Glycolic acid: renaissance or obsolete?

Glycolic acid, an alpha hydroxyl acid, is deemed an ‘active’ ingredient. Glycolic is the smallest molecule in the family, and it has been used in OTC products and cosmeceutical and in-clinic procedures alike for decades. Since it is the smallest molecule it means it has the ability to penetrate in to the lower layer of the skin at a faster speed when compared to other alpha hydroxyl acids. This has positives and negatives, which will be discussed below!

In its raw state, glycolic is a powder made up of colourless crystals that have no scent.

It is often derived from beetroot, sugar beets and sugar cane and so is marketed as ‘natural’ and ‘from food’.

It operates as a ‘pacman’ dissolving the glue that binds the dead skin cells together, ie the desmosomes within the skin. Dead skin cells are sloughed off as a result of the acid penetration kick-starting the skin’s natural skin renewal process.

Products range in percentage of concentration and pH levels. The % can often be an indication of the shedding that is inevitable. The higher the % the more the shed, and the less I would suggest you expose your skin to. If you are exposed to a higher % than your particular skin can tolerate, you may experience dryness, redness, itchiness and possible flakiness. Anything above a 10% needs to be used with caution and with advice from a brand representative.

A secondary benefit of gylcolic acid is the moisture it can draw towards the tissue (skin). However, it may cause sensitivity, as the skin when exfoliated is more susceptible to daylight and sunlight. Using SPF is always suggested after skin treatments, but in particular after the use of acids. Similarly, when using glycolic acid, it is ideal to use hydrating cleansers as well in order to counter balance the initial dehydration such an exfoliating ingredient can initially cause.

It is typically used for treating:

  • Thickened skin
  • Scarred, hyper-keratinised skin
  • Skin discolouration such as age spots
  • Blotchy skin
  • Uneven texture
  • Mature skin
  • As preventative measures

It is not ideal for:

  • Eczema
  • Psoriasis
  • Irritated skin
  • Reactive skin
  • Thin skin

Glycol acid is ideally used as a treatment toner, serum or eye cream. Murad, Nimue, IMAGE Skincare and Perricone are brands that contain clinically proven strengths.

A well-established and respected ingredient adored by professionals worldwide, it is not being rivalled by lactic acid, a larger molecule that limits the rate at which the ingredient will plough in through the skin’s surface yet gains similar results in a more respectful manner.