What is Glycolic Acid?
In scientific and literal terms, Glycolic Acid is hydroxyacetic (or hydroacetic acid), chemical formula HOCH2CO2H - a colourless, odourless and hygroscopic crystalline solid which is soluble in water. Named by French chemist Auguste Laurent in 1848, the acid went on to first be prepared in 1851 by chemists Adolph Strecker and Nikolai Nikolaevich Sokolov. Since then, as scary as it sounds to be putting acid on your skin, Glycolic acid has become a wonder in the world of skincare.
What does that mean in layman’s terms? Glycolic acid is a popular Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA), these are derived from plants and other natural sources such as fruits, milk and sugar cane. AHAs are used in a variety of skincare products like cleansers, toners and scrubs.
How does Glycolic Acid work?
AHAs are naturally occurring acids that have small molecules which our skin can easily absorb. This makes them a prime ingredient in anti-aging products as well as to aid with pigmentation, and enlarged pores. Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane and is one of the most widely used AHAs in skin care products, it has the smallest molecules of all AHAs which allows optimal exfoliation and absorption into the skin.
Glycolic acid works by increasing the speed at which out cells rejuvenate or replace themselves. It works by dissolving the ‘glue’ that holds skin cells together - meaning that by using glycolic acid we can shed our dead skin cells faster than we would do so alone.
Collagen is the main topic of conversation when it comes to skin volume and elasticity, as we age our bodies gradually slow down the production of it. Sun damage also destroys collagen - glycolic can encourage the skin to make collagen as well as prevent the breakdown of it, and so helps to revive its plumpness. Collagen also provides strength for bones and connective tissues.
Glycolic Acid can help our skin by hydrating it, smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles, improving our skin tone and texture, reducing the effects of sun damage, brighten the skin, reducing pre size, preventing ingrowing hairs, shed dead skin cells quickly, clear out pores which can help with spots and acne.
Contrary to some reports, within a skin care ointment or cream, Glycolic Acid will not remove scars, it can have an effect on pigmentation (such as slightly lightening a darkened patch of wounded skin), and improve a raised or pitted scar but will not remove them completely.
Where can I buy Glycolic Acid, and in which format?
There are plenty of over the counter options when it comes to choosing your product containing glycolic acid, generally these will come in varying strengths up to 10%. There are also stronger versions (up to 30%) which are present in a light chemical peel, though these are not advisable at home but by a professional practitioner or aesthetician. A dermatologist can administer an even stronger chemical peel including glycolic acid of up to 70% strength.
The format in which you choose to apply glycolic acid to the skin completely depends on your personal skin type and needs. You may simply be content with an over the counter product containing a light percentage of glycolic acid to brighten your skin and give you a healthy glow, to give a smoother skin texture, prevent breakouts and even reduce fine lines. Other skin types may require a more professional approach and a stronger treatment.
How to choose your treatment?
If you have a specific skin problem or issue such as acne, sun spots, pigmentation spots, wrinkles, etc., then a professional chemical peel may be more appropriate and effective for you. Results are faster and more intense due to the higher percentage of glycolic acid within the treatment. Your skin would need to be tested as the risk of irritation is higher the larger the percentage.
As well as the percentage of glycolic acid, the pH level in the product must be considered. The more acidic the product used is, the more effective the results will be - no matter the amount of glycolic acid.
Is it safe to use Glycolic Acid on my skin?
For the most part, the answer is yes. If using an over the counter product, unless you happen to be allergic or super sensitive to the product, there should be no risk in using something containing glycolic acid. However, there are things we should know before using it.
Sunscreen is vital to your skin’s protection, but even more important if you are using glycolic acid treatments. AHAs in general give your skin added sensitivity to the sun, especially glycolic acid and so a high protection UVA and UVB sunscreen is necessary at all times.
Our skin can take some time to adapt to using glycolic acid, so gradually build up the use of it over time. Beginning at 2/3 times a week and moving up to 4/5 if there is no sign of irritation, for example. Slowly increase over time until you can use it daily. If at any moment the skin becomes irritated then stop for a rest and begin the process again after a week or so at a lesser level.
When it comes to clinical chemical peels the practitioner will also start off with a lower percentage of glycolic acid for your first treatment, and if all is well, the follow ups may be increased to a higher percentage.
If you experience rougher feeling skin to start off with, but no irritation at all, this is usually a normal reaction and means the acid is working, in a short amount of time the skin will become smoother and healthy-looking.
You should not use in conjunction with other strong exfoliants such as topical retinoids like Retin-A, Differin, Accutane, etc. Always check with your dermatologist before trying a new product.
Can I use Glycolic Acid if I have sensitive skin?
If your skin is of the sensitive variety and can become aggravated by certain products, glycolic acid could be one them. In this case it is advised that it is still possible to get positive effects and benefits from the properties of glycolic acid, you just have to select a product which has a low percentage and preferably those which do not sit on the skin or have intense contact with the skin; i.e. skin wipes/pads or a soap that contain a low glycolic acid percentage - these do not absorb into the skin to potentially irritate. The most important factor for sensitive skin is to regulate pH levels, these product examples will not negatively affect sensitive skin and still increase the cellular turnover.
Again, you should not use in conjunction with other strong exfoliants such as topical retinoids like Retin-A, Differin, Accutane, etc. Always check with your dermatologist before trying a new product, especially with a sensitive skin type.
Does Glycolic Acid affect pigmentation of the skin? Are darker skin types at risk?
No, Glycolic Acid does not affect pigmentation, though, again if the skin is sensitive the percentage of the glycolic acid should be low and opt for using low absorption options (see sensitive skin response above).