Glycolic Acid: What It Does & How To Use It

Are you using yours correctly?

For the uninitiated, the thought of introducing glycolic acid into your routine can sound intimidating. Worst case scenario, you’re standing in the chemist imagining yourself with a bright red face, unable to leave the house because of an at home glycolic acid peel gone wrong. Alternatively, you can’t be blamed for wondering are glycolic acid products worth the money? Are you going to buy this and take it home, only to find out it does nothing at all? Before you invest in your first glycolic acid cream or serum, do your skin a favour and check out our guide to everything glycolic acid.

What is glycolic acid?

Pictured: Pixi products, some of which, like the Pixi Glow Tonic Toner, contain glycolic acid.

So, what is glycolic acid? Well, believe it or not, glycolic acid originates from sugar cane. It is part of the the alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) family and you’ll find it on the ingredients list of many popular skin care products.

Why is it so popular? Part of the popularity of the glycolic acid is due to its chemical structure. Simply put, glycolic acid has a small molecular structure which allows it to penetrate your skin with ease.  It’s also a great exfoliant, which is more good news for your skin. In fact, the main role of glycolic acid in the skin care industry is to exfoliate, loosening up dead skin cells and sloughing them away so that you come away with a revived complexion.

What does glycolic acid do? 

Ok we get it, glycolic acid exfoliates your skin, but so do a lot of other products. You can pick up any facial scrub or body wash from Priceline and it’ll have some sort of exfoliating ingredient in it. How does glycolic acid actually work and what are the benefits of using it over a regular face wash or mask? 

Glycolic acid works on the outer most layer of our skin, the stratum corneum. Here, the chemical works to eliminate old skin cells to reveal a brighter layer underneath. “Normal, intact stratum corneum consists of tightly packed layers of dead skin cells that are tightly bonded together,” says Dr. Howe M.D, dermatologist at Wexter Dermatology, New York City. “Glycolic acid loosens these bonds…..and [it] stimulates fibroblasts in the dermis to produce increased amounts of collagen.” So think of glycolic acid as a double-edged sword in the fight against ageing. It works on the outermost layer of your skin whilst simultaneously stimulating collagen production, which firms your skin and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Other added benefits include saying bye-bye to blackheads, and your skin will be better prepped to receive a moisturiser or makeup. Glycolic acid is a good remedy for acne. When you zoom in on skin blemishes under a microscope, they are often due to a pore being clogged with dirt and dead skin cells (glycolic acid’s main target!). 

A General Guide to Using Glycolic Acid

If you’ve never used a glycolic acid product before, it’s probably unwise to grab the nearest product and start applying copious amounts to your face. 

If you have very sensitive skin or rosacea, you’re better off speaking to your GP or dermatologist as glycolic acid could have a negative impact on your skin. Aside from this, people with generally normal, combination and oily skin types get the green light. It’s all about incorporating glycolic acid into your routine slowly, say twice a week to start with. Once your skin adjusts to the product you can up your frequency of use. When start to see the desired results, maintain that level of usage. 

That being said, every glycolic acid product will contain a difference percentage of the ingredient itself. Some face washes will be 7-10%, and you very well may be able to use a low range product like this every day. A glycolic acid face cream may sit around 15%, while a professional glycolic acid face peel may be 30%. If you’re using an over the counter product at home, pay special attention to the strength of the product and its specific instructions. Don’t be in a rush to achieve revolutionary ‘before and after’ results, building up your usage over time is the best way to go. You can use glycolic acid on both your face and your body, just be sure to avoid sensitive areas like eyes.

What are the potential side effects of glycolic acid?

Pictured: A 7% glycolic acid toner from skincare favourite The Ordinary.

There are a few potential side effects to watch out for if you’re trying glycolic acid skin care for the first time. WebMD advises that “alpha hydroxy acids (that’s the family glycolic acid belongs to, remember) at a concentration of 10% or less as a lotion or cream are LIKELY SAFE for most people when applied to the skin appropriately and as directed. In some people, alpha hydroxy acids can make the skin extra sensitive to sunlight. Be sure to use a sunscreen while using alpha hydroxy acid products.” In terms of pregnancy and breast-feeding, WebMD also advises that “alpha hydroxy creams at a concentration of 10% or less are LIKELY SAFE when applied to the skin during pregnancy and breast-feeding. But don’t take malic acid (the form of alpha hydroxy acids that is generally taken by mouth). Not enough is known about the safety of malic acid during pregnancy and breast-feeding.”

