Glycolic acid: From peels to toners and serums, what is glycolic acid and what does it do to the skin?

16th July 2021 | Author: Jenny Tai

Glycolic acid has become a skincare staple in recent years – alongside the likes of Vitamin C and hyaluronic acid – and is found in various concentrations in cleansers, toners, serums, and masks.

It’s largely associated with helping to treat breakouts but it’s much more versatile. In fact, it can help with hyperpigmentation, dull, tired-looking skin and much more.

In the latest in our Ingredients Spotlight series, we’re focusing on these benefits and explain how you can incorporate more glycolic acid into your routine – often without spending a fortune.

Glycolic acid has become a skincare staple in recent years – alongside the likes of Vitamin C and hyaluronic acid – and is found in various concentrations in cleansers, toners, serums, and masks.

It’s largely associated with helping to treat breakouts but it’s much more versatile. In fact, it can help with hyperpigmentation, dull, tired-looking skin, and much more.

FURTHER READING: Salicylic acid: What does salicylic acid do and why is it so good for acne?

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid can be found in sugar cane and fruit acids. It’s one of the smallest molecules that forms part of the AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) family. You can read more about AHAs in our guide to the acids in your skincare.

Put simply glycolic acid, and other AHAs, are a much gentler way to exfoliate the skin, as opposed to abrasive scrubs. And because it’s water-soluble, it can penetrate deeper into the skin to renew new skin cells, too.

What does glycolic acid do to skin?

Glycolic Acid skincare ingredient checkermamabella | mamabella

Being able to penetrate deeply into the skin means glycolic acid is able to remove dead skin cells. This helps make your skin look brighter and even out its tone, all the while encouraging new cells to appear.

Due to these skin-renewing properties, glycolic acid treats wrinkles, hyperpigmentation and acne. You can get different levels of glycolic acid – from tiny percentages up to around 10% – and this refers to the concentration and strength of the acid in a particular product.

You’re unlikely to get higher than 10% in consumer products because any higher than that and it can penetrate your skin too deeply and cause chemical burns, unless used as instructed. Anything higher than 10% should be treated by a dermatologist.

Best glycolic acid products

There are plenty of products that contain glycolic acid from peels, to cleansers, toners, serums and masks. At various price points.

Due to its exfoliating properties, it’s worth introducing glycolic acid slowly. Especially if you have sensitive skin. There is also the chance that it will cause skin purging, which is a temporary but annoying side effect.

When using glycolic pads, for instance, check the percentage of glycolic acid. If it’s 5% or more use every other night.

We recommend you use an SPF of at least 50 on a daily basis anyway, but this is even more important with glycolic acid due to the fact it removes dead skin cells and leaves the new ones at risk of UV damage. You can find out more in our guide to the best SPF products for your skin type. 

♥︎ REN Clear Skincare – Micro Polish Cleanser 

£23 | Buy now

Why we love it: REN skincare is all about clean beauty. Not only do its products make your skin feel clean, but its bottles are each made from ocean plastic tubes made from post-consumer recycled plastic.

All of its ingredients are sustainably sourced and sustainably packaged and its products are more on the affordable than expensive side.

Its Micro Polish Cleanser is a much-loved go-to for dull and tired skin because it gives a clean and smooth finish to your skin texture. What’s more, in this cleanser are amber microbeads to gently scrub the dead skin away. With pineapple as a glycolic acid exfoliant and papaya as a skin rejuvenator.

READ NEXT: Best cleanser: Discover which face cleanser best suits your skin from oily to dry and acne-prone

Buy now from REN

♥︎ Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser

£14.50 | Buy now

Why we love it: This foaming cleanser is highly rated as a brightening solution to address dull, congested and hyper-pigmented skin. This cleanser breaks down makeup, oil and impurities while the foaming exfoliant helps to retexture uneven skin.

With continued use fine lines, wrinkles, old acne marks, and age spots are diminished.

This cleanser contains a blend of chamomile, marshmallow, sage, St. John’s Wort, and Yarrow extracts which offers rejuvenating benefits that hels re-balance and leave skin radiant. Due to the fact this cleaner is an exfoliant you won’t actually need to use a scrub exfoliant on top of this, meaning its a two-in-one product.

