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What is Glycolic Acid? The Secret To Glowing Skin


Many of our beauty editors swear by glycolic acid (GA) for exfoliating and illuminating our dry skin.

This star ingredient is known to be one of the safest and most effective alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) for exfoliating away dead skin cells. It’s even used in peels for treating acne and pigmentation, sometimes even in microdermabrasion.

Unfortunately, some people make the mistake of buying glycolic acid products with the highest percentage they can find. They assume that the higher the concentration, the better results you’ll get. But the reality is this can lead to overexploitation and increased sensitivities.

We’re going to show you how to use a skincare exfoliating product that contains this acid in the right way so you avoid damaging your skin barrier. 

It’s worth it because when used correctly, glycolic acid is a mighty skin-saver. 


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What is Glycolic Acid?

The right acids used in the right amounts can be really beneficial for your skin.

That’s because your skin is naturally acidic thanks to the acids in your sweat and the fatty acids released from sebum, the oil that your skin produces. This acidic film on your skin is the acid mantle.

It’s important for maintaining the integrity of our skin’s moisture barrier and microbiome (i.e. the healthy bacteria on our skin). And it protects our skin from bacteria, fungi, viruses and diseases

That’s where GA comes in. This isn’t your ordinary run of the mill skincare ingredient. It unsticks the glue that holds dead skin together and increases cell regeneration so that you get new skin coming through.

It’s used extensively in moisturizers, exfoliators, peels, toners and cleansers with the goal of treating:

  • Wrinkles 
  • Skin texture and discoloration
  • Collagen production
  • Skin cell renewal
  • Improves moisture content 
  • Assists with acne and breakouts 


What are The Benefits For My Skin? 

As you can see from the list above, there are so many glycolic acid benefits

Glycolic acid is used to clear acne. It’s great at helping avoid breakouts before they occur since it clears away sebum, a major contributor to acne. It also reduces redness, acne scarring and enlarged pores, which is pretty exciting news for acne sufferers. 

According to a UCLA study, glycolic acid chemically stimulates skin cells to produce collagen. Collagen is what makes your skin appear youthful and plump, so your skin will start to look young and baby-smooth over time! 

So, with all these benefits in mind, you might be surprised to learn exactly how glycolic acid is made. 


How is Glycolic Acid Made? 

As a skincare ingredient, GA is either synthesized in a lab or extracted from natural sources. In terms of natural sources, GA is derived from sugar crops like sugarcane or apples, pineapples, grapes or sugar beets. You can find a DIY guide here for glycolic acid peels

In the lab, glycolic acid can be synthesized in a few different ways. The primary approach uses formaldehyde, while the other uses sodium hydroxide.

Armed with all that knowledge, it’s time to look at how you should incorporate this incredible ingredient into your skincare routine. 


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How to Use GA in Your Skin Care Routine 

How, exactly? 

If you’re looking for glycolic acid, you have choices – and lots of them. To start, look for a product with a lower of 10% concentration, and a pH of under 4 or 5. 

The most common way to use it is to buy a glycolic acid lotion (exfoliating product). You’d use after cleansing and toning and before serums and moisturizers. 

But you can find this ingredient in other products as well like toners, serums, moisturizers, peels, even cleansers. Basically, anything you can think of.

Second, not to sound like a broken record, but glycolic acid can increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun. You know our mantra: wear sunscreen every day. 

Third, pay close attention each day to note any changes to your skin. Glycolic acid has a small molecular structure, giving it the ability to travel deep into the layers of the skin. But that also means it can be irritating to the skin.  

To avoid damaging your acid mantle and having irritable skin as a result, here are some tips on how to use glycolic acid the right way in your skincare routine. 

But what about the different glycolic acid labels you’ve heard flying around? Lotion, toner, cream – there are so many different labels and kinds of products on the shelves, it’s dizzying. 


Glycolic Acid Toners, Cleansers and Face Wash Differences

Don’t let the 2 terms of face wash and cleanser confuse you – they’re simply the same thing. 

If you do start using a cleanser containing glycolic acid (or any exfoliating product for that matter), you don’t need to do an exfoliating step on top of that. 

Also, it’s a good idea to stop using any creams you may be on such as topical retinoids, Retin-A (tretinoin) or Differin (adapalene), Accutane (isotretinoin), or any products that rapidly exfoliate the skin. 


Glycolic Acid Toners

A glycolic acid toner can be used after your cleansing step as a way of introducing a mild exfoliation onto your skin. Same as above, if you do start using a glycolic acid toner, you don’t need any other exfoliating products. 

Err on the safe side so that you avoid over-exfoliating and damaging your skin’s acid mantle. 


Glycolic Acid Lotions

A glycolic acid lotion is an exfoliating product that you can use after cleansing and toning. Find a product that has a lower percentage (less than 10%) of glycolic acid – this will be listed on the product’s label or on their website. 

Start using it once every other day. It’s a very effective acne treatment but can also easily irritate your skin so don’t over-use it. 


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Glycolic Acid Creams

A glycolic acid cream just means a moisturizer that contains GA as an ingredient. You can use this cream as your moisturizer at the end of your routine to lock all the other layers in. 

Unlike most of your other products, glycolic acid cream isn’t washed off the face, so your skin gets to drink in the benefits of glycolic acid all day or night. 


Glycolic Acid Peels

If you’re looking for more dramatic results, you might consider chemical peels with glycolic acid. Chemical peels are done by a dermatologist or aesthetician. An in-office peel will contain a stronger glycolic acid concentration than anything you use at home.

The second option is to buy a glycolic acid peel and use it at home.

Otherwise, if you’re not interested in using a ready-made glycolic acid peel, but you want to make your own DIY, we’ve gathered a guide for you next. 


Final Thoughts

Like any product in your skin routine, it’s important to stick with it to see the full impact of GA. It’s also important to test patch for a week to see if you have a reaction.

With persistent use, you’ll start to see improvements. This is a top-notch exfoliator, dissolving dead skin cells to leave your complexion smooth and glowy. 

We can’t wait to hear about your results. Let’s keep in touch? @kiseu 

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