We know that AHA acids  can also cause mild skin irritation, redness, swelling, itching, and skin discolouration, and can make skin conditions like rosacea worse. And facial peels, lotions, and creams with a concentration greater than 10% should only be used under the supervision of a dermatologist. Facial peels can cause moderate to severe skin irritation, redness, and burning. Facial peels left on the skin for periods longer than recommended can cause severe burns to the skin. So if you don’t know what you’re doing – don’t wing it! Get expert advise. 

The Best Glycolic Acid Products in Australia

If you’re wondering what the top glycolic acid products in Australia are, then wonder no longer! We’ve got a list of eight products that are raking in the reviews nationwide. 

1. Nip + Fab Glycolic Fix Extreme Night Pads

Product: Nip + Fab Glycolic Acid Fix Extreme Night Pads

Cost: $30.00 (contains 60 pads)

Glycolic Acid Percentage: A gentle 5%

Why We Love It: Although it says ‘extreme’ on the label, these pads contain a very gentle 5% glycolic acid. This is combined with salicylic acid, and the end result is a product that targets congested skin. Additionally, the price is very reasonable considering you receive 60 pads per package. And check that before and after pic!

Reviews: Nip + Fab Glycolic Acid Fix Extreme Night Pads have 403 Google reviews and have an average rating of 4.5/5 stars. One happy customer said – 

I never write reviews for anything and I’m writing this as I feel like it’s important for people to know what a godsend this product is.

My friend recommended this product to me a week and a half ago and I wasn’t very hopeful at first. I tried everything under the sun as I was so desparate. My skin broke out (especially on my forehead) a couple months ago. They were cystic and made me feel so self-conscious. When I tried this product on the second night, I woke up the next morning and could see that my spots went down dramatically. It has not even been 2 weeks yet and my skin is the clearest it’s been a long long time. I have very oily skin and this product does not irritate it at all.”

You can buy it here

2. Reviva Professional Strength 10% Glycolic Acid Créme

Product: Reviva 10% Glycolic Acid Créme

Cost: $38.29

Glycolic Acid Percentage: 10%

Why We Love It: This cream combines glycolic acid and botanical extracts to give your skin an improved textual appearance. There is also a Reviva 5% Acid Créme available, which Reviva recommends you start with if you’re new to glycolic acid.

Reviews: Reviva 10% Glycolic Acid Cream has 355 Google reviews and has an average 4.7/5 star rating. One satisfied buyer said –

“I’ve been happy with Reviva face moisturizers for years. Tried other brands yet always come back to Reviva. However, I’d not tried their Glycolic Acid Cream. As a senior, my skin needs all the help it can get to look fresh and plump and radiant. Six months ago I decided to give their Glycolic Acid Cream a try, smoothing on a small amount on my whole face once/day before my regular moisturizer routine. The results have been amazing. The youthful glow of fresh new skin is readily apparent. Wish I had added this product to my face care years ago. Note: a little goes a long way, and expect a tingling sensation that will let you know it’s doing its job.”

You can buy it here

3. Malin+Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Pads

Product: Malin+Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Pads

Cost: $80 (contains 50 pads)

Glycolic Acid Percentage: Physician grade 10%

Why We Love It: Malin+Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Pads are suitable for all skin types, and they only contain three ingredients – purified water, glycolic acid and ammonium hydroxide.

Reviews: Malin+Goetz Resurfacing Glycolic Pads have 35 Google reviews and have an average 4.5/5 star rating. One happy customer said – 

“I bought this a month ago and use it three times a week. The first week it was quite harsh but since then, my skin now loves it and is noticeably clearer and smoother. It’s probably better suited for certain skin types but I’ve received a lot of compliments on my skin since using this!”

