Why Glycolic Acid should be the next beauty product you buy

Everything you need to know about the world's best exfoliator

As millennials continue the hunt for magical products that actually deliver on their anti-aging promises, one decidedly scientific name keeps popping up: glycolic acid.

But while this cult favourite is found in skincare products marketed by beauty behemoths from The Ordinary to Drunk Elephant, glycolic acid has also fallen out of favour with many well heeled skincare experts because of its abrasive chemical makeup.

What’s a girl to think?

Jennifer Lopez swears by glycolic acid for her age-defying, glowing skin
Jennifer Lopez swears by glycolic acid for her age-defying, glowing skin (Credit: Jennifer Lopez/Instagram)

First things first – what is glycolic acid?

Made from sugar cane, glycolic acid is a water-soluble, chemical molecule which belongs to the alpha-hydroxy acid (better known as AHA) family.

While this may sound intimidating, glycolic acid – along with it’s sister formulae malic acid, citric acid, tartaric acid and lactic acid – is a common ingredient in many modern skincare products.

According to accredited dermatologist and skincare brand owner Loretta Ciraldo, glycolic acid is also the most popular and most researched alpha-hydroxy acid.

What is it used for?

The main function of glycolic acid is to exfoliate the skin, gently removing dead skin cells which adds reduces dullness and boosts complexion radiance.

In broader terms, glycolic acid is also useful for blackhead and acne-prone skin, as all blemishes begin with dead cells clogging the skin’s pores.

Dr Joseph Hkeik of All Saints skincare clinic in Sydney calls it “an exfoliant – a good molecule” for stimulating skin cells, leading to a higher turnover and more youthful looking skin.

Glycolic acid is also great for prepping your face before applying other products, as it helps the skin absorb ingredients more easily.

American dermatologist Dr Melda Isaac told the Huffington Post that glycolic acid is an excellent precursor to topical creams and lotions.

“You’re going to get better absorption of other acne medications, like retinol, and other anti-aging products and antioxidants, like vitamin C, and growth factors.”

Fresh, radiant complexions were the order du jour on the Chanel 2019 catwalk
Fresh, radiant complexions were the order du jour on the Chanel 2019 catwalk (Credit: Getty Images)

Why is glycolic acid so popular?

Glycolic acid contains collagen stimulating properties, which is a vital protein that gives skin its suppleness, firmness, plumpness and general elasticity.

Collagen production steadily decreases with age and is also reduced by sun exposure, so many young adults use glycolic acid to fight the onset of fine lines and wrinkles before the damage becomes irreversible.

Glycolic acid also hydrates skin, improves overall skin tone and texture, brightens the complexion and protects against clogged pores and ingrown hairs, Very Well Health notes.

Thanks to its exfoliating properties, glycolic acid also reduces the risk of inflammation and stops blackheads and whiteheads developing.

Longterm use of glycolic acid can lighten the appearance of sun damage marks and scars, but it will not eradicate them entirely.

Are there any potential side effects of using glycolic acid?

All alpha-hydroxy acids can cause mild irritation, redness, swelling and itching to sensitive skin types.

Healthline advise seeking guidance from a dermatologist before applying glycolic-infused products with over 10 percent acid concentrate.

This is because glycolic acid also has industrial and commercial uses, including leather tanning, industrial cleaning and water treatment – so it’s definitely a skincare ingredient to be used in moderation!

Excessive concentrations of alpha-hydroxy acids can cause severe stinging, crusting of the skin as well as scabbing and flaking.

The biggest danger is skin burning, which can even lead to permanent discolouration with repeated exposure.

Margot Robbie flaunts her flawless skin at the Oscars in 2018
Margot Robbie flaunts her flawless skin at the Oscars in 2018 (Credit: Getty Images)

How to use glycolic acid safely

First things first, when applying alpha-hydroxy acid to the skin, it’s essential to start with a layer of sunscreen.

This is because glycolic acid makes the skin more sensitive to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, so slap on some SPF!

Ease into your use of glycolic acid to give skin time to adjust. 

Very Well Health recommend applying three times a week to begin with, steadily increasing to four and then five if skin shows no signs of redness or irritation.

Most importantly, don’t start using glycolic acid if you are currently using topical retinoids, Accutane or other intense exfoliants, as this will strip the skin of its essential oils causing severe dryness.

Where should it be applied?

All over the face – except the eyes, naturally!

So what glycolic acid products get New Idea’s seal of approval?

10. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

This cult favourite comes with a 4.5 star rating and at just 7% glycolic acid concentration, it’s suitable for most skin types.

The Ordinary recommend using this product for mild exfoliation, improved skin radiance and visible clarity.

