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How to Use Glycolic Acid to Get Rid of Acne

Best Glycolic Acid Treatments for Acne & Acne Scars

by Christine GlasgowNovember 22, 2016

If you suffer from acne, and/or have to live with the ugly, and seemingly very permanent problem of acne scarring, then trying to treat and get rid of acne can be a hugely frustrating and often rather expensive thing.

For many the standard OTC treatments they can pick up in almost any drugstore do very little to help. By standard acne products we mean those containing salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Often they help a little, with active acne at least, but for more severe cases they don’t seem to do enough.

Treating acne scarring is even harder. Often these are more than ‘little blemishes’, they are rather deep, even pitted scars that are even hard to cover with makeup. Some treatments help lighten dark spots but the scarring is far harder to get rid of or even make less noticeable.

Some people in facing this dilemma though seem to have found an answer; glycolic acid.

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is one of a family of acids known as AHAs – Alpha Hydroxy Acids. As scientific and artificial as the name makes it sounds glycolic acid is actually a naturally occurring substance, one that is extracted from sugar cane, grapes, some types of melon and even pineapples. It is a colorless, odorless liquid that looks very benign.

Even though it is an acid, glycolic acid is relatively gentle on the skin, although it is a ‘stronger’ acid than salicylic acid which is more commonly found in acne treatments. It is harder in general to find glycolic acid products (more about that in a moment) but as the treatment gains in popularity that is likely to change.


How Does Glycolic Acid Work to Get Rid of Acne?

Of all of the AHA compounds glycolic acid has the smallest molecules, and that may be the key to why it works so well for some acne sufferers. Because the molecules are so small they penetrate the outer layers of the skin rather easily, getting down into the pores where they really get to work.

The pores of those with acne prone skin are simply more prone to clogging. They get clogged with dead skin cells, dirt and dust and the oil naturally produced by the skin to keep it supple. As many acne sufferers also experience an overproduction of these oils – which are collectively known as sebum – that can be a real problem.

Glycolic Acid is an exfoliating acid, meaning that it removes the dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. It’s also believed that glycolic acid is a substance that can help speed up the production of healthy new skin cells, leading to softer and yes, clearer skin.


How Does Glycolic Acid Work to Get Rid of Acne Scars?

Part of the reason that glycolic acid can be very helpful in lessening the appearance of acne scars is that it has those great exfoliation properties. Dead skin cells dull the skin, making scars look more prominent, so a glycolic acid exfoliation can lessen their appearance immediately.

There is more though. Scars heal and lessen in appearance when the collagen in the skin is renewed. Glycolic acid has been shown to help speed up and increase the natural production of collagen, and so speed the healing of scars. This is especially effective in older people, as by the time you reach your late twenties natural collagen production slows anyway.


What Kinds of Glycolic Acid Products are Available? 

As we mentioned in passing earlier, over the counter glycolic acid treatments are not always as easy to find as the more common salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide treatments. There are an increasing number of them out there though and they do come in several different forms:

  • Face cleansers
  • Body wash
  • Toner
  • Lotion
  • Peel off mask

As you might imagine, each of these types of product acts on acne in a slightly different way:


1. Glycolic Acid Face Cleansers

These cleansers are usually marketed primarily for their anti-aging properties but they have been shown to be an effective way to treat acne, especially whiteheads and blackheads. These are also products that are pretty easy and straightforward to use, but the following facts and tips should be kept in mind:

  • Most glycolic acid cleansers have an acid concentration of between 4% and 10%. Start off with the lowest concentration until you know how your unique skin reacts.
  • Glycolic acid cleansers are not designed for, or even good at removing makeup, so that should be removed first, using a gentle makeup remover.
  • The face should be dry when a glycolic acid cleanser is applied. Then, after it’s allowed to sit for a few minutes add water and wash in the usual manner.
  • Always follow up the use of a glycolic acid cleanser with the application of a light, oil free moisturizer.
  • If you experience excessive redness, excessive drying or excessive peeling for more than 2-3 days you should either reduce the concentration strength or discontinue use altogether.


2. Glycolic Acid Toners 

Glycolic acid toners are stronger – and sometimes harsher – than facial cleansers but can also be more effective, especially when being used to get rid of acne scars:

  • These toners have a higher concentration of glycolic acid, usually 11-12%
  • Glycolic acid toners not only exfoliate the skin and encourage the production of collagen but also help balance skin PH as well.
  • Glycolic acid toners should be applied to a clean, makeup free face using a clean cotton ball. They are not designed to be rinsed off.
  • Moisturizing  with a light, oil free moisturizer after toner use is a must, as these products can be rather drying.
  • People with very sensitive skin should use glycolic acid toners with great care, as it can burn very sensitive skin.
  • If excessive redness, drying or peeling occur and persist for longer than a day or so you should stop using the product causing it and look for something gentler.
  • Glycolic acid will make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, so ensure that you are wearing SPF protection whenever you go out.


3. Glycolic Acid Body Wash

Body acne, especially back acne (aka bacne) can be as troublesome and upsetting as facial acne. Glycolic acid body washes can be used to help combat it, taking the place of standard soaps or body washes.


4. Glycolic Acid Lotions

There are an increasing number of glycolic acid lotions available that offer a slightly different way to treat acne than their liquid counterparts:

  • Most OTC glycolic acid lotions have an acid concentration of 10%
  • These lotions are best for use to get rid of whiteheads and blackheads
  • These lotions are not suitable for use on sensitive skin
  • Some glycolic acid lotions also contain benzoyl peroxide. This can make them more effective but they are very drying, so they should be used with great care.


5. Glycolic Acid Peel Off Masks

There was a time when glycolic peels were a doctor’s office only treatment administered by dermatologists. There are now several ‘home peel’ treatments available but again, these should be used with great care and with the following tips kept in mind:

  • At home glycolic acid peels vary in strength from 30-50% acid concentration. Occasionally, usually online, you may come across a product offering an even stronger concentration. Don’t be tempted by these though. This is a professional strength and should only be administered by a doctor.
  • Glycolic acid peels are rarely suitable for sensitive skin; they are simply too harsh.
  • Each glycolic peel product does come with a slightly differing set of application instructions. It is essential that you follow them to the letter for the best results.
  • Be prepared for the fact that the peel will produce a stinging feeling and it will redden the skin. This is usually harmless and will fade in a day or so but don’t do a peel when you have a big date in a few hours or are heading to work soon. Make a date of it instead; do the peel on Netflix night when you can stay home bare faced in comfort!
  • A glycolic peel will make your skin very sensitive to the sun, so a high SPF product should be worn whenever you are outside for a few days after the peel.


Some Final Thoughts 

For some people, especially those who suffer from moderate to serious acne, glycolic acid can be very helpful in your quest to get rid of acne and eliminate acne scars, as long as it is used with care.

We are interested in hearing from you now though. Have you ever tried using glycolic acid to treat your acne? Did it work out well, or did you suffer side effects? Could you recommend it to others? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.

Christine Glasgow
Canadian girl addicted to beauty and fashion. I'm a Blogger, Entrepreneur and web influencer 👑 I mostly talk about anything related to skin care and beauty. I created this site to share science-based information on skin conditions, treatments and skin care.
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