|Best used: PM||Caution: Interactions with other acids, photosensitive||Best for: Anti-ageing, congested skin, wrinkles, pigment|
|Comments: The best known AHA||Mode of action: Chemical exfoliant, collagen stimulant||Science Score:|
What does glycolic acid do?
Glycolic acid is definitely within my top 10 most useful ingredient list. This Alpha Hydroxy Acid can treat-
- Melasma & post inflammatory hyperpigmentation : acts as a chemical exfoliant as well as a primer for other pigmentation correctors.
- Sunspots, age spots, freckles: compounded concentrations deliver bespoke results.
- Generalised skin roughness & altered skin texture; from keratosis pilaris to many other changes in skin texture
- Wrinkles & fine lines; one of the best ingredients for anti-aging. Higher concentrations can stimulate dermal collagen production.
- Enlarged pores; exfoliates pores removing built up debris.
- Acne & blackheads; exfoliated the pilosebaceous unit, allowing deeper penetration of actives. * Note BHA or salicylic acid is a better choice for acne prone skin.
What is the science behind Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is a member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acid family. It acts as a chemical exfoliant removing the top layer of skin. This acid helps shed dead skin cells and reveal the newer, brighter layers underneath. This improves light transmission as well as aids in shedding of pigment granules in the upper layer of skin. Higher concentrations of AHAs also stimulate collagen, hence glycolic acid can improve fine lines & wrinkles. Another important role of glycolic acid is to enable better penetration of other actives, such as hydroquinone.
When is the best time to use glycolic acid?
The correct time is to incorporate AHAs as part of your night time skincare routine. They should not be used in the day as photosensitivity can be an issue. Start sensibly with twice a week application, increasing slowly as tolerated. It can take 6-8 weeks to build up tolerance.
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Can glycolic acid lighten skin?
Yes. Glycolic acid, together with lactic, citric & mandelic acids can lighten skin by one to two shades. This AHA group of acids act as chemical exfoliants and remove excess pigment in the upper layers of skin. Careful application of glycolic acid is required as it may cause blotchy pigmentation of surrounding skin.
Is it OK to use glycolic acid everyday?
If you have been using skin care acids over the past few years you will have built up a tolerance. This means your skin can stand stronger acids on a more regular basis. This enables you to either increase the application frequency or the strength of the glycolic acid, but not at the same time.
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How long does it take glycolic acid to work?
You should see progress at week two, however as you increase the frequency of application, results will keep improving over time. The most important aspect of application is to start gently, with a rest period of 1-4 days between use. Glycolic acid, especially in higher concentrations of over 10% can be irritating, hence start slowly, increasing your application over time.
What should you not use glycolic acid with?
Not a good idea to combine ascorbic acid or retinoic acid + glycolic acid.
Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is effectively an acid, with a pH of around 2.5. Hence layering it with AHAs and BHAs like glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids is a big no-no.
A better skin care routine combining both ascorbic acid & glycolic acid is to apply vitamin C in the morning, & glycolic acid in the evening (since vitamin C protects against UV rays, whilst glycolic acid can be sun sensitive). Retinoic acid or strong formulations of retinol should not be mixed with glycolic acid (*at least initially). Other potentially irritating combinations include benzoyl peroxide, tea tree oil, & retinaldehyde. If in doubt check with your skin care expert.
What goes well with glycolic acids?
Hyaluronic acid can be layered with just about anything, including glycolic acid. Biologically niacinamide should be compatible however from a pharmacokinetic point of view vitamin B3 does not mix well with low pH acids. Formulations are more complex than just mixing ingredients together. As mentioned above, ascorbic acid does not usually mix well due to irritancy, however exceptions do apply. For example a compounded mix of glycolic acid, hydroquinone & low concentration L ascorbic acid of around 1-3%. In this context vitamin C is used to prevent oxidation of hydroquinone whilst glycolic acid aids in penetration.
What is the best concentration of glycolic acid?
The ideal percentage of glycolic acid for at-home use would be 8% to 25% percent, with 25% being what I call the “high normal.” With higher concentrations, formulations matter! It is important to note that home use AHA creams, lotions and serums are buffered, compared to AHA peels with lower pH. Peels require neutralizing, so don’t attempt to apply a peel solution as a topical leave on.
Can glycolic acid treat acne?
Skin acids can act as chemical exfoliants and can reduce blackheads. This applies to glycolic acid; however Beta Hydroxy Acids are better at that job. BHA, which essentially is salicylic acid, is more lipid or fat soluble, hence it penetrates better into the sebum (oil) rich environment of pimples. This acid also possesses anti-inflammatory effects, which is better for treating acne lesions.
Can you use glycolic acid with retinol?
A common misconception is that glycolic acid and retinol can‘t be combined due to their differing pH levels. However, they can be very effective at the skin’s natural pH level. The problem is not pharmacological compatibility, but what is going on at the biological level. Both are potentially irritating hence careful titration is required. I suggest starting one at a time, with a lag of 4-8 weeks before your skin adapts. Note however, if you have sensitive skin or rosacea prone skin, it is best to skip both ingredients.
A simple skin care routine is outlined below.
How is glycolic acid cream different compared to glycolic acid peels?
Clinical peels are much stronger than over the counter AHA creams, lotions & washes. The answer lies in the low pH of clinical peels, compared to buffering of skin care products. Clinical peels require neutralizing, or a chemical burn will occur, unlike OTC preparations.
What are the side effects of glycolic acid?
