A Dermatologist's Guide To Glycolic Acid

A Dermatologist's Guide To Glycolic Acid



So have you been looking for a product that can take care of most, if not all, of your skincare worries? And are you looking to simplify your skincare routine with a minimum number of steps that can be easily sustained in the long run? Well, that magical ingredient is glycolic acid - yes, you heard it right. This is the holy grail of all beauty regimes that can take care of all types of skincare woes - from acne, open pores, blackheads, whiteheads, and pigmentation to fine lines, rough skin, dullness etc. You name it, and glycolic acid will solve it for you. So let's dive deep into the science behind glycolic acid and see what it can do for you.


Glycolic acid for the skin


Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring fruit acid most commonly found in sugarcane and other fruits. It is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and differs from its more famous sister - salicylic acid (a beta-hydroxy acid). This alpha and beta nomenclature is nothing but an indicator of the position of carbon chains in its molecule.


So how does glycolic acid act? And how does glycolic acid lighten the skin?


In the simplest of terms, glycolic acid helps break down the attachments between the cells of the skin (a.k.a the keratinocytes), thus loosening them and helping them to be removed during washing. It also helps increase cell turnover time. That is, it helps the underlying layers of the skin come up to the surface faster. This gives the appearance of fresh, younger-looking skin that is brighter and more supple.


But can't I just use sugarcane juice then, you ask? Well, we wish it were so simple. Sugarcane juice contains not just glycolic acid but a host of other ingredients. And to get the full benefit of glycolic acid, you would need to use it at different concentrations, something that raw sugarcane juice will not be able to provide.


So that brings us to the next question, which is:



Who can use Glycolic Acid? What is the perfect concentration?


dermdoc glycolic acid toner


Commercially available glycolic acid toners and creams are available in concentrations ranging from 6%-70%. As per the FDA, less than 10% glycolic acid is generally safe for personal skin care routines provided the product has a pH of more than 3.5.

Generally, starting with a lower concentration of around 1-2% in a face wash is better and gradually builds up as the skin adjusts to the product. Lower concentrations are also safer, keeping in mind the novice user. These concentrations (~5% can be safely left on the skin without any adverse effects). Higher concentrations (20% and upwards) are best left for experts to use in clinical treatments in the form of professional-grade chemical peels and exfoliants, as these can penetrate deeper and potentially cause skin burns.


Glycolic acid is a multitasker and can find a place in all skin care routines. The main concerns that can be specifically targeted with glycolic acid are the following -


  • Early signs of ageing like uneven skin tone, fine lines,

  • Large and open pores,

  • Blackheads and whiteheads,

  • Melasma,

  • Acne,

  • Dull lustre-less skin,

  • Dark underarms.

One of the best things about glycolic acid is that it can be safely used during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Many mainstream skincare ingredients like high-concentration salicylic acid and retinol are strictly forbidden during these times. Glycolic acid thus comes as a lifesaver for these conditions.


Any Side-Effects?


In general, glycolic acid is safe and well tolerated by all skin types. What's more, glycolic acid can be easily used for the face. But a few things need to be kept in mind. Any exfoliating agent, be it a physical scrub or a substance like glycolic acid, makes the skin more sensitive to sunlight. Thus anybody using a fruit acid like glycolic acid must pay extra attention towards protecting their skin from direct sunlight. Use sunscreens and physical methods (like hats/scarves/umbrellas) to keep the skin covered at all times.


Additionally, those with sensitive skin types and conditions like rosacea would be better off without using glycolic acid.


How to add Glycolic Acid-based products into your skincare routine?


Introduce glycolic acid into your skincare routine safely through creams, serums, facewashes etc. For those starting with glycolic acid, starting with either a glycolic acid face wash or a glycolic acid toner is a good idea. These usually have glycolic acid in a concentration of 1-2%, which is gentle enough for all skin types. Once the skin is adjusted to these lower concentrations, one may gradually increase the potency.


The choice of the glycolic acid formulation will also depend on the treated body area. For example, thicker areas of the body, like the elbows, knees, and heels, can tolerate slightly stronger concentrations. Glycolic acid works best on thickened skin with sun damage. Continued use results in visibly smoother and supple skin.


But along with such benefits, specific points about the potential side effects of glycolic acid use need to be kept in mind. Glycolic acid is known to cause increased sensitivity to the sun. Thus, those with known skin sensitivity should avoid glycolic acid, which can make the skin red and tender. And when using glycolic acid in any form, religiously use an excellent broad-spectrum sunscreen. Thus, when choosing a product, it is essential to see if it has added sunscreen. You should add good sunscreen to the routine if it doesn't have sunscreen.


Another aspect to be kept in mind is that we often unknowingly use glycolic acids in different products. This may increase the total glycolic acid being applied and lead to side effects owing to the cumulative effect.



Time taken for visible results


Results are usually seen within a few weeks of continued use. The product must be used regularly for sustained effects.



Any product recommendations for Glycolic Acid?


Yes! Multiple brands are making active-based skincare today. One of the best brands that formulate gentle products for all skin types is DermDoc. They have three products specially formulated for Indian skin types - a 10% Glycolic Acid Peeling Solution, a 5% Glycolic Acid Underarm Spray, and a 5% Glycolic Acid Face Toner.


If you are a skincare newbie and want to introduce glycolic acid into your routine, then you can start with any of these three. You can use the Glycolic Acid face toner after washing the face and before applying moisturiser. Its regular use will lead to a visible improvement in skin texture, reverse early signs of ageing, and impart an overall rejuvenated look.


The 5% Glycolic Acid Underarm Spray may get rid of dark and pigmented underarms. Meanwhile, the 10% Glycolic Acid Peeling Solution can be used by more experienced and advanced users. This benefits those with more advanced skin ageing and pigmentation who want to try a glycolic acid peel at home before consulting a dermatologist.


Glycolic acid is the workhorse of the alpha hydroxy acid arsenal, which has found use in multiple conditions, ranging from pigmentation and skin ageing to dullness. Using the right formulation in the right percentage can provide remarkable improvement for those who want to add a little extra something to their regular beauty routine.


 About the Author

Dr. Samujjala Deb Chatterjee is a dermatologist and medical content writer with more than a decade of experience in healthcare-related writing. She has worked on the editorial boards of some of the world's best Dermatology journals. She has more than 50 scientific publications to credit. She has experience in managing complex medical writing projects as well as content suited for skincare consumers. She is result-oriented and adept in the production of meaningful and original content for various media platforms and clients.


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