Welcome to Beauty Glossary. In this regular new series, the Bazaar beauty team breaks down the most hyped ingredients in the industry today, uncovering exactly how they work on skin and the products you’ll find them in.


Take a look at the bottles on your skincare shelf: chances are, at least one of them contains glycolic acid. Perhaps it comes in two, three or more of the recipes you use.

But, like all things in skin care, more is not always more. While the exfoliating, brightening, and mattifying powers of this hardworking resurfacing compound are truly formidable, improper or excessive use of glycolic acid can wreak havoc on the protective barrier. Protect your skin, this is for good reason.

Here, we break down everything you should know about glycolic acid: how it really works, what the benefits are, and the products that best harness its brightening, resurfacing properties.

What is glycolic acid?

“Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant derived from cane sugar. It is part of the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) family, which also includes other well-known ingredients, such as lactic acid,” says Dr Anita Sturnham, a dermatologist and founder of the skincare line Decree explained.

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecules of all AHAs, allowing it to effectively penetrate the upper layers of the skin.

How does glycolic acid work?

Glycolic acid, like other AHAs, works on the surface layer of the skin to dissolve the ‘cement’ between dead cells. Therefore, it gently resurfaces the skin without the need for rubbing. This is why acid-based products are often referred to as ‘chemical exfoliants’, as opposed to the traditional, grit-based ‘physical exfoliants’, which are now largely seen as options. less selective due to their abrasive nature.

“AHAs are water-soluble, so they work well on the outer layers of skin, which we call the epidermis,” explains Dr. Sturnham. “Glycolic acid has been shown in studies to have an effect on the skin, promoting cell renewal of collagen (helps to reduce the appearance of lines and wrinkles), and melanoma cell stabilizing properties, which means it also works well for pigments. It’s a versatile all-in-one machine. ”

“The process works by loosening and dissolving the glue-like substance called desmosomes, which works to hold old skin cells together,” explains Dr. Sturnham. “When they go to work, you often feel a tingling sensation on your skin. Once the desmosome is broken down, the skin naturally sheds old dead skin cells. So while you won’t actually see your skin exfoliate, you’ll soon see and feel smoother, more radiant looking skin. ”

How much is too much?

Where skin care acids were once approached with caution – especially outside of the safe confines of the clinic – it seems we now have the pleasure of testing different acid-based products. . However, good results only come from educated use.

According to Dr Sturnham, the trend of ‘too much exfoliation’ is a big deal right now. “Many skin patients that I examine and treat at the clinic self-harm because of this. So many people are removing the barriers in their skin with an exfoliating cleanser followed by an acid toner that exfoliates, an acid serum, granules, cereal, and scrub to create skin is perfect, but sadly this product strategy tends to make skin worse.” she warned.

In the EU, the amount of ‘active acid’ allowed in a product for home use is 10%. “Anything that claims to have higher levels is likely buffered with alkali, which is quite misleading. Sometimes these are so buffered that almost no active acid is left,” says Dr. Sturnham. “Instead, other skin-stimulating ingredients are added, such as menthol or menthol, to tingle, so you feel like you’re being exfoliated with acids. 10% is still a large dose, so you only need to do the deep-acting acid treatment once a week. “

The skincare industry has clearly captured our unwarranted craving for super-strong exfoliants, with numerous glycolic-based products promising great power, with the implication that This will lead to equally great results. However, when looking for the best glycolic acid product for your skin, it’s not all about the percentage of acid inside.

As Dr Sturnham explains, the pH of the finished product plays an equally important role in determining its durability. “In terms of choosing the dose of acid to treat once a week, the higher the acid concentration and the lower the pH, the faster the keratolytic effect, which means that the desmosome glue will break down faster, accelerating the peeling process. old dead skin. ”

To make matters more complicated, another important factor is the product’s Pka, which most brands don’t disclose. “Pka is more specific and tells you the PH the molecule needs to have to accept or donate a proton. The lower the Pka, the stronger the acid. I expect we will see this measurement incorporated into more and more products over time. ”

How to use glycolic acid at home?

So the message seems clear: when it comes to using glycolic acid products at home, less is more.

Dr. Sturnham recommends using short dosing of exfoliating acids every evening; She recommends an AHA-containing cleanser, although a toner works just as well. If you prefer a more aggressive treatment, such as a mask or pad, limit it to just once per week.

What’s more, if you’re opting for an intense weekly treatment, it’s important to replenish your skin after exfoliation – a factor many brands don’t take into account. “I don’t believe intense exfoliation without a mask attached to provide moisture and active ingredients to the skin,” says Dr. Sturnham, who has a decree treatment. weekly includes an exfoliating fruit acid gel as well as a lipid-rich replenishing cream.

Finally, a leave-in serum can be a great way to take advantage of the benefits of glycolic acid. Many can be used nightly, but if you’re new to resurfacing products or have sensitive skin, you should proceed with caution. Try incorporating your chosen product into your routine once a week to monitor your skin’s reaction and always use SPF during the day (as acids can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun).

Here, check out the 15 best glycolic acid products Bazaar The trust of the team, from beginner-grade cleansers to professional-grade peels for dark spots, and a few winning formulas that won over Bazaar Lab’s testing.

The best glycolic acid products to try right now

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