Derm DMs: What Is Glycolic Acid?

August 07, 2019
Alanna Martine Kilkeary
By: Alanna Martine Kilkeary | by L'Oréal
Derm DMs: What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid — you’ve probably seen it on the back of multiple skin-care cleansers, serums and gels you have in your collection. We can’t seem to escape the ingredient, and there’s a good reason why, according to board certified dermatologist, Michele Farber, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group. Ahead, we consulted with her about what this acid really does, how to use it, and the best way to incorporate it into your regimen.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

According to Dr. Farber, glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and works as a mild exfoliant. “It’s a small molecule,” she says, “and this is important because it helps it to penetrate deeper into the skin and work more effectively.” Like other acids, it works to brighten the skin’s appearance by removing dead skin layers that live on top.


While all skin types can use glycolic acid, it may work best on oily and acne-prone skin. “It’s harder to tolerate when you have dry or sensitive skin,” says Dr. Farber. If that sounds like you, stick to products that contain it in lower percentages or reduce the frequency with which you use it. On the flip side, glycolic acid is highly effective for evening out your skin tone and altering discoloration, which is why those with acne-prone skin generally respond well to it.

What’s the Best Way to Incorporate Glycolic Acid Into Your Routine?

There are a variety of ways to incorporate glycolic acid into your skin-care routine as it comes in cleansers, serums, toners and even peels. “If you are more dry, a lower percentage product around 5% or one that washes off will be more tolerable,” says Dr. Farber. “A higher percentage (closer to 10%) that’s a leave-on can be used for normal to oily skin.” Some of our favorites include the Skinceutical Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight Treatment and the Nip & Fab Glycolic Fix Daily Cleansing Pads for weekly use.

“When used the right way, glycolic acid is a great adjunct to help even out pigment and skin tone, minimize the look of fine lines and combat the signs of aging skin,” Dr. Farber adds.


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