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Is Glycolic Acid The Secret To Next-Level Skincare?

Is Glycolic Acid The Secret To Next-Level Skincare?

When is an exfoliant more than just an exfoliant? When it’s glycolic acid.

When it comes to proven, butt-kicking skincare ingredients, glycolic acid is one of our big three. Retinol and vitamin C are the other two, since you asked. But we digress. With years of science-backed research under its belt, glycolic acid not only helps fight the visible signs of aging (dark spots and wrinkles be very afraid!), but it also works to minimize pores and reduce acne breakouts. Valid bragging rights, right there.

Here's everything you need to know about this powerful exfoliating acid.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Like lactic and citric acids, glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid. Or an AHA, if you will. AHAs are chemical exfoliants that help accelerate cellular turnover. Your skin is constantly going through its own repetitive cycle – a process called desquamation – in which cells form, move up to the surface, then die and slough away. As a young adult, this process is like a well-oiled machine, which is why youthful skin is brighter, softer and more hydrated. However, as you get older desquamation starts to become lazy and slow. And this is when problems can start to arise. Anything from dull skin and dryness through to itchiness, irritation and acne breakouts can all be linked with poor turnover.

Thankfully this is where exfoliants come to the rescue – nudging skin turnover to move along quicker and more efficiently. There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Physical exfoliants are the ones that most often come to mind. They’re the scrubs, cleansing brushes and facial mitts of the world that require pressure and physical movement to exfoliate your skin. Chemical exfoliants, however, are a whole different ball game because they simply sit on your skin and harness the power of active ingredients to break down the bonds that hold dead skin cells together. This encourages them to shed naturally, without the need for massaging or scrubbing.

Which is best? That depends on you. However, we’re big fans of chemical exfoliation because it’s gentler on the skin. Chemical exfoliants include AHAs, BHAs and PHAs which all work slightly differently, with AHAs being the most commonly used and loved. Derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid is one of the most potent and effective AHAs out there thanks to its small molecular structure which allows it to penetrate your skin quickly and efficiently.

What Does Glycolic Acid Do For Your Skin?

By loosening the bonds that hold together those tough, outer layer of dead skin cells, glycolic acid offers benefits longer than your arm. It goes without saying that by ditching the old stuff and revealing fresher, newer skin cells, your complexion will automatically look better as a result. Think brighter, softer, smoother skin that’s also more even in both tone and texture, for starters. Glycolic acid also helps to keep your pores clean and free of dead skin cells, which makes them appear tighter and stops them from becoming blocked and inflamed. That’s code for fewer acne breakouts.

Then you’ve got all the other stuff that’s going on below the surface of your skin. Because glycolic acid has such a low molecular weight, it can get deeper into your skin than other AHAs, stimulating collagen production and working extra hard to keep your skin firm and plump while staving off premature lines and wrinkles.

Does this make glycolic acid the best anti-aging tool you could ever use on your skin? Yes and no. Yes, because it’s potent and clinically proven to work. No, because its potency means it has its downfalls and needs to be dealt with carefully.

The Dos & Don’ts Of Glycolic Acid

1. DO… Patch Test First

Patch testing any product that contains active ingredients is probably one of the most important skincare rules to live by. Yet, it’s commonly dismissed. We get that the excitement of a new product makes it almost impossible to wait 48 hours while you patch test it on a discreet area of your skin to check it’s safe. And sometimes your skin might be OK with that.

Until it’s not.

Glycolic acid, retinol and vitamin C are just a smattering of ingredients that can potentially cause your skin to freak out. Nine times out of ten, your skin will be fine. But what about that one time? Wouldn’t you rather be sure you’re not going to be dealing with irritated, itchy skin BEFORE it happens? We know we would.

2. DO… Start Slow

After testing your glycolic acid is safe, make sure you introduce it slowly to your regular routine to allow your skin time to acclimate. This means applying it just one or twice a week to start with, building up to daily use after a few weeks if your skin is OK with that. Skin feeling a little irritated and looking kind of red? Then go back to weekly rather than daily use. You’ll still feel all the awesome benefits, but without the downsides. Slow and steady wins the race, remember?

3. DON’T… Apply Retinol At The Same Time

We love retinol with all our hearts, but retinol and glycolic acid are not a match made in heaven. In fact, they shouldn’t be applied at the same time. Ever. The reason? Although they work differently, retinol and glycolic acid are extremely powerful ingredients that work hard to boost cell turnover. And instead of furnishing you with double the benefits, applying them together risks thinning your skin, leaving it feeling irritated, inflamed, dry, itchy, flaky and super sensitive. Not. Worth. It.  

Don’t want to give up your retinol for glycolic acid? We don’t blame you. Just make sure you don’t apply them on the same days. In fact, skin depending, it’s often wise to wait a few days between applications.

4. DO… Pair Glycolic Acid With Plenty Of Hydration

Like most active ingredients, glycolic acid has the potential to cause dryness and dehydration – no matter your skin type or how slow you go. This means it’s wise to ensure your routine includes plenty of hydrating and moisturizing ingredients.

Our Ocean Minerals Super Toner (which contains glycolic acid) is chock full of nurturing goodies like aloe extract, jojoba oil and plant extracts while the brand new AHA/BHA/PHA Liquid Exfoliant is thoughtfully balanced with one of our favorite hydrating superheroes, glycerin.

All this will help counteract the drying effects of the mighty glycolic acid, but still, don’t forget to follow with plenty of moisturizer – day and night.

5. DON’T… Skip Sunscreen

Anything that boosts cell turnover will make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s powerful rays. Which makes slathering on plenty of broad-spectrum sunscreen every morning even more important than ever. But you do that anyway, right? RIGHT? Then it might be time to stock up on your SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen with Vitamin C. Just saying!

More About This Article

Georgia Gould

Georgia Gould

Georgia is an award-winning beauty writer who has been in the business for over 20 years. British-born, she began her career as a magazine beauty editor in London before moving to San Francisco, CA in 2012 where she now continues her love as a freelance writer and editor. As well as her editorial work, Georgia has created content for many high-profile beauty brands, including Clarins, L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Simple and TRESemmé. Her passions include retinol (obviously), golfing, skiing and walking her beloved Schnauzer, Dave.