Discover the dos and don'ts. 

By Kayla Greaves and Marianne Mychaskiw
Updated May 29, 2020 @ 2:15 pm
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If you have yet to discover the many uses of glycolic acid for your complexion, start taking notes.

With the ability to tackle just about every issue, from breakouts to fine lines, it more or less acts like the skincare equivalent of a straight-A student.

The ingredient works by helping to dissolve oil and sebum on the top layer of your skin. It also exfoliates dead skin cells without the need for an abrasive scrub.

"Glycolic acid is probably the most recognizable alpha hydroxy acid," says Dr. Melanie Palm, consulting dermatologist for Clarisonic. "It has been demonstrated in decades of published clinical studies and data to help with skin rejuvenation and acne. It helps to speed skin renewal and turnover. It has also been shown to encourage new collagen growth and improve skin texture and fine lines, particularly at higher concentrations."

Read on to see how you can use glycolic acid to address five common skin issues.

Acne Treatment

Glycolic acid has the ability to penetrate deep into the skin, making it ideal for addressing cystic and regular acne breakouts alike. Plus it almost seems to start dissolving blackheads on contact.

"Glycolic helps as a chemical exfoliant," says Dr. Palm. "One of the main contributors to acne is an abnormal shedding of stuck skin cells within the hair follicle and oil gland. Glycolic acid helps to normalize this cellular shedding, not allowing stuck skin cells to cause inflammation that leads to an acne blemish."

According to Dr. Palm, in order to maximize the benefits of the ingredient, she recommends pairing it with an exfoliating brush. Her choice is Clarisonic's Mia Prima Acne Corrector.

In terms of topical products, we love the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner and Peter Thomas Roth's Acne Clearing Gel for treating the entire face or large areas.

Reversing the Signs of Aging

Glycolic acid increases cell turnover, which is a fancy way of saying that the ingredient sloughs away the dead skin built up on the very surface, and helps the new cells surface to the top.

"It stimulates new collagen growth in the dermis, and it regulates normal pigment production which encourages even skin tone," Dr. Palm explains. "All of these effects have a youthful appearance to the skin and increase skin luminosity."

Products like Renée Rouleau's AHA Pore + Wrinkle Perfecting Serum work overtime to smooth over fine lines and reduce damage as you sleep, while the glycolic acid-infused Ultimate Worker Cream by Philosophy keeps the process going during the day with the addition of sun protection. We also love REN's Glycol Lactic Radiance Renewal Mask for those days our complexion is looking slightly dull.

Minimizing Dark Spots

The exfoliant is a great tool for helping to treat uneven pigmentation. "It performs by interfering with tyrosinase activity, the major enzymatic pathway to pigment production in melanocytes," says Dr. Palm.

Products like Caudalie's Glycolic Peel and the Paula's Choice Dark Spot Eraser can effectively fade spots caused by the sun or acne by evening out the scar and fading the discoloration.

Reducing the Appearance of Pores

When dirt, oil, and sebum are clogging your pores, they tend to take on a much larger appearance. Glycolic acid helps to clear any gunk out of the skin.

The ingredient also helps to produce collagen, which can reduce the look of pores. "When we build collagen, it builds around the ostia of the hair follicle, in layman’s terms the 'pore,'" the dermatologist explains. "Collagen production minimizes the look of the larger pore by building collagen fibrils in the dermis and plumping the structural appearance of the skin."

Treating Ingrown Hairs

When an ingrown hair is trapped under your skin, resist the ever-present urge to reach for the tweezers.

Instead, grab a glycolc acid-based product. "As an alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid melts the skin cell to skin cell adhesions, allowing proper exfoliation of the skin," the MD notes. "Ingrown hairs are partially caused by occlusion of skin cells over the hair follicle opening. If a gentle yet effective exfoliator such as glycolic acid or salicylic acid can be applied to the skin, dead keratinocytes can be lifted off the skin surface and allow better emergence of hair from the hair follicle to the outer surface of the skin."

Completely Bare's Bikini Bump Blaster Pads or Anthony's Ingrown Hair Treatment are both great options for this issue. The exfoliation will help to slough away the dead skin keeping the hair just under the surface. Regular use will prevent new ones from taking shape.