Some people have reactions to glycolic acid that can include symptoms such as swelling, itching, and burning sensations. This especially applies to people with a history of dermatitis or rosacea. Alpha hydroxy acids can also be photosensitive; hence they should ideally be applied in the evening. Allergic reactions are extremely rare.
How to use glycolic acid in my basic daily skin care routine?
Having a powerful acid can be an asset to make your skin care actives work harder, however be patient when adding glycolic acid to your skin care routine. A sensible program may go something like this.
AM: Cleanser, Antioxidants, SPF, Make up
PM: Cleanser, glycolic acid serum alternating nights with retinol, niacinamide
For people with non-sensitive skin application of glycolic acid wash or serum can be first, followed by retinol/retinoic acid. * Sensitive skin patients will not tolerate combined application initially; in fact they may never tolerate combinations. Be guided by your skin care expert. For more on tips, consult my team at Cutis Dermatology in Brisbane, or my dermal therapist at Dr Van Park’s Clinic in Sydney.
Davin’s Skin Protip
Glycolic acid can be used as a stand-alone or as a skin primer. The latter involves improving skin permeability to other actives. Regular application of glycolic acid can enhance biological activity of retinoids. Daily AHA use for 7- 10 days can intensify retinol peels. In my practice, I often add glycolic acid as a peel or lotion when patients can tolerate the ABCs of skin actives. Used sensibly, AHAs such as glycolic, lactic & citric acids can be an excellent addition to your skin care routine.
A more advanced skin care program that incorporates vitamin C, retinol & glycolic acid is as follows-
Incorporating a glycolic acid face wash into your advanced skincare routine with vitamin C and retinol can help improve skin texture, reduce hyperpigmentation, and promote a more radiant complexion. However, it’s essential to use these products strategically to avoid over-exfoliation and irritation. Here’s a detailed guide on how to incorporate glycolic acid wash into your skincare routine with ascorbic acid and retinol:
- Start your morning routine with a gentle, hydrating cleanser. This will help remove any sweat, oil, or impurities that may have built up overnight.
- Vitamin C Serum:
- After cleansing, apply your vitamin C serum. Vitamin C helps protect the skin from environmental damage, brightens the complexion, and can enhance the effectiveness of sunscreen. Some formulations will also contain vitamin E & ferulic acid; aka Skinceuticals CE Ferulic acid serum.
- Follow up with a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 50. Sunscreen is crucial when using vitamin C as it helps protect your skin from UV damage and prevents further hyperpigmentation. It also reduces any photosensitivity from residual glycolic acid that may remain on your skin from the night before.
- Begin your evening routine with your gentle cleanser to remove makeup and impurities. Avoid cleansers with BHA or salicylic acid as this can overwhelm your skin’s protective barrier.
- Glycolic Acid Wash:
- Use the glycolic acid face wash 2-3 times a week in the evening. You don’t need to use it every night, as glycolic acid can be potent. Wet your face, apply a small amount of the wash, and gently massage it onto your skin for about 30 seconds. Rinse thoroughly with lukewarm water. A typical formulation ranges from 5 to 12 percent.
- Wait Time:
- After cleansing with glycolic acid, wait for about 20-30 minutes to allow your skin’s pH to return to normal before applying other products. This helps prevent potential irritation when using active ingredients like retinol.
- Retinol Serum:
- Apply a pea-sized amount of your retinol serum to clean, dry skin. Start with a lower concentration and gradually increase the strength as your skin tolerates it. Retinol promotes collagen production, reduces fine lines, and improves skin texture. Start twice a week, & slow build up your frequency of application. Listen to your skin. Skin a day (or three) if you have redness, peeling, stinging or irritation.
- Niacinamide Serum (optional):
- If you’re using a niacinamide serum, apply it after the retinol serum has absorbed. Niacinamide complements retinol by helping to calm any potential irritation and soothe the skin. A typical formulation ranges from 5 to 10%.
- Apply a nourishing and hydrating moisturizer to prevent dryness and minimize potential retinol-induced peeling or redness.
- Eye Cream (optional):
- If you use an eye cream, apply it after the moisturizer.
- Patch Testing: Before using any new product, including glycolic acid, perform a patch test to check for adverse reactions or allergies.
- Gradual Introduction: Introduce glycolic acid into your routine gradually, starting with a lower frequency of use (2-3 times a week). Over time, you can increase the frequency if your skin tolerates it well. Start with a lower formulation of glycolic acid, example 5 to 7 %.
- Use Sunscreen: Sunscreen is essential every morning to protect your skin from UV damage, especially when using glycolic acid and retinol. I recommend an SPF of 50+ or higher.
- Listen to Your Skin: Pay attention to how your skin responds. If you experience excessive dryness, redness, or irritation, consider reducing the frequency of glycolic acid or retinol use or using lower-strength products.
- Consult a Dermatologist: If you have specific skin concerns or conditions, consult a medical dermatologist for personalized recommendations and guidance on your skincare routine.
Remember that combining these active ingredients requires patience and consistency. It’s crucial to customize your routine based on your skin’s needs and to adjust as necessary to achieve the desired results while maintaining healthy, well-nourished skin.
*Disclaimer: My work is entirely procedural, skin care advice is given by my therapist at Cutis Dermatology in Brisbane, or Dr Van Park’s clinic in Sydney. For sensitive skin issues & allergy testing, please see my colleagues at Cutis in Brisbane, or the Skin Hospital in Darlinghurst in Sydney.
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