Everything you need to know about glycolic acid

·10-min read
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Photo credit: .

If you have ever been on the hunt, browsing for skincare options to return the glow to your tired AF skin, the chances are you have come across glycolic acid. This super acid is a part of the holy grail of skin care ingredients that unlocks amazing fresh-looking skin thanks to its exfoliating properties. However, if over-used or teamed with the wrong product the results can be less than desirable. So, if you’re ready to amp your skincare up to the next level take a glance at our complete guide below…

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is the baby of the (AHAs) family, which also includes lactic and malic acids. AHAs can be either synthetic or naturally occurring and glycolic sits in the latter category often being derived from sugar cane, grapes and pineapple. These acids work to dissolve the bonds between the surface dead skin cells to uncover fresher cells underneath, this encourages new cells to move towards the surface of your skin for a plumper, fresher appearance. “It acts as an exfoliant dissolving the intercellular glue that holds together our top layer of dead skin cells to reveal fresh, new skin cells and kick start the cellular regeneration process,” says Georgie Clever founder of OSKIA. Basically, if you’re over manual scrub exfoliators, which can be rough on the skin, then it’s time to think about incorporating this acid into your skincare routine.

What should you be using glycolic acid for?

If you have a face and you like your skin to not look dull and tired then we promise you can benefit from adding glycolic acid into your routine due to the way it buffs away dead skin cells. “It’s a chemical exfoliant that breaks down and eliminates dead skin cells on the outer layer of the skin. This is meant to improve dullness, dry flaking skin, pigmentation and brightness of the skin,” says Dr Nitasha Buldeo, Founder of Organic Apoteke. This also means that it’s an excellent acid for improving skin texture, minimising scarring and aiding in improving the appearance of congested skin and acne. “It stimulates cell turnover and renewal as well as collagen, elastin and fibroblast. It’s one of the most diverse AHAs and helps to clear old and bacteria from the pores,” says Bianca Estelle, Medical Aesthetician.

If you are also looking to start incorporating products to minimise lines and wrinkles then glycolic should be added to your product stash asap. “Glycolic acid is used to exfoliate the skin to increase cell turnover which reduces the appearance of lines and wrinkles and contributes to improving the appearance of pigmentation. The more hydrated your skin is, the less depth there will be to your lines and wrinkles,” says Dr Howard Murad, Board Certified Dermatologist and Founder of Murad Skincare.

Can you mix glycolic with other acids?

Acids can be potent so you should always be careful when you start incorporating new active skincare into your routine, especially if you already use products with acids in them. “If your skin is sensitive, you should consult with a dermatologist before using products containing glycolic acid,” says Dr Buldeo. Like with anything that can yield great results, it’s best to take it slowly. “Generally,” says Dr Murad, “it’s always best to start gently with acids to build tolerance, however for blemish-prone skin using a combination of acids can be helpful to keep pores clean and clear and skin hydrated and calm.” Try looking up the function of each acid you plan to use to learn how they work so you can cocktail them as wisely as possible.

If you prefer combining acids instead of using products that already incorporate a few acids that work together, David Delport, REN Clean Skincare product expert says, “Glycolic is often used for resurfacing, lactic acid is a great hydrator (and generally less inflammation releasing), while salicylic acid is great for spot treatments and on specific areas of breakout and congestion.”

You can also look into products that mix glycolic acid with other non-acid complimentary ingredients. “Studies have shown that lower levels of acids combined with anti-inflammatories and hydrators offer the best results and longer-term benefits,” says Dr Murad. “This is because high percentages can often cause inflammation, peeling and irritation, compromising the moisture barrier which can lead to excessive dryness, and even hyperpigmentation.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

What step should you use glycolic in skincare?

There are a load of products with a range of potencies when it comes to glycolic acid so it can be a bit overwhelming to decide what stage of your routine you should use it. However, no matter what type of product you use, when it comes to what time is best, the answer was unanimous – evening skincare routine ftw. “If you are going to be using glycolic, as with all acids, its best to use it only in the evenings as it can make your skin more sensitive to UV as it can cause inflammation as well as removing the protective layer of dead skin cells so increasing your skin’s sensitivity to heat, pollutants and UV.”

The simplest way to add glycolic acid to your evening skincare routine is by investing in an AHA toner. Used after cleansing and before moisturising, they can tackle everything from pigmentation to dullness. You’ll find our top recommendations below.

And because glycolic does sensitise your skin to UV, if you’re making it a regular addition to your skincare stash it’s important that you also add in an SPF. Yes, you should be use it already but you should really be using it… like consistently using it when you are using glycolic acid. “This should be used by everyone but is especially important to highlight for those using products that stimulate cell turnover where fresh skin is being exposed to the sun,” says Bianca Estelle.

How often is safe to use it?

The frequency you use glycolic acid is dependent on what you are treating. “If you are using it to correct an issue, such as scaring or hyper-pigmentation, then 3 times a week at treatment level is advisable,” Says Georgie. “If you would like to include an acid to mildly exfoliate dry and dead skin cells to boost cell turnover and keep skin supple using a mild product two times a week is perfect.”

Can everyone use glycolic acid?

“Those with darker skin tones, need to be cautious with glycolic acid,” warns Dr Buldeo. “It can cause a paradoxical darkening of the skin by stimulating melanocytes,” These are the melanin-producing cells in your skins deepest layer so this can lead to hyperpigmentation in black skin.

