A Complete Guide to Glycolic Acid Cleansers - The Dermatology Review

A Complete Guide to Glycolic Acid Cleansers



You’ve been told again and again that exfoliation is vital for maintaining glowing, youthful skin. What comes to mind when you think of exfoliation? Walnut shells and microbeads? These ingredients can often be too abrasive for your skin, causing small microtears and irritation, which is why we’d like to introduce you to glycolic acid. Using an acid on your face can seem pretty intimidating, but rest assured that glycolic acid is proven to be both safe and effective. It is available in a variety of skin care products, with the most popular being a glycolic acid cleanser. In this post, we’re covering how to use a glycolic acid cleanser for clear, glowing skin, along with the top 5 best glycolic acid cleansers.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a member of the class of chemical compounds known as alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). These compounds consist of a carboxylic acid (-COOH) substituted with a hydroxyl group (-OH) on the adjacent carbon in the alpha position, hence the name. AHAs can be naturally derived from fruit and milk sugars or synthetically produced. For example, glycolic acid can be isolated from natural sources like sugarcane, sugar beets, pineapple, cantaloupe, and unripe grapes.

What makes glycolic acid unique?

AHAs are frequently used in skin care products because they have the ability to exfoliate the skin, stimulate the skin’s natural regeneration process, and help the skin to retain moisture. Other AHAs include lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid. Glycolic acid is unique because it has the smallest molecular size out of all the AHAs. So why should you care about molecular size? Molecular size matters because the smaller a molecule, the more easily it gets into the skin. Thus, glycolic acid penetrates the skin better and faster than all of the others. This is why glycolic acid is considered to be the strongest AHA.

What does glycolic acid do for skin?

Glycolic acid is an exceptional multi-tasker. It exerts anti-inflammatory, keratolytic, and antioxidant effects, and acts as both an exfoliator and a moisturizer. That’s a lot to take in, so we’re going to cover each benefit of glycolic acid below so you’ll know exactly what glycolic acid does for your skin.

Exfoliates + smooths
Glycolic acid exfoliates the skin by targeting corneocytes (dead skin cells that make up the top layers of skin) in a process called corneocyte desquamation. By enhancing their breakdown and increasing the separation of skin cells, the rate of cell turnover is increased, leading to smoother, brighter skin.

Boosts skin hydration
While exfoliation is typically associated with skin dryness and peeling due to the removal of the upper layers of dead skin cells, AHAs are known to produce the opposite effect. Remember, AHAs have a hydroxyl (-OH) group in the alpha position. This hydroxyl group enables AHAs to function as humectant moisturizers. A humectant moisturizer is an ingredient that sits on your skin and grabs onto water, slowing it from evaporating. This keeps your skin hydrated. In addition, glycolic acid has the ability to increase the supply of hyaluronic acid in the extracellular matrix (ECM). Hyaluronic acid is the key molecule involved in skin moisture and can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Increasing levels of hyaluronic acid keeps the skin hydrated and helps it to look more plump and firm.

Promotes a youthful complexion
AHAs, including glycolic acid, have also been found to stimulate collagen production. Collagen is a structural protein naturally produced by the body that is responsible for keeping skin strong and firm. Collagen production starts to decline around age 25 and continues to decrease with age. Collagen levels also decrease due to factors such as smoking, sugar consumption, and overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Ultimately, this decrease leads to wrinkles and sagging skin. Even though many skin care products include collagen as an ingredient, it is simply too large to penetrate the skin deep enough to have an anti-aging effect. This is why using ingredients that can deeply penetrate the skin and stimulate collagen synthesis, such as glycolic acid, provide effective anti-aging benefits.

Helps prevent acne
If you have acne-prone skin, you may want to consider using a glycolic acid cleanser. Blemishes form due to excess sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria clogging pores, followed by inflammation and swelling. Glycolic acid sloughs away the dead skin cells that can clog pores and cause acne breakouts. In addition, its moisturizing effects keep the skin hydrated and soft, allowing blemishes to heal better.

Should I use glycolic acid?

What’s great about glycolic acid is that it can be used by almost every skin type, except for those with very sensitive skin and those with rosacea. Glycolic acid can improve many common skin conditions, including blackheads, enlarged pores, discoloration, acne, and signs of aging. If you have one of these skin conditions, you may want to consider adding a glycolic acid cleanser to your skin care routine. Glycolic acid is also available in different types of products, which we will discuss below.

Glycolic acid comes in many different forms + strengths

While this post is primarily focused on using a glycolic acid cleanser, it’s good to know what other types of skin care products contain glycolic acid. The most potent form of glycolic acid comes in a chemical peel that is administered by a dermatologist. They can use solutions with as high as 70% glycolic acid for in-office treatments. There are also at-home glycolic acid peels, which can be up to 30% glycolic acid. Other home treatments include creams, serums, and toners. The strength of glycolic acid in these products varies, but is typically between 8 and 30%. Lastly, a glycolic acid cleanser will most likely provide somewhere between 3 to 10% glycolic acid.

How often should I use a glycolic acid cleanser?

In the previous section, we explained how a glycolic acid cleanser usually provides the lowest strength of glycolic acid out of all the different glycolic acid products. This means that cleansers provide gentle exfoliation, and you can typically use them once daily. However, if your face begins to feel irritated or shows signs of sensitivity with red, dry patches, you should decrease how often you use your glycolic acid cleanser.

What about negative effects?

There are very few negative effects associated with the glycolic acid products available for at-home use. You may notice some tingling and redness during and after use, but these effects should subside. Since glycolic acid causes exfoliation of the top layers of skin, you may want to consider discontinuing other exfoliating products (i.e. retinoids, scrubs) when you’re using a glycolic acid product to avoid irritation. In addition, the exfoliating effect of glycolic acid can cause your skin to become more prone to sun damage. Thus, it is recommended to use a broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen daily if you decide to include glycolic acid in your skin care regimen.

Top 5 Best Glycolic Acid Cleansers

Neutrogena Pore Refining Exfoliating Cleanser
Neutrogena offers an affordable drugstore glycolic acid cleanser, known as Pore Refining Exfoliating Cleanser, which contains both glycolic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA). It is said to refine the look of skin by penetrating deep into pores to remove dirt, oil, and makeup that can clog and enlarge pores.

SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser
SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser is a foaming gel cleanser with glycolic acid that is said to exfoliate and smooth skin texture while simultaneously conditioning and softening skin. This cleanser contains a mild surfactant system and an optimized 3% concentration of key ingredients combining glycolic acid and glycerin.

Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser
Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser is an oil-free, anti-aging and exfoliating cleansing gel helps to effectively remove impurities, makeup and excess oil. It provides a gentle dose of glycolic acid (only 3%), which helps improve the look of pores, smoothness, brightness and clarity while helping reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles and uneven skin tone.

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser
Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser is a daily foaming cleanser that combines two AHAs (glycolic acid and lactic acid) to gently cleanse away oil, makeup, and surface impurities to reveal softer, smoother skin.

Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser
Our top pick when it comes to glycolic acid cleansers would definitely be Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser. This cleanser is formulated to gently cleanse and exfoliate the skin while removing dirt and makeup. It contains glycolic acid to help refine pores, control excess oil, and smooth away any surface-level roughness.

Wikipedia “Glycolic Acid”, Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2010; 3: 135–142, Formulyst.com “Acids in Skin Care: The Difference Between Glycolic, Lactic and Salicylic Acids”

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