True story: I’ve never met a facialist, dermatologist, or skincare expert in general who doesn’t love glycolic acid. One of the most effective and widely used AHAs (aka alpha hydroxy acids, a type of chemical exfoliator), glycolic acid is found naturally in plants and fruits—like sugar cane, sugar beets, pineapples, and grapes—and, when used in well-formulated products, works wonders at smoothing, brightening, and softening your skin. Truly, it’s the MVP powerhouse behind really good skin (aside from retinol, that is). Ahead, everything you need to know about glycolic acid, including how it works and when you should be using it.
What does glycolic acid do for your face?
A lot, actually. “Using glycolic acid can help fade hyperpigmentation, minimize pores, refine skin texture, and smooth lines and wrinkles,” says dermatologist Saya Obayan, MD. How, you ask? “Glycolic acid works by dissolving the glue that holds together dead skin cells, lifting pigment from the skin, and increasing collagen production,” explains Dr Obayan. And it does this all without creating little micro-tears in your skin, like an aggressive scrub or exfoliating brush.
What percentage of glycolic acid is safe?
“I suggest starting with a product that has a low percentage of glycolic acid, like 5 percent, if you’re new to using acids,” says Dr. Obayan. (P.S., When you first start using glycolic acid, you may notice a slight tingling upon application—that’s normal.) If you’ve been using a low-level glycolic acid for some time (think: six months or more), you can slowly work your way up to one with a 15 percent or 20 percent concentration. As a rule, the higher the percentage, the more effective the formula will be at brightening dark spots and smoothing lines…but also the harsher it can be on your skin.
Is it ok to use glycolic acid everyday?
It depends on the concentration and the type of product you’re using it in. My skin can tolerate using glycolic acid daily, but more sensitive skin types may only be able to handle a few times a week. As a general rule, start slow and decrease frequency at the first sign of irritation, itching, or redness. “I recommend patients with sensitive skin ‘spot test’ a glycolic acid serum on a small area of skin before slathering it on their face. If they can use it daily for a one week without any redness, irritation, or dryness, they can start applying it to all over,” says Dr. Obayan.
What I def don’t recommend? Using multiple glycolic acid-based products (like an exfoliating cleanser, liquid toner, and serum) in a row, every single. That’s just a guaranteed recipe for irritation.
When should I use glycolic acid in my routine?
Ideally, you want to use glycolic acid at night since since the ingredient can make skin photosensitive. And that photosensitivity can lead to sunburns, premature aging, and a darkening of acne scars and hyperpigmentation. Also impt: daily sunscreen! “Always wear an SPF of 30 or more while using a glycolic acid serum,” adds Dr. Obayan.
As for the type of product glycolic acid works best in? Hands down a face serum. You’ll get the most bang for your buck since the ingredient really has time to sit on your skin and work it’s magic. Plus, when used in a serum, glycolic acid is often paired with other ingredients like antioxidants and retinol making it that much more effective. See for yourself and try one of these 16 best glycolic acid serums, below.
Best Glycolic Acid for Acne-Prone Skin
Rose Ingleton MD Blemish Control Booster Serum
Oily and/or acne-prone skin types will love this top-rated glycolic acid serum from Dr. Rose Ingleton. It uses glycolic acid to eliminate pore-clogging dead skin cells and fade old acne marks and scars, plus antibacterial turmeric to fight breakouts, and anti-inflammatory niacinamide to reduce redness and irritation.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum and Spot Treatment
Urban Skin Rx Clear Complexion Acne Serum + Spot Treatment
Another gem for acne-prone skin, this two-in-one serum and spot treatment (you can use it allover your face or on targeted areas) combines 5 percent glycolic acid and 5 percent benzoyl peroxide to unclog pores and kill acne-causing bacteria.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Hyperpigmentation
La Roche-Posay Glycolic B5 Dark Spot Corrector
All glycolic acid serums brighten to some degree, but this one goes the extra mile with a blend of skin brighteners like kojic acid and tranexamic acid. The glycolic acid helps lift dulling dead skin cells, while the kojic acid and tranexamic acid suppress excess melanin production to keep dark spots, melasma, and hyperpigmentation in check.
