What Is Glycolic Acid and How Do I Use It?

We all remember back to our school days, when science teachers warned us not to put any acid near our skin. So why have acids suddenly become must-have ingredients in skincare routines?

When it comes to Glycolic Acid for skin, it’s really not as scary as it sounds! This naturally occurring ingredient is perfectly safe to use and can deliver seriously great skincare benefits by appearing to shrink pores, decongesting skin, and brightening pigmentation. However, it’s important you know exactly how to use Glycolic Acid to ensure you maximise its benefits without experiencing any adverse effects.

Skinstitut Glycolic Cleanser -woman with blonde hair in a low ponytail is looking to the right as she applies cleanser to the side of her face - 670 x 411Skinstitut Glycolic Cleanser -woman with blonde hair in a low ponytail is looking to the right as she applies cleanser to the side of her face - 670 x 411


Is Glycolic Acid an AHA?

Glycolic Acid is an AHA, or alpha-hydroxy acid. Cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting explains, ‘AHAs are fruit acids which can both be manufactured or found naturally. Lactic Acid is found in milk and Glycolic Acid can be sourced from sugar canes. They’re renowned for their exfoliating properties and smoothing out your skin’s texture. Stronger doses can also work at a deeper level to boost collagen production to firm and plump your skin.

What Does Glycolic Acid Do?

The benefits of Glycolic Acid are endless, as it works deep within the skin rather than just at the surface level. The water-soluble molecules penetrate deep into the pores and break down the glue that holds cells together, providing intensive exfoliation. Exfoliation helps remove damaged and dead skin cells and excess oil while promoting a brightened, renewed complexion. The appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, pigmentation, and acne will be diminished, and pores will become decongested and look smaller.

Glycolic Acid will also clear your skin so that future products and active ingredients can penetrate the skin more effectively. That’s what makes this ingredient a great first step before applying other treatments.

Skinstitut Glycolic Cleanser - hand holding product bottle up against white wall - 670 x 415Skinstitut Glycolic Cleanser - hand holding product bottle up against white wall - 670 x 415

Does Glycolic Acid Thin Skin?

You may have heard the rumours that Glycolic Acid thins your skin over time so isn’t good for regular, long-term use. However, it’s now known that this acid simply removes the uppermost layer of your skin, which consists of nothing more than dead skin cells. Studies suggest Glycolic Acid can even thicken your skin underneath!

What Glycolic Acid Strength to Use?

Glycolic Acid is available in a range of strengths, starting at around 5% and going all the way up to 50%. The high-strength concentrations are typically found in chemical peels performed in salons and dermatology clinics. Your at-home treatments won’t go much higher than 20%.

It can take a little while for your skin to build up a tolerance to alpha-hydroxy acids, as they can cause sensitivity and dryness. If you’re new to Glycolic Acid or have dry skin, we recommend starting with a low concentration, whereas oily skin can normally handle higher concentrations.

Source: https://www.bustle.com/p/what-level-of-glycolic-acid-should-you-use-on-your-skin-heres-what-the-experts-say-34034

What Are the Side Effects of Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic Acid can be drying to your complexion. If you already have dry skin, you’ll want to use low-strength formulas and include them less frequently in your skincare routine. Glycolic Acid can also cause a slight tingling sensation, which is perfectly normal. However, if this feels more like burning, then stop using the product right away and rinse it off!

Another side effect of Glycolic Acid is that it makes your skin more sensitive to UV rays, which can be incredibly damaging. Dermatologist Loretta Ciraldo suggests ‘skipping the glycolic altogether if you’re going to be outside and exposed to the sun for extended periods of time. Alternatively, she said, you could apply your glycolic before bed. However, your skin will still be a little more sensitive to sun the next morning, which means sunscreen is a must.source.


Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub - product is being squeezed out of bottle onto fingertips - 670 x 424Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub - product is being squeezed out of bottle onto fingertips - 670 x 424

Is It Okay to Use Glycolic Acid Everyday?

How often you use Glycolic Acid really depends on your skin type, your tolerance, and your age. If you’re starting afresh with AHAs, we recommend using them just once or twice a week. But as your skin becomes used to the ingredients, you can boost the frequency until you reach nightly use.

 You also want to keep in mind the strength you’re using. If you’re using a high-strength Glycolic Acid for mature or problematic skin, you may want to include this in your routine just once a week.

Is Glycolic Acid Pregnancy-Safe?

Unlike lots of other active ingredients, Glycolic Acid skincare during pregnancy is perfectly safe to use.

Is Glycolic Acid Safe for Sensitive Skin?

Glycolic Acid can cause irritation, especially in high-strength formulas. If you have sensitive skin, you can include some low-strength Glycolic Acid treatments in your skincare regimen. But you’ll want to introduce them slowly, using them just once or twice a week. Always follow with a nourishing moisturiser, as AHAs can cause dryness and tightness.

What Does Glycolic Acid Do for Acne?

There are many reasons to use Glycolic Acid for acne. This AHA will help regulate sebum production, remove acne-causing bacteria, and diminish acne scarring. Glycolic Acid works deep within the pores to provide intensive exfoliation, which removes congestion and impurities. This will help stop the spread of acne, keeping skin clear and refreshed. There are plenty of Glycolic Acid creams for acne scars available, which will also help fade dark marks and pigmentation after a breakout.

Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub - close up of womans chest and neck as she applies scrub to her shoulder - 670 x 417Skinstitut Glycolic Scrub - close up of womans chest and neck as she applies scrub to her shoulder - 670 x 417

How to Use Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid is available in a variety of formulas, so you can introduce this AHA in the way that works best for your skin. A Glycolic Acid face wash is the perfect way to supercharge your cleansing routine to remove even the most stubborn bacteria. A Glycolic Acid cream is perfect for drier skin types, as it delivers AHA benefits without causing dehydration and tightness.

