Choosing the right Glycolic Acid for you
May 17, 2022

Glycolic acid is an excellent anti-aging ingredient. It has been used for decades because of its impressive track record. Glycolic acid is part of the hydroxy acid family, consisting of alpha, beta, and poly-hydroxy acids.  

What are hydroxy acids?

Hydroxy acids are derived from various plants. The use of hydroxy acids dates back to the times of Cleopatra. Cleopatra used to bathe in sour milk, which contains lactic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid. She swore by its anti-aging benefits.

There are three types of hydroxy acids: alpha, beta, and poly-hydroxy acids.

  1.  Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA)
    1. Glycolic acid
      • Derived from sugarcane
      • Since it is the smallest hydroxy acid, it can easily penetrate the skin.
    2. Lactic acid
      • Derived from sour milk
    3. Mandelic acid
      • Derived from bitter almonds
    4. Malic acid
      • Derived from apples
    5. Citric acid
      • Derived from citrus fruit
    6. Phytic acid
      • Derived from rice
    7. Tartaric acid
      • Derived from grapes
  2. Beta-hydroxy acids (BHA)
    1. Salicylic acid
      • Derived from willow bark
  3. Poly-hydroxy acids (PHA)
    1. Gluconolactone
    2. Lactobionic acid

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid (GA) is a water-soluble alpha-hydroxy acid derived from sugarcane that possesses many anti-aging benefits. These anti-aging benefits include the following.

  1. Fine lines/wrinkles – As we age, collagen production decreases. GA helps remove fine lines and wrinkles by increasing fibroblast proliferation. Fibroblasts make collagen, so increasing fibroblast proliferation will also increase collagen production. The more collagen produced equals higher collagen density. Increased collagen density improves fines lines and wrinkles. It also helps increase the thickness of the skin.
  2. Brown spots/mottled pigmentation – GA inhibits melanin production and increases exfoliation to help remove brown spots and discoloration on the skin. It gives you a bright glowing complexion.
  3. Roughness – GA increases cell turnover and exfoliates dead skin cells to improve scars and remove rough areas on the skin. It gives you a smoother skin texture.
  4. Moisturizer – GA is a humectant moisturizer. Humectants pull water in from the environment and surrounding tissue to moisturize and plump the skin. They work best when combined with an occlusive moisturizer that locks the water in so it cannot escape. Plumping the skin gives you a more youthful appearance.
  5. Comedolytic – GA helps unclog pores by exfoliating dead skin cells and stopping excess oil production. Dead skin cells and oil can clog pores and lead to acne. GA can even help shrink your pores.
  6. UV damage – GA may even help prevent UV-induced skin damage that causes skin cancer.

How do I choose what formulation of glycolic acid to use?

GA is available in several formulations, such as creams, serums, lotions, exfoliators, peel solutions, and pads. The formulation you choose depends on your skin type. If you have a sensitive or dry skin type, you will want to start using a cream or lotion formulation because it is less drying.

If you have normal or oily skin type, you will want to use a serum, exfoliator, pads, or liquid formulation because your skin can handle the more drying formulations.

If you want to try a peel or an exfoliator and you have sensitive or dry skin, you should try a test spot first. If you have dry or sensitive skin, your skin may not tolerate a peel or exfoliator.

If you are unsure, always check with your doctor before starting any regimen.

creams, serums, lotions, exfoliators, peel solutions, and pads.

What strength of glycolic acid should I use?

The strength or concentration of GA you use depends on your skin type. If you have sensitive or dry skin, you may need to start with a low concentration of GA, such as 5%. Begin using it infrequently, such as once a week for a couple of weeks. Slowly build up to more frequent use. You may not be able to use it every day. Only use it as often as your skin will allow. If it is too strong, you will do more harm than good.

If you have normal or oily skin, you may be able to start with 10% GA. There is no harm in being conservative and starting at 5% to see how your skin reacts to it before using a higher concentration. You may also be able to start using it every day. You will just have to try it out and see what your skin will tolerate. Just go slowly and listen to your skin. Oftentimes, it is trial and error.  

If you experience any irritation from GA, stop it for a few days, then restart slowly. You will also need to use a non-comedogenic moisturizing cream with GA to soothe your skin.

GA exfoliators are used once or twice a week, not every day. Even if you have oily skin, you should not use it every day. If you have dry or sensitive skin, start at the lowest concentration.

GA peels are not meant for everyday use either, regardless of your skin type. You can get a GA peel every 2-6 weeks, depending on the strength of the peel and what your skin will tolerate. If you have dry or sensitive skin, start at the lowest concentration.

What are the side effects of glycolic acid?

Redness, irritation, dryness, photosensitivity, and itching are the most common side effects of GA. If you notice any of these, stop using it for a few days until your skin recovers, decrease your frequency of use, and use a thick non-comedogenic moisturizing cream.  

More severe side effects are peeling, scabbing, crusting, bleeding, and pain. If you experience any of these severe side effects, stop using the product immediately and call your doctor.

If you are pregnant or nursing, check with your doctor before starting glycolic acid.


There are many GA products on the market today. It is always best to consult with your doctor before starting a regimen. Your doctor can take the guesswork out of which product to use and how to use it. Just remember “low and slow”. Start using GA in the lowest concentration and use it infrequently. You can always build up to more frequent use and then higher concentrations. Listen to your skin and do not ignore the side effects. Your skin will tell you what it wants.