what is glycolic acid


Glycolic acid: a guide to one of skincare’s most powerful ingredients

No, this acid won't hurt your face–but it can make your skin better.


Colette Bennett


Posted on Feb 3, 2020   Updated on May 19, 2021, 4:24 pm CDT

If you’re really into skincare, you layer products a like a pro, you understand the power of ingredients like vitamin C and hyaluronic acid, and you’ve got that glass skin glow. But then someone says the words “glycolic acid” to you, and you’re like “put acid on my skin?”

It might sound harsh, but we promise it’s not the alien saliva kind. When used properly, acids are easily one of the most powerful items in a skincare arsenal. If you’re not so sure how to use them in over the counter products or want dramatic results fast, we recommend you see your dermatologist first as it can help you learn to use acids properly at home. But if you prefer to DIY it, let’s get you educated on what you’re putting on your face and how it works first.

What is glycolic acid?

what is glycolic acid

Also known as AHAs (or alpha hydroxy acids) in the skincare world, glycolic acid is one of several acids with the power to go deeper than everyday skincare ingredients do. AHAs come from sugarcane and are one of a group of naturally occurring “fruit acids” that are found in certain foods. While other AHAs like lactic and citric acid are also powerful, glycolic acid has the smallest molecular size, which means it penetrates our skin with the most ease.

To learn more about glycolic acid, we reached out to veteran dermatologist Dr. Bottiglione, who has 40 years of experience and runs three practices in the Phoenix metro area. He also founded his own skincare line, Dermatologist’s Choice,which we’ll tell you more about in just a bit. 

“Glycolic acid penetrates into the dermis (the second layer of skin) where the collagen is (and where the wrinkles are),” Dr. Bottiglione told the Daily Dot in a phone interview. “Once you get to the second layer you force the body to rejuvenate the collagen we lose as we age. It takes off a dead layer of skin as well and cleans out the pores. It’s also gentle enough to be used on a weekly basis and even on sensitive skin.”

More good news: Glycolic is equal in power to a product like Retin-A, but Bottiglione describes it as “not quite as irritating.” So your skin doesn’t have to dry up and flake off to get results! Yay!

Will glycolic acid hurt my skin?

Some people are afraid of using glycolic acid because it’s known for causing the skin to tingle after use, especially as you adjust to it. While some may be scared off by this, Dr. Bottiglione says that it’s harmless.

“A non-neutralized glycolic does tingle and may cause redness, but it also works,” he said. “The stinging is because it is an acid. It goes into the pores and takes off a layer of skin…getting the dead layer of skin off looks better. It’s working better if you see mild irritation and/or some redness.”

Since many consumers are scared off by the tingle, the skincare industry has reacted by creating something called a neutralized glycolic acid. It’s not something you’ll find written on any bottle, but it’s worth doing research on before you buy a product, because neutralized glycolic acid does not do the job you want it to.

“The last step many manufacturers do is to neutralize the glycolic acid so there is no sting or redness,” Dr. Bottiglione said. “This gives the product pH of 7, which is the same as water, so it does nothing.”

How do I use glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a versatile and gentle product and there are many ways to use it. If you want to start slowly, using it in a moisturizer is a good way to begin. For his own Dermatologist’s Choice line, Dr. Bottiglione suggests that using it once a week is a good start to allow the skin to acclimate to it. He also says that when it comes to exfoliation, manual exfoliants can’t hold a candle to the power of glycolic acid.

“The manual scrubbing is never going to give you as good as a result as the glycolic because it can never penetrate the skin as deeply,” he says.

Glycolic acid comes in different strengths, but it’s important to remember no percentage matters if the glycolic acid is neutralized. Scroll down for a selection of our favorite non-neutralized products so you can experience the magic of this skincare powerhouse!

Our favorite glycolic acid products

1)Dermatologist’s Choice Ultra Anti-Aging Face Cream

what is glycolic acid

One of the key products from Dr. Bottiglione’s line founded in 1981, the Dermatologist’s Choice Ultra Anti-Aging Cream is an ideal way to start adding glycolic acid into your routine. The formula balances 15% glycolic with vitamin E and shea butter to soothe the skin as the glycolic works its magic.

Price on Amazon: $65


2)Jan Marini Bioglycolic Oily Skin Cleanser

what is glycolic acid

Jan Marini is a must-know line for those interested in research-centric skincare. Its Bioglycolic Oily Skin Cleansing Gel is a godsend for those struggling with acne and delivers a dose of non-neutralized glycolic acid deep into the skin. The line does have a mild fragrance, so steer clear if you can’t tolerate it, but otherwise its highly recommended. There is also another version of the cleanser available for normal/dry skin at the same price.

Price on Amazon: $35


3) Paula’s Choice Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA

what is glycolic acid

Glycolic acid works on all parts of your skin, not just your face–and this body lotion from Paula’s Choice is an ideal way to test it out. Use it as a spot treatment or all over to even out skin tone, slough off dead skin, and deeply moisturize. Since this lotion has a pH range of 3.5-3.9, you can trust it will not cause any harsh effects. This would also be amazing to use on feet since we naturally build up thicker dead skin there than the rest of the body.

Price on Amazon: $28


4) Peach & Lily Super Reboot Resurfacing Mask

what is glycolic acid

Toss your physical exfoliant in the trash and reach for this gem from Peach & Lily, which combines 10% glycolic acid with 0.5% BHA (yet another acid I promise we will discuss here soon!) to get your skin glowing in no time. This mask also uses blue agave extract for a serious dose of hydration, as well as hyaluronic acid, centella asiatica, chamomile, and aloe. It’s one of my favorites, and since it’s gentler, I can use it several times a week with no problem (but this is a level of frequency I suggest you work up to!).

Price on Peach & Lily: $43


5)The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

what is glycolic acid

If you’d like to start with a lighter dose of glycolic acid and see how your skin reacts to it, The Ordinary’s Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution is an ideal option for you. It’s a little less strong than the other options on this list so you can be sure your skin can handle it. But remember: if you don’t feel the tingle when you use it, it’s time to upgrade to something stronger.

Price on Amazon: $19.98


Want to learn more about Korean beauty? Check out our guides to doing the 10-step Korean beauty skincare routine, the best sheet masks money can buy, and why Korean sunscreens are vastly superior to American ones. You can also dig through all our Korean beauty coverage right here.


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*First Published: Feb 3, 2020, 1:29 pm CST