It also comes with Tasmanian Pepperberry which reduces the risk of irritation and redness often associated with glycolic acid.

Best of all? It’s cheap as chips.

The Ordinary’s toning solution retails for $14.50 from AdoreBeauty.

9. Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner

Mario Badescu’s Glycolic Acid Toner promises radiant, glowing skin thanks to its brilliant formula of exfoliating alpha-hydroxy acids which work to exfoliate and refresh dry, clogged pores.

Containing just 2% glycolic acid and grapefruit extract, it’s suitable for all skin types.

Buy now from Mecca for $28.

8. Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant 75g

This bestselling exfoliator promises to keep skin healthy, bright and smooth thanks to its rice-based makeup of glycolic acid, salicylic acid and grapefruit extract.

Dermalogica’s Microfoliant is infused with acne-fighting enzymes to reduce breakouts and even skin tone and texture, making it a “must-have in your skincare routine”.

Available from Adore Beauty for $86.50.

7. Reviva Labs Professional Strength 5% Glycolic Acid Anti-Aging Cream

This glycolic acid cream uses a high concentrate of pure AHA, so apply sparingly and with care.

It comes with a 4 star rating on Amazon Australia, with one woman crediting the formula for soothing her acne-prone skin and reducing breakouts.

Others said they had been using AHA and BHA infused products for years, all without much effect – until Reviva’s glycolic cream!

Shop now from Amazon for $35.

6. Malin + Goetz Glycolic Acid Face Pads

These resurfacing glycolic acid pads thoroughly exfoliate dead skin cells creating a brightening effect, improving skin tone and boosting cell turnover as well as collagen production.

Extended use promises to smooth wrinkles and reduce fine lines for a youthful, radiant glow, without the harsh effects of aggressive glycolic acid peels.

Malin + Goetz recommend using the peel pads with other anti-aging and acne-fighting products where necessary.

Get a pack of 50 peel pads from Mecca for $80.

5. Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme

These radiance boosting peel pads are soaked in exfoliating glycolic acid (2.8% concentrate), as well as hyaluronic acid which mositurises and refreshes skin and blue daisy extract to sooth and calm any inflammation prompted by the AHA.

Nip + Fab’s glycolic acid pads come with an almost 5 star rating, with one user calling them “the most amazing product I’ve ever used”.

The pads are suitable for acne-prone, sensitive skin, and are widely credited for reducing the appearance of dark spots and sun damage.

Shop a 60 pack from Priceline Australia for $34.99.

4. Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid Toner

This brand new skincare product comes with an 8% glycolic acid concentrate, as well as lactic acid, citric acid and disinfecting witch hazel which gently removes dead skin cells and reduces the appearance of fine lines.

The toner also shrinks the appearance of pores and evens out coarse skin tone, restoring skin to its natural pH balance.

It comes with a 4.5 review from Sephora customers, with many saying it significantly reduced redness and helped with acne breakouts.

Buy from Sephora Australia for $62.

3. Paula’s Choice Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA

This cheap and cheerful daily leave-on alpha-hydroxy acid exfoliant from Australian skincare brand Paula’s Choice leaves skin looking smoother, more radiant and more evenly toned by gently removing dead skin cells to reveal the complexion’s most youthful layer.

Paula’s Choice smoothing treatment is exceptionally gentle, and comes with additional benefits including hydration, soothing antioxidants and a mix of fortifying BHA extracts to strengthen and plump skin.

Buy from the Australian site for just $9.60 today!

2. SkinCeuticals Purifying Glycolic Facial Cleanser

This purifying cleansing gel comes with 3% glycolic acid, glycerin and other brightening ingredients to improve skin tone and texture and leave the complexion refreshed and renewed.

The gently foaming formula remove impurities and is suitable for dry skin, normal skin, oily skin, acne-prone skin and combination skin.

The glycolic cleanser comes with a 4.8 star rating, with one happy customer declaring it left her skin “clearer and smoother” in less than a week.

Buy from the SkinCeuticals Australia website for $35.

1. Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

This cult favourite glycolic acid serum is beloved by dermatologists and novices alike, thanks to its powerful blend of alpha-hydroxy acids and BHAs which promotes radiant, age-defying skin like never before.

Drunk Elephant’s night serum features a 12% blend of glycolic acid and BHAs including salicylic acid for the ultimate in overnight rejuvenation.

Apply before bed to lift dead skin cells, banish blemishes and lighten pigmentation with prolonged use.

Consumer testing results found 98% of people found their skin smoother, 96% softer, 93% retexturised and refine and 91% felt skin looked more even toned, brighter and luminous.

Buy from Mecca for $205.

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