Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid

Best used: PMCaution: Interactions with other acids, photosensitiveBest for: Anti-ageing, congested skin, wrinkles, pigment
Comments: The best known AHAMode 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.
    YouTube video

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. 

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:

Morning Routine:

  1. Cleansing:
    • Start your morning routine with a gentle, hydrating cleanser. This will help remove any sweat, oil, or impurities that may have built up overnight.
  2. 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. 
  3. Sunscreen:
    • 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.

Evening Routine:

  1. Cleansing:
    • 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. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. 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%.
  6. Moisturizer:
    • Apply a nourishing and hydrating moisturizer to prevent dryness and minimize potential retinol-induced peeling or redness.
  7. Eye Cream (optional):
    • If you use an eye cream, apply it after the moisturizer.

Additional Tips:

  • 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. 


Join the conversation

Join Dr Davin Lim on Instagram to stay up to date


Enquire now!

Get In Touch

Quick Contact

Dr Lim has unparalleled experience in dermatology. Fill in the form below and he will get back to you with your query
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.