What Can Glycolic Acid Actually Do for Your Skin?

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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With at-home products, sticking to a concentration of 10% or lower can help prevent inflammation, according to all the dermatologists we consulted. Basically, you want to clear your pores (more on that below) without stripping your skin to the point where it’s raw and inflamed.

Clearer pores and fewer zits.

Because it’s so effective at sloughing off the top layer of skin, glycolic acid can also be beneficial for banishing blemishes. “Chemical exfoliation can help people with acne by clearing dead skin cells and pore-clogging debris,” Dr. Marcus says.5

For anyone who’s both breakout-prone and super sensitive, though, glycolic acid may be too harsh, she notes. Giving your skin breaks between treatments and only applying the exfoliant two or (max) three times a week can help minimize irritation, she adds (start with once a week and see if you can work your way up to two or three treatments without issue).

But if your face still isn’t happy, salicylic acid might be a better exfoliating acne treatment for you, Dr. Marcus says. As we mentioned above, it can penetrate deeper into pores to unclog them, and it’s also been shown to be less irritating than glycolic acid.1

Fewer dark spots from sun damage.

The sun’s UV rays can cause hyperpigmentation (or dark spots). As glycolic acid helps slough off the top layer of dead cells, it can also remove some of that excess pigment (or melanin) in the process, Loretta Ciraldo, MD, board-certified dermatologist and voluntary assistant professor in the dermatology department at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, tells SELF.3

In some cases, however, it can have the opposite effect. Especially if you’re prone to hyperpigmentation (a common issue for people with medium to dark brown skin tones, for example, as the body already makes extra melanin, which can lead to dark spots), glycolic acid could make the issue worse. Research suggests that, in high concentrations, it can lead to inflammation, and that damage could trigger hyperpigmentation.6 2

You don’t necessarily have to skip glycolic acid just because you tend to get dark spots, but to be safe and minimize irritation, you should stick with low concentrations (think 5 to 10%), according to Dr. Ciraldo. And again, using it just one or two times a week can also keep skin calmer, Dr. Marcus adds.

Thicker, plumper-looking skin.

While glycolic acid gets busy removing old skin cells, it also promotes the production of new ones. As a result, “it can thicken the skin, stimulate collagen production, and improve tone and texture,” Dr. King explains.3 “Studies have shown, for example, that using a topical glycolic acid cream for six months stimulated a 27% increase in epidermal thickness.”7

Essentially, when glycolic acid strips away the top layer of dead cells, new, healthy ones swoop in to replace them. And thicker, collagen-filled skin can help give you that just-got-a-facial smoothness and plumpness.3

What ingredients are safe to combine with glycolic acid?

You might not want to combine glycolic acid with other AHAs and BHAS, like salicylic acid, because together they can be too strong and cause irritation, according to Dr. King. One exception is fellow AHA lactic acid, since it’s pretty gentle: The two chemical exfoliants can work well together to smooth fine lines and cut back on surface-level dark spots, and you may even find them in the same products, she says.8 “The result of combining the two is smoother and softer skin that’s moisturized and has fewer discolorations,” according to Dr. King.9

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