This One Skincare Ingredient Is the Secret to a Younger Looking Face
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Aging is inevitable — and those lines settling in on your forehead are the only proof you need. But in case you weren’t aware, you do have some control over how youthful your skin looks. And if your goal is a clearer, brighter, smoother-looking mug, the first skincare ingredient you should be looking out for is glycolic acid. By sloughing off dead skin cells, this particular acid can help you avoid breakouts, ingrown hairs, and unsightly dry patches.
Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), a group of naturally occurring acids that exfoliate the skin and encourage cell turnover. But glycolic acid, specifically, has an advantage: it has the smallest molecules, meaning it can slip inside your pores with ease, where it can then boost the production of collagen and elastin — two proteins that give your skin firmness and structure.
Here’s what to know about adding glycolic acid to your skincare routine — whether you’re aiming to fight off acne or signs of aging, or you’re just looking to give your dull complexion a little TLC.
Benefits of Glycolic Acid
According to Jessica Houston, a double-licensed lead esthetician at BEAUTYBEEZ, these are just some of the benefits of glycolic acid:
- Exfoliates the skin
- Speeds up cell turnover
- Boosts collagen production
- Helps to clear pores
- Reduces fine lines
- Improves skin tone and texture
- Fades dark patches and sun damage
- Hydrates skin
Since glycolic acid helps the skin shed dead skin cells and oil that clog the pores, you’ll likely experience fewer breakouts. In fact, a 2019 study found that subjects who used a 35% glycolic acid treatment six times over 12 weeks experienced a 71% reduction in their acne. Not only that, but a 2018 study revealed that glycolic acid has antibacterial properties, making it even more effective for this skin concern since bacteria plays a role in breakouts.
In an older study of people with sun-damaged skin, participants applied 8% glycolic acid creams to their face and forearms twice daily. After 22 weeks, a significant percentage of patients experienced an improvement in the severity of sun damage on their face and forearms — including decreased roughness, sallowness, and hyperpigmentation.
How to Use It
Almost anyone can use and benefit from glycolic acid, says Houston, and it can be added at almost any stage of your regimen since this ingredient can be found in cleansers, toners, serums, and moisturizers alike.
Make sure to check the specific instructions for the product you’re using, as they can vary a lot depending on the concentration of glycolic acid.
As with any new skincare ingredient, it’s always best to start slow. Houston advises using glycolic acid twice to three times a week when you’re trying it for the first time. Ideally, you’ll want to incorporate it into your nighttime skincare regimen, as Houston notes that this acid can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. If your skin feels a little rough the first few times you use it, that’s OK. Allow your skin some time to get used to the glycolic acid before using it more often. And if at any point your skin becomes irritated, stop using the product and either consult a dermatologist or give it a break before trying it once a week.
“Make sure to use a heavier moisturizer or cream after applying the glycolic treatment as your skin may seem dry or begin peeling,” adds Houston.
While you may have the urge to pick at or peel off that dead skin that’s loosened by the glycolic acid, she advises against it so you don’t irritate the new, healthy skin underneath.
If you use products with glycolic acid in the morning, remember to apply SPF after to avoid sun damage.
Side Effects to Know About
According to Dr. Michael Jacobs — Medical Technology Director at Cortina and Clinical Associate Professor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College — glycolic acid is best suited to people with normal, combination, or oily skin.
“I would not recommend glycolic acid for men with dry and sensitive skin as the chemical exfoliant can further dry it out or irritate it,” he tells AskMen.
Studies have shown that side effects are very rare with glycolic acid, and when they do occur, they’re usually pretty mild.
That said, if you have super sensitive or dry skin, you’ll want to start with a lower strength product (3-8%) and to reduce the chances that it irritates your skin.
It’s normal for glycolic acid to cause a tingling or slight stinging sensation. If you experience any itching, swelling, or severe burning sensations, however, you should stop using the product and get some guidance from a dermatologist. Also worth noting is the fact that glycolic acid (especially at higher potencies) may cause irritation or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones — so check with your dermatologist before using it if you have dark skin.
Glycolic acid can be found in a wide range of over-the-counter (OTC) products online or at your local drug store or skin spa.
Typically, these OTC products come in strengths up to 10%. The strength will make a big difference in how dramatic the effects are. For example, a 2018 study found that whereas a 1% glycolic acid solution affected the top three layers of skin, a 10% solution can penetrate as deeply as 10 to 20 layers. If the percentage of glycolic acid is not specified, or it’s not one of the first ingredients, it’s probably a milder strength.
A licensed esthetician can perform glycolic acid peels up to 30% strength, and a board-certified dermatologist can apply peels up to 70% strength. While you may be able to find products with higher percentages of glycolic acid (up to 40%) over the counter, these medical-grade peels shouldn’t be done without a professional’s supervision, particularly if you’ve never used AHAs before.
With all that in mind, here are some glycolic acid skin care products to consider adding to your regimen.
The Ordinary 7% Toning Solution
This product offers mild exfoliation and helps with dullness and uneven texture, according to Houston.
Glytone Mild Cream Cleanser
This entire brand is focused primarily around glycolic acid, and this particular cleanser features a mild concentration and creamy texture that’s ideal for dry and sensitive skin.
IMAGE Skincare CLEAR CELL Salicylic Clarifying Pads
According to Dr. Reid Maclellan, founder and CEO of Cortina Health and director of Proactive Dermatology Group, these convenient pads boast a powerful combination of salicylic and glycolic acid to exfoliate any buildup of dead skin, oil, dirt, and impurities from the day.
Neutrogena Bright Boost™ Resurfacing Micro Face Polish with Glycolic and Mandelic AHAs
“This is an affordable daily cleanser that exfoliates and brightens the skin, resurfacing new skin cells,” says Maclellan. The unique formulation not only contains glycolic acid but also mandelic acid for extra exfoliation power. When used nightly, it promises to reduce the appearance of dark spots and large pores.
Malin + Goetz 10% Glycolic Acid Pads
Malin + Goetz
These alcohol- and fragrance-free peel pads offer easy exfoliation — just swipe one over your face and leave the solution on for 10-20 minutes or so before rinsing it off.
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