Glycolic acid: why everybody raves about this glow-inducing skincare ingredient

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Glycolic acid may be up there with the most effective skincare ingredients, but before you reach for the nearest toner, it’s important to know how to use it effectively. Here’s all your glycolic acid questions, answered.

Glycolic acid is one of those ingredients that gets a lot of airtime. Found in everything from toners to cleansers, serums to masks, so many skincare experts and enthusiasts — the entire Stylist beauty team included — really rate its power to exfoliate, brighten and plump skin, as well as its ability to ward off congestion and blemishes. But given it is so powerful, it’s vital that you understand how, why and when to use glycolic acid, as well as the best products to find it in. 

To get you up to speed, we’ve enlisted the help of dermatologist Dr Nyla. She’s the founder and medical director of Medispa Cheshire, as well as clinics in Liverpool and on London’s Harley Street. Basically, she knows everything there is to know about skincare (her 1:1 virtual skin consultations are in high demand) so she’s very well placed to walk us through everything there is to know about glycolic acid.

From the key benefits, to the best products, consider this your glycolic acid cheat sheet.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid falls into the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) family, known for its exfoliating abilities. Glycolic is most often sourced from sugarcane and as it’s one of the smallest AHA molecules, it’s able to penetrate the skin much more deeply than other acids, making it one of the most popular skincare ingredients.

What are the key benefits of glycolic acid?

“It’s a great exfoliator, shedding dead skin at the stratum corneum level to reveal fresh, brighter, glowing skin,” explains Dr Nyla. And that’s just for starters. “It also helps with the acceleration of neocollagenesis and fibroblast stimulation, which means it makes the skin firm and tight. It can help treat hyperpigmentation in certain skin types and can suppress acne formation and reduce breakouts.”

What’s the best skin type for products containing glycolic acid?

“Glycolic acid is best for anyone and everyone with normal to oily skin types,” says Dr Nyla. “However, for those with sensitive or excessively dry skin, it can become an irritant so be warned.” 

Why does glycolic acid come in different percentages?

Like many active ingredients, glycolic acid is available in different potencies. As a basic rule, the higher the percentage, the stronger the formula, so if you have sensitive skin, it’s worth sticking to the weaker end of the scale. “The optimum percentage is 10% for low impact and up to 20% for those wishing to have a deeper impact,” explains Dr Nyla.

How often should I use a product containing glycolic acid?

While more potent glycolic peel or exfoliant products are best saved for once or twice a week max, those in lower concentrations can be used daily. “A cleanser or toner, used in combination with water, can be highly effective without being too irritating as glycolic acid immediately is neutralised by contact with water,” Dr Nyla reveals.

What ingredients don’t mix well with glycolic?

“Combining [or layering] glycolic acid with retinol can be problematic as increased cell turnover leads to increased penetration of the retinol formula, due to thinning of the stratum corneum, and that can cause irritation,” warns Dr Nyla. “However, pairing with gentle exfoliating agents such as salicylic acid is okay.”

On the flipside, “glycolic acid can be combined with vitamin C to improve pigmentation concerns and improve collagenesis,” she adds. “The combination is best used at night when cell renewal and recovery is at its peak.”

Can you use glycolic acid on your body?

Given it’s such a brilliant exfoliant and glow-giver, you might want to extend your use of glycolic acid to your entire body. Dr Nyla is an advocate, but says, “I would recommend a low dose of around 10 percent combined with a moisturising partner such as cocoa butter or vitamin E.”

When in your skincare routine should you use glycolic acid?

There’s many ways to include glycolic acid into your routine, and the one you choose really depends on personal preference teamed with how strong a formula you’re after. 

A glycolic acid cleanser will dissolve dirt, gently exfoliate and improve skin’s radiance and texture. “I would start off with one with a low concentration of glycolic acid,” recommends Dr Nyla. “As cleanser is on the skin very transiently, this will limit exposure and determine your skin’s affinity to glycolic acid quickly.” 

On the other hand, glycolic acid toners are great for those with oily skin. “They maintain pore sterility which means skin will be less congested, reducing spots and eliminating blackheads,” Dr Nyla explains. 

Finally, there’s glycolic acid masks. “These can be overbearing, even for those with insensitive/normal skin, as they can contain up to 30% glycolic” says Dr Nyla. “I rarely recommend these unless heavily combined with camomile or aloe vera to avoid harsh stripping.”

Whatever type of glycolic acid product you opt for, just be sure not to double up on the ingredient elsewhere. For instance, if you use a potent glycolic toner, don’t then also use a glycolic cleanser every day.

Armed with that knowledge, it’s time to find the right glycolic acid skincare product for you. Below, you’ll find the ones the Stylist beauty team really rates.

The best glycolic acid skincare products

  • The best glycolic acid cleanser: Kate Somerville Exfolikate Cleanser


    With a mixture of papaya, pumpkin and pineapple enzymes, Kate Somerville’s cult face wash utilises the powers of both glycolic and lactic acid to gently exfoliate the skin as it cleanses. Best for those with oily skin (who can use it daily) or as a weekly ‘special’ cleanse for those with slightly drier skin.

    Kate Somerville Exfolikate Cleanser, £32

  • The best glycolic acid toner: Beauty Pie Dr Glycolic Pore-Purifying Glow Toner


    Senior beauty writer Hanna loves the ease of this swipe-and-go toner. “During my period, my skin tends to get quite a lot of bumps and texture,” she says. “But all I have to do is soak a (reusable) cotton pad and sweep it around my forehead, cheeks, nose, chin and neck and it leaves all of these areas feeling smoother and softer instantly.”

    Beauty Pie Dr Glycolic Pore-Purifying Glow Toner, £30 (or £11.46 for members)

  • The best glycolic acid face pads: Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Daily Cleansing Pads


    Stylist’s editorial assistant, Kiran, always has a stock of these pre-soaked glycolic acid pads in her bathroom cabinet.  “Combined with a little hyaluronic acid, it keeps my skin hydrated, whilst giving me a glow that radiates through my make-up. It’s a no-brainer product for me,” she says.

    Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Daily Cleansing Pads, £16.95

  • The best glycolic acid serum: Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment

    Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment

    Sunday Riley’s serum has amassed quite the cult following, and for good reason too. “You pop it on under moisturiser and leave it to break down the gunk clogging your pores,” explains beauty director, Shannon. “Don’t be put off by the strong smell — to me that’s just a reminder that it’s working, right?”

    Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment, £85

  • The best glycolic acid face mask: Biossance Squalane Glycolic Renewal Facial


    Dr Nyla may have warned against using harsh glycolic masks, but in this formula loved by beauty director, Shannon, the powerful acid is teamed with the brand’s signature ingredient: nourishing squalane. The glycolic works as a potent exfoliant to peel back dead skin cells, while the squalane keeps skin’s moisture balance in check, meaning skin feels calm and balanced, not dry and sore.

    Biossance Squalane Glycolic Renewal Facial, £57

  • The best glycolic acid body exfoliator: Tan-Luxe Glyco Water Exfoliating Tan Remover & Primer


    One surprising use of glycolic acid is that it’s brilliant for breaking down the remnants of fake tan. That’s why it’s found in this tan-dissolving mist. Like an eraser, you just mist this all over the body and it breaks down lingering tan, ready for a fresh application. However, its exfoliating powers are still brilliant, even if you aren’t a tan user.

    Tan-Luxe Glyco Water Exfoliating Tan Remover & Primer, £22

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Images: Getty / courtesy of brands.

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