You can buy it here

4. Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner

Product: Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner

Cost: $28.00

Glycolic Acid Percentage: A very gentle 2%

Why We Love It: Mario Badescu is already an award-winning skincare brand, loved by both celebrities and normal peeps like us, so it’s no surprise that we give the thumbs up to the Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner.

Reviews: Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner has 218 reviews on the MECCA Australia website and has a 4.6/5 star average. One satisfied customer said – 

“I keep buying this because it works! It’s perfect for my skin (combination/dry), I use it after removing my make up and cleansing with a cotton pad and it still pulls dirt and make up off my face. It doesn’t leave my face feeling dry or [t]ight after use. Absolutely perfect”

You can buy it here

5. The Drunk Elephant T.L.C Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

Product: The Drunk Elephant T.L.C Framboos Glycolic Night Serum

Cost: $138

Glycolic Acid Percentage: 12% 

Why We Love It: It is the priciest product of the lot, but we couldn’t not include it on this list. This serum is a blend of 12% glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric and salicylic acids and raspberry extract, resulting in an intensive night treatment that resurfaces lifeless, congested skin. 

Reviews: The Drunk Elephant T.L.C Framboos Glycolic Night Serum has 319 reviews on the MECCA Australia, and has an average of 4.6/5 stars. One happy shopper said –

“I purchased this following all the drunk elephant hype. I had stuck to my skincare routine for years and never explored acids and the like. This serum is absolutely amazing and prompted me to redo my skincare routine. This serum gently exfoliates and leaves my skin looking brighter, clearer and so smooth. After I used this for a week and caught up with my dad he even noticed how good my skin looked! I highly recommend.

You can buy it here

6. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

Product: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toning Solution

Cost: $14.50

Glycolic Acid Percentage: 7%

Why We Love It:The Ordinary is a stand out skincare brand, and a glycolic acid toner available at $14.50 is just a deal that’s too good to pass up.

Reviews: The Ordinary Glycolic Acid Toning Solution has 308 Adore Beauty Reviews and has an average rating of 4.6 stars. One happy buyer said – 

“I am 48 years old with sensitive ageing skin. I have been using Alpha H liquid gold for years. I needed a product that wasn’t as expensive but gave good results. This product ticked all the boxes. I do suggest if you haven’t used a glycolic acid before start slowly and build up. This product is ideal for my sensitive, finicky skin. Highly recommended. Give it a go and I think you will be pleasantly surprised.”

You can buy it here

7. Pixi Glycolic Body Peel

Product: Pixi Glycolic Body Peel

Cost: $46

Glycolic Acid Percentage: Not stated on the product

Why We Love It: The Pixi Glow Toner is a cult-beauty favourite, and we love that Pixi have created a glycolic peel especially for the body. Ideal for prepping your skin before a moisturising body lotion, this peel is also infused with witch hazel, cucumber and aloe. 

You can buy it here

8. Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Moisturiser 

Product: Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Moisturiser 

Cost: $70

Glycolic Acid Percentage: 10%

Why We Love It: You would think that an moisturiser and glycolic acid would be quite two disparate concepts, but the skin care experts at Peter Thomas Roth have managed to produce a hybrid moisturiser which softens and exfoliates. Sure, it is slightly upmarket, but a little goes a long way with this glycolic acid cream.

Reviews: Peter Thomas Roth Glycolic Acid 10% Moisturiser has 665 Google reviews and has an average 4.4/5 star rating. One satisfied customer said –

“For reference- I am 42, fair, combination skin and my skin becomes easily congested. For most of my adult life, I had to use another Glycolic moisturizer, then it was discontinued. I cannot use abrasive exfoliants (scrubs, Clarisonic) however, I need to gently chemically exfoliate everyday or I will break out from congestion.

I must have previously tried 20 other Glycolic moisturizers, ranging from the obscenely priced to drug store brands. PTR Glycolic is by far the best moisturizer I have ever used! I literally cannot live without it. If you have skin similar to mine, you should definitely try it. For me, it does everything it says that it will do… decongests, moisturizes, brightens and reduces fine lines. I seriously hope they never discontinue this. Holy Grail for me!”

You can buy it here

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