One of the most commonly found formulas is a Glycolic Acid toner. Applied to freshly cleansed skin, this type of product will penetrate deeply and prepare your complexion for further treatments and makeup application.

Remember to always apply sunscreen directly after or the morning after using Glycolic Acid, as acids make your skin more sensitive to UV damage.



How Long to Leave Glycolic Acid on Face?

Many Glycolic Acid products are leave-on treatments that absorb into your skin and work their magic! However, if you’re using a Glycolic Acid Peel, you may need to rinse it off. Always follow the recommended treatment time on the individual product. Don’t be tempted to leave an AHA on longer than recommended, as this may cause irritation, dryness, and discomfort.

How Often Should You Use Glycolic Acid?

We recommend using a Glycolic Acid-infused product once or twice a week to start so your skin can build up a tolerance. You can then gradually increase the usage to nightly if you want the best results. However, always consult the instructions on the individual product to see what’s recommended.

How Often Can I Use a Glycolic Acid Peel?

If you want to use a Glycolic Acid face peel at home, keep in mind that these products contain much higher concentrations of the AHA. That means you’ll need to follow the instructions carefully. Most Glycolic Acid peels are suitable as a weekly treatment. However, consult the individual product information to see what’s recommended, as you don’t want to cause dryness or irritation.

To find out more about at-home chemical peels, be sure to have a read through our guide The 9 Best Safe At Home Chemical Peels

Should I Moisturise After Glycolic Acid?

We always recommend using an intensive moisturiser after a Glycolic Acid product, as this AHA can be drying to your complexion. This is particularly important if you already have dry skin or are prone to sensitivity.

What Products Contain Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic Acid is a popular active ingredient in beauty, as it can benefit so many skin types and tackle so many skincare concerns. Often, Glycolic Acid is the hero product in a cream, cleanser, serum, or face mask. Some of our favourite Glycolic Acid products include:

This high-strength Glycolic Acid cleanser is a powerful 2-in-1 face wash and exfoliant. Skinstitut Glycolic Cleanser 12% works deep within the pores to remove dead skin cells and impurities while brightening dullness and smoothing roughness. Promoting plump, revitalised skin, this cleanser is perfect for acne-prone skin, dull skin, and congested complexions.


Perfect for gentle exfoliation after cleansing, The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% improves skin tone and texture for a radiant and youthful complexion. Infused with Tasmanian Pepperberry, this toning solution also helps reduce the irritation and discomfort commonly associated with AHAs.

How to Use | The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

Discover more about The Ordinary on our podcast Episode 9: How The Ordinary Gained Cult Status. Also check our skincare guide to the brand’s extensive product range: The Ordinary Skincare Guide: What Product is Right for Me?


This nourishing moisturiser is the best Glycolic Acid face cream for ageing and mature skin. Working overnight to turn back the time on ageing complexions, Liquid Gold 24 Hour Moisture Repair Cream softens the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, sun spots, and pigmentation. The product’s low level of Glycolic Acid is perfect for someone who wants to enjoy the benefits of AHAs without risking skin irritation. You’ll wake up to brighter, clearer, and healthier skin.

How To Use | Liquid Gold 24 Hour Moisture Repair Cream


To discover more of our favourite products containing Glycolic Acid, check out our guides Best Glycolic Cleansers for Your Skin Type and The 5 Best Glycolic Acid Body Scrubs & Exfoliators



What to Use with Glycolic Acid

One of the main benefits of using Glycolic Acid in your skincare routine is that it clears the route for other active ingredients to penetrate the skin more deeply for heightened results. In How Do I Layer The Ordinary Skincare Products?, you can discover the best products to use after the brand’s Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution to maximise your benefits.

We also highly recommend using moisturising products after applying a Glycolic Acid product. Glycolic Acid can be drying to the skin, so you’ll want to restore your hydration levels. You should also always wear sunscreen, as your skin will be more sensitive to UV damage while you’re using Glycolic Acid.

Can You Use Hyaluronic Acid and Glycolic Acid Together?

Hyaluronic Acid is one of the best hydrating ingredients, as it can hold up to 1,000 times its own mass in hydration. Therefore, if you’re using Glycolic Acid, we highly recommend following up with a Hyaluronic Acid treatment. This will help undo the drying side effects and restore balance within the skin.

Alpha H Liquid Gold Skin Renewal Wash - product bottle is held in hand while small about is poured onto fingertips - 670 x 427Alpha H Liquid Gold Skin Renewal Wash - product bottle is held in hand while small about is poured onto fingertips - 670 x 427

What Not to Use with Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid is great for helping other active ingredients absorb more effectively. However, there are some ingredients to avoid during Glycolic Acid treatment, as they can cause too much irritation and discomfort when combined.

  • Retinol: Retinol is a peeling agent that stimulates skin cell renewal, working in a similar way to AHAs to remove dead and damaged skin cells. If you use these two active ingredients together, you may cause excessive irritation and dryness. Dermatologist Dr Y. Claire Chang recommends using the two ingredients at different times of the day or different days of the week.

  • Vitamin C: Using Vitamin C and Glycolic Acid isn’t a straight-up no-go. But Dr. Chang warns, ‘Vitamin C and hydroxy acid products could potentially be used together, as they both work in acidic environments but because both are made in acidic formulations, the combination can be more irritating for the skin.’ She recommends either waiting a few minutes between the application of each product or using them on separate days.



Brand and product inclusions are at the sole discretion of Adore Beauty’s highly trained Customer Service team. We do not seek or accept payment from brands or individuals listed in our guides.




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