Glycolic acid

What does it do?
Chemically exfoliates the skin, lifting off dead skin cells
Promotes collagen remodelling
Improves skin hydration

What’s it used for?
Dull, uneven skin
Fine lines, wrinkles and signs of sun damage

How do I use it?
Apply at night, followed by moisturiser.
Start once per week, and increase to up to three times per week if tolerating.
Always use sunscreen during the day.

Potential drawbacks
May cause skin irritation (redness, stinging and dryness)
May cause sun sensitivity

Evidence rating

Glycolic acid is the most powerful alpha hydroxy acid available, and is a popular choice because of the multitude of benefits it offers the skin. Caution though, as it can be irritating. Read on to learn more. 

What is glycolic acid, and what does it do?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid. It’s the smallest sized molecule of all the alpha hydroxy acids, making it the most effective as it penetrates into the skin the most deeply. It helps with chemical exfoliation of the skin and collagen remodelling. 

Why should I use it?

Glycolic acid helps brighten dull skin and improve the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and signs of sun damage. It can also help manage acne and fade uneven pigmentation, and may improve skin hydration. 

How should I use it?

If you’re using it in a leave-on product, such as a serum or toner, apply at night, one to three times per week. It can be used less frequently in a higher concentration in a chemical peel

What should I do if irritation occurs?

There are a few things you can do if you develop skin irritation from using glycolic acid. These include:

  • reduce how often you use it,
  • apply moisturiser afterwards,
  • ensure you aren’t applying it at the same time as other irritating ingredients such as retinoids,
  • reduce the concentration, or 
  • try a less potent alpha hydroxy acid such as lactic acid or mandelic acid

What are the potential drawbacks?

Of all the alpha hydroxy acids, glycolic acid has the most potential to cause skin irritation, and may not be suitable for sensitive skin types. It may cause increased sun sensitivity.

Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.

Rodan K, Fields K, Majewski G, Falla T. Skincare Bootcamp: The Evolving Role of Skincare. Plast Reconstr Surg Glob Open. 2016;4(12 Suppl Anatomy and Safety in Cosmetic Medicine: Cosmetic Bootcamp):e1152. Published 2016 Dec 14. 

Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863. Published 2018 Apr 10.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…