READ NEXT: Best dark spot corrector: Brighten your skin with our pick of the best age spot creams and toners

Buy now from Beauty Bay

♥︎ The Ordinary: Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

£6.80 | Buy now

Why we love it: This toning solution offers mild exfoliation for the skin, so is better for people with sensitive skin (but you should still proceed with caution when adding any acid).

Just like AHAs, this solution removes dead skin cells to give you fresher, brighter skin. This will improve your skin texture and if you’ve got scarring from acne, using this on a continued basis will offer a quick improvement.

The reason it’s so mild is that The Ordinary uses Tasmanian Pepperberry to help reduce the irritation typically caused by AHAs.

This is what gives the toner its pale colour. This glycolic acid toner also contains ginseng root and aloe vera to give you radiance and soothing benefits. This particular toner will give you results quickly and is visible within a week.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

♥︎ Nip + Fab: Glycolic Fix Daily Cleansing Pads

£10 | Buy now

Why we love it: Nip + Fab is the younger sister of Rodial, but its ingredients are just as effective as the premium brands. These cleansing pads are soaked in 2.7% glycolic acid which is gentle enough for everyday use and you’ll get roughly two months of use from one pot.

Despite being called a cleansing pad, consider this product as closer to that of a toner because each one retextures and resurfaces your skin. They also contain witch hazel to help tone.

What’s more, these pads contain hyaluronic acid to give you moisture without the feeling of dryness, and soothing blue daisy helps to reveal brighter and smoother-looking skin.

Despite the low concentration making these suitable for everyday use, Nip + Fab also sells a sensitive version, as well as Glycolic Fix Night Pads. The latter are soaked in 5% of glycolic acid and you use these every other night.

READ NEXT: What does toner do – and why is it so important?

Buy now from Amazon

♥︎ Pixi: Glow tonic

£18 | Buy now

Why we love it: If you’ve not heard of Pixi, the brand is developed by makeup artist and product developer Petra Strand. Pixi’s mission is to bring out the natural beauty in all women and the entire skincare range is infused with botanicals and beneficial ingredients.

One of its bestsellers is this much-loved tonic. It deeply cleans pores by sweeping away excess oil and impurities and with 5% of glycolic acid it is gentle enough to use day and night. This toner also contains ginseng to boost circulations, aloe vera for hydration and is alcohol-free toner, meaning it won’t dry your skin out.

This is a particular hit with people with acne or who have skin prone to breakouts.

READ NEXT: What causes acne and how to get rid of it

Buy now from Pixi

The INKEY List: Alpha Hydroxy Serum

£8.99 | Buy now


Why we love it: The Inkey List is one of the most innovative beauty brands on the market and this serum 10% glycolic acid, and 1% of hyaluronic acid. It gently exfoliates your skin to give you smoother skin texture along with a natural brightness.

Although the bottle looks small, you only need to use this serum at night time, and a small amount goes a long way.

Again, with this acid ensure you start off slowly and use 2-3 times per week to build skin tolerance.

Buy now from Boots

♥︎ Typology: Exfoliating Serum 10% Glycolic Acid

£11.80 | Buy from Typology

Why we love it: Typology skincare is finally available in the UK and, just like The Ordinary and The Inkey List, all of Typology’s products are high-quality, natural, ethically-sourced, and vegan-friendly.

Simple, clean packaging gives it a great appeal and with 10% glycolic acid, this serum has the power to exfoliate your skin, treat blackheads, blemishes, and uneven complexion.

You may notice slight redness to your skin after your first use but this will subside after several uses.

FURTHER READING: Typology Skincare comes to the UK: Our new favourite, affordable beauty brand is now live in the UK

Buy now from Typology

♥︎ Glow Recipe: Watermelon Sleeping Mask

£20.50 | Buy now

Why we love it: Created by two friends, the idea behind Glow Recipe is that skincare should be fun, not pretentious.

One of the brand’s first products was its Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask and it’s still a bestseller today.

Suitable for all skin types, using natural ingredients like watermelon to offer intense hydration, it wards off fine lines, wrinkles, and dark spots. Adding in AHAs will buff away dead skin, giving you a smooth soft texture to your sin.

It also doubles up as a sleeping mask to leave your skin bouncy, fresh, smooth, and hydrated.

Buy now from Cult Beauty

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