“Those with extremely sensitive skin may want to steer clear of glycolic acid,’ adds Bianca Estelle, “as it can be too harsh. This is due to the small molecular size which penetrates the skin quite aggressively.”

How we test

Our panel of 357 women trialled 26 different glycolic acid toners for a four-week period to see which ones provided the glow boost they were looking for.

We also used an image analysis VISIA machine before and after using each toner to see which ones smoothed, reduced wrinkles and brown spots, boosted radiance and improved overall complexions.

Best glycolic acid toner for softening

Pixi Glow Tonic, £18

Photo credit: Courtesy of brand
Photo credit: Courtesy of brand

If puppy-soft skin is your goal, look no further. This tonic smoothed complexions and reduced the appearance of large pores, all without leaving skin with that prickly sensation. Our panel raved about how bright skin looked too, with 92% finding it didn’t leave skin feeling dehydrated.

Key specs
Size: 250ml
Designed for: Dry, combination, acne-prone skin

Best glycolic acid toner for age spots and hyperpigmentation

Olehenriksen Glow2OH Dark Spot Toner, £23

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Photo credit: .

Struggling with brown spots? Don’t panic, just grab this toner. It scored 7/10 for eradicating dark patches, while 78% of our panel also said it helped reduce post-acne hyperpigmentation. It left behind a candle-lit glow and improved roughness for 87%, leaving the majority with a more even complexion.

Key specs
Size: 190ml
Designed for: Dull, mature, combination skin

Best glycolic acid toner for brightening

Youth To The People Kombucha + 11% AHA Exfoliation Power Toner, £33

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Photo credit: .

We were buzzing when vegan and cruelty-free US brand Youth To The People finally launched in the UK, and we’re pleased to say this toner didn’t disappoint. Combining 8% lactic acid and 3% glycolic acid, this AHA combo left testers with a sunkissed glow. In fact, everyone said skin looked brighter and 92% found it buffed away dead skin cells to leave a silky-smooth finish.

Key specs
Size:
118ml
Designed for:
Dull, dry, combination skin


Best glycolic acid toner for blemish-prone skin

The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Liquid Toner, £6.99

Photo credit: Courtesy of brand
Photo credit: Courtesy of brand

This punchy formula, from our favourite Insta beauty brand, contains a mega 10% glycolic acid – all for under £7. It worked a treat on post-acne texture, managing to smooth out bumps for 83% of our testers. Those with dry skin should look elsewhere though, as it wasn’t all that hydrating, but it left 75% with healthier-looking skin after just one month.

Key specs
Size: 100ml
Designed for: Acne-prone skin

Best glycolic acid toner for everyday use

Skin Proud Daily Exfoliating Detox Tonic, £14.95

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Here, you’ll find a lower dosage of glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid, as well as hyaluronic acid and pore-tightening niacinamide, to help minimise irritation, meaning you can use this tonic more regularly or even everyday if needed. None of our testers reported any irritation and it boosted hydration for 93%. It wasn’t massively glow-boosting, but 93% said their skin looked considerably healthier after use.

Key specs
Size: 150ml
Designed for: Dry, acne-prone, combination skin


Best pore-minimising glycolic acid toner

Saturday Skin Pore Clarifying Toner, £23

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Photo credit: .

Aiming to whip pores into shape, this potent 10% glycolic acid tonic is a great option for the chemical exfoliant pros out there. Although we know you can’t actually shrink the size of pores, this worked its magic for testers looking to reduce their appearance, with one finding it dealt with the milia around their chin, too.

Key specs
Size: 125ml
Designed for: Acne-prone, combination skin


Best glycolic acid toner for dull skin

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution, £6.80

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

The Ordinary (our go-to, budget-friendly skincare brand) didn’t disappoint us with its AHA toner. It revived dull skin to leave it looking glowier and didn’t cause any tightness or spark sensitivity. It didn’t tackle fine lines, but 80% said it left skin in an overall better condition.

Key specs
Size: 240ml
Designed for: Dull skin

Best glycolic acid toner for dry skin

Dior Capture Youth Resurfacing Lotion, £46

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Dry skin often results in flakiness, which isn’t a good look. This toner, however, managed to gently slough away dead skin without leaving it feeling parched. It also boosted hydration for 92%, leaving testers with juicier, plumper complexions. No one reported any irritation either and an impressive 92% said they’d keep using it after the trial.

Key specs
Size: 150ml
Designed for: Dry, normal skin

Best glycolic acid toner for post-acne skin

Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner, £19.99

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Stopping active acne breakouts is a massive relief, but then comes cleaning up the aftermath, which usually involves a lot of post-blemish craters. This 2% glycolic acid cult classic scored 7/10 from our VISIA machine for improving skin texture, smoothing out any bumps. It also left everyone with a more even skin tone. A safe choice for post-acne skin.

Key specs
Size: 236ml
Designed for: Acne-prone skin


Best glycolic acid for fine lines and wrinkles

Revolution Skincare 2.5% Glycolic Acid Toner, £8

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to the signs of ageing, but you don’t have to break the bank on skincare products - this toner will cost you less than your monthly Netflix subscription. It earned an impressive score of 7/10 from our VISIA machine for minimising the look of fine lines, with half of our testers also noticing a visible improvement. It left 71% with a more even complexion after just one month – basically, add to your basket immediately.

Key specs
Size: 200ml
Designed for: Normal, mature skin

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