycolic acid and skin discoloration/hyperpigmentation

Skin discoloration is usually a major concern of many individuals, particularly women.  No one wants to have a face that depicts an uneven tone. Skin discoloration is usually a result of the stimulation of melanocytes cells of the skin due to the cell radiation which then causes the production of excess pigment (Draelos, 2008).  Several factors can lead to skin discoloration such as prolong exposure to the sun, types of skincare products being used, medication, hormonal changes and inflammatory issues. 

Skin discoloration can occur in small patches on the skin or can even be on several areas of the skin.  One of the reasons that no one wants to have discoloured skin is that it can make you looker older than you really are as well as affects one’s self esteem among others. However, studies using glycolic acid solution is becoming a touting saviour of this unwanted skin condition.

In a 6-week study of the application of thirty-five percent (35%) glycolic acid peel solution; there was a significant improvement in scares and skin texture as well as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (Moy, 1996; Monheit, 1989; Monheit, 2006). Additionally, Briden et al. (2007) reported that participants were particularly satisfied with a combination treatment of both glycolic acid peels and microdermabrasion for photodamaged or photoaging skin.  Further, a routine of glycolic acid peels, followed by daily vitamin C cream resulted in significant improvement in pore size and skin radiance as well as skin texture, clarity and skin tone (Fournier et al. 2006).

Glycolic acid and overall anti-aging gem

We all want to look younger as we age, which is quite the opposite of childhood where most of us could not wait until we got older (guilty anyone?)  As such, as we age, we consistently seek products that will help us to not necessarily stop the clock, but at least thwart the hands a little bit. Skin conditions that are common as we age include fine lines and wrinkles, hyper-pigmentation, skin roughness and elasticity issues as well as acne.  However, research has shown that glycolic acid is a proven and effective treatment to help with many of these issues.  This has been proven in many studies including those mentioned earlier in this article.   

Glycolic acid has been recognized as a significant treatment option for a variety of skin conditions including rosacea, photodamage, melasma, seborrheic, fine lines and wrinkle, acne and hyperpigmentation (Moy et al. 1993).  In addition, glycolic acid can also help to reduce UV-induced skin turmor development as well as improve the thickness of the skin (Fuchs et al. 2003).  This was observed in a study of post-menopausal women who were given a cream containing 0.01% estradiol and 15% glycolic acid.  The treatment was applied to one side of the face over a 6-month period.  The results showed that the participants experienced significant improvement in reversing some of the markers of skin aging such as epidermal thickness and rete peg pattern of the skin (Fuchs et al. 2003).

Additionally, in a study conducted by Newman et al. (1996) with forty-one (41) participants, a 50% topical application of glycolic acid for  five (5) minutes once a week over a 4-weeks period.  The result showed a significant reduction in rough skin texture and fine lines and wrinkle.  As such, it was concluded that an application of this strength is capable of improving mild signs of photoaging.  Further, studies showed an increase in skin thickness, as well as the quality of elasticity and the density of collagen with an alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) lotion with 25% glycolic acid along with lactic acid and citric acid (Ditre et al. 1996).  The patients treated in this study had moderate to severe photoaged skin and were between the ages of fifty-two to eighty-three (52-83) years of age with a mean age of seventy (70) years.

Can I use glycolic acid daily?

Research dictates a resounding ‘yes.’ However, the concentration of glycolic acid will be a key determinant in any decision to use it on a daily basis.  As observed in the studies mentioned above, for peel treatments which are usually one-off treatments extended over a period of time, the glycolic acid solutions are usually 30% and above. However, for daily use, the concentration is usually way lower – 5% and under.  However, I have seen products with even 10% for daily use.  However, that will be dependent on the condition of the skin and your consultation with a dermatologist.  One must also bear in mind that upon first use, mild irritation is a given as your skin is not yet acclimatize to the ingredients.  However, overtime, the irritation becomes less or even non-existence and I can personally attest to that. 

Illustrative Summary

Here is an illustrative summary of the effects of glycolic acid skincare benefits as it relates to acne, hyperpigmentation/discoloration as well as an overall anti-aging gem.

Skincare benefits of glycolic acid


Let’s Sum Up!

Glycolic acid is a member of the alpha hydroxyl acid (AHAs) family and thus shares the spotlight with famed ingredients such as citric acid, lactic acid, malic acid etc.  One of the main purposes of glycolic acid is that of exfoliating the skin.  As such, it is popularly used as a superficial peeling agent in the cosmetics industry.

Research shows that glycolic acid can be very beneficial to the skin and has been proven to smooth skin texture, reduce scars, improve hyperpigmentation and skin elasticity as well as smooth out as fine lines and wrinkles.  As such, it proudly landed a space in the list of products for anti-aging and as you can see, for very good reasons.

However, the outcome of glycolic acid treatment is largely dependent on its method of application and the level of concentration. Nonetheless, lower concentrations of 5% or less are usually recommended for daily at-home application.

Notably, the ingredient has been known to cause mild skin irritation, especially with higher concentrations. However, the most common reported side effects are that of stinging or tingling sensation. So, with all that was said, sting or no sting….Are you skintimate yet!


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