Best Cult-Favorite Glycolic Acid Serum
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum
This glycolic acid serum from Drunk Elephant is loved by derms and beauty editors for good reason: It transforms skin making it baby freaking smooth. Inside the bottle is a blend of 12 percent AHAs—including glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric acids—that work together to eliminate pore-clogging dead skin cells, fade dark spots and marks, and improve skin texture.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Daytime
Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum
Not only does this glycolic acid serum soften signs of aging (looking at you, dark spots and fine lines), but it actually helps prevent them too, thanks to a dose of stabilized vitamin C in the formula. The ingredient helps protect skin from free radical damage (a byproduct of environmental aggressors, like UV and pollution, that damages skin cells) throughout the day.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Sensitive Skin
Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment
ICYMI, Good Genes—the beloved exfoliating serum from Sunday Riley—has a twin, but instead of being packed with lactic acid (a mild type of AHA), this one’s made with glycolic acid instead. The formula is incredible for smoothing fine lines, fading dark spots, reducing congestion, and minimizing pore size too.—plus it’s it’s infused with soothing prickly pear extract, making it a safer option for sensitive skin.
Best Glycolic Acid Gel Serum
Ole Henriksen Invigorating Night Transformation Gel
This glycolic acid serum from Ole Henriksen has lightweight gel texture that soaks right into skin—so you don’t have to worry about it feeling sticky or tacky. Use it a few nights as a week as an intensive overnight treatment to smooth skin texture and soften the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Nighttime
Bliss Renew & Smooth Night Serum
Apply a few pumps of the glycolic acid serum before bed and prepare to wake up to ridiculously glowy skin in the morning. The combination of glycolic acid, fruit acids, and polyhydroxy acids (a gentle type of AHA) work together to resurface and refine your skin while you snooze.
Best Clean Glycolic Acid Serum
Herbivore Prism 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum
If you’re into clean beauty, this glycolic acid serum from Herbivore should 100 percent be on your radar. The plant-based formula is made without parabens and phthalates and contains a blend of naturally-derived glycolic acid, pore-minimizing willow bark extract, and soothing rosewater.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Dry Skin
Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum
Made with hydrating honey extract and hyaluronic acid, this glycolic acid serum the perfect choice for anyone with dry, or dehydrated skin. In addition to gently exfoliating, it draws moisture to your skin, leaving it supremely plump and dewy.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Fine Lines
Lancer Skincare Retexturizing Treatment Cream with Glycolic Acid 10x
Hold on off making that Botox appointment, because this glycolic acid serum is truly excellent for smoothing those fine lines on your forehead and around your eyes. It’s all thanks to a combo of 10 percent glycolic acid, anti-aging antioxidants, and skin-plumping humectants.
Best Non-Irritating Glycolic Acid Serum
First Aid Beauty FAB Skin Lab Resurfacing Liquid 10% AHA
Depending on the percentage and how it’s formulated, some glycolic acid serums can be irritating–especially if you have sensitive or redness-prone skin. Don’t worry though, this gentle formula is made with glycolic acid, brightening licorice-root extract, and a “skin saving complex” which is code for soothing and nourishing ingredients which help strengthen your skin barrier and prevent irritation.
Best Glycolic Acid Booster Serum
Pacifica Beauty Glow Baby Booster Serum
You don’t need to overhaul all of your existing skincare products to incorporate glycolic acid into your routine. Just mix a full dropper of glycolic acid booster serum with your daily moisturizer or foundation before applying it to reap the exfoliating and glow-boosting benefits.
Best Glycolic Acid Serum for Body
Renée Rouleau Smoothing Body Serum
Glycolic acid isn’t just for your face. Use it in this body serum (it contains a powerful blend of 21 percent glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids) to smooth your skin from the neck down and minimize the appearance of bumps, flakes, rough spots, and even keratosis pilaris.
Best Anti-Aging Glycolic Acid Serum
Epi.logic Skincare Double Feature Retinol + AHA Overnight Facial
Glycolic acid is a great anti-aging ingredient used alone, but this potent serum from NYC-based plastic surgeon Dr. Chaneve Jeanniton takes things a step further and mixes glycolic acid with retinol, lactic acid, and squalane for even better skin-smoothing results. It promotes cell turnover, boosts collagen production, nixes dead skin cells, and even hydrates too.
Best Drugstore Glycolic Acid Serum
L’Oréal Paris Revitalift 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum
This option from L’Oréal Paris is proof that you can get a really legit glycolic acid serum at the drugstore. The 10 percent glycolic acid serum was developed with the help of board-certified dermatologists (so you know that ish works) and is proven to help resurface and refine skin texture.
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