Glycolic Acid – How it Works and What it Does

lycolic acid is perhaps the best-known of a group of chemicals called fruit acids or alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA).   It is a superficial peeling agent, derived from sugar cane, so it can be considered a natural product. Citric acid, from oranges and other citrus fruits, also falls under the same classification as glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid is used to improve the skin’s appearance and texture.  It is often considered the most active and beneficial of the alpha-hydroxy-acids (AHA) due to its excellent capability to penetrate the skin.

Once applied, glycolic acid reacts with the upper layer of the skin, weakening the binding properties of the lipids that hold the dead skin cells together.  This allows the dead skin cells to be exfoliated, exposing live skin cells.  The result is a much-smoother skin surface and a more youthful appearance.  A secondary benefit is glycolic acid’s ability to draw moisturizers into the newly-exfoliated skin surface. This is why a professional glycolic treatment will be followed by neutralizing and moisturizing serums and creams.  It’s also why cosmetic counters often sell a complete system of skin care to counteract the corrosive actions of glycolic acid.

A Note of Caution:

Cosmetic exfoliants and moisturizers containing glycolic acid may leave the skin especially sensitive to the sun, so many skin care experts recommend using a sunscreen after exfoliating with glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid is found in skin care products in a variety of strengths ranging from 10 – 15% concentrations for over-the-counter products, and 15-70% concentrations in products used by professional Estheticians and Dermatologists.   Most salons use AHA exfoliation treatments with solutions ranging from 15-35% glycolic acid concentration.  Some proponents of glycolic acid suggest that products with a glycolic acid concentration of less than 10% are practically useless.  Concentrations of 70% are considered chemically hazardous and are rarely used.

Depending on the strength of the glycolic acid concentration and the pH (an important factor), glycolic acid can be used to achieve either a superficial, medium or deep peel.

  • Superficial peels remove only the dead cells of the skin – a process most often referred to as exfoliation.
  • Medium depth peels remove skin cells deeper into the dermal layer exposing living cells and often requires 10-12 days to heal.
  • Deep acid peels are medically performed, surgical peels, that remove living tissue and is usually reserved for severely sun damaged, wrinkled for acne-scarred, skin.  Healing and recovery time can be significant.

A professional concentration of 35% glycolic acid will work beneath the skin to stimulate collagen and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.  Working below the surface there is generally very little visible peeling and with repetitive and continuous use, improvement to skin tone and texture occurs over time.

Once inside the skin’s cell, glycolic acid will serve as a catalyst for the formation of new collagen which will reduce the appearance of wrinkles on the skin’s surface.

Glycolic acid is effective for treating eczema and dermatitis, fine lines and wrinkles, stretch marks and is excellent for general toning and for improving the texture of the skin. Glycolic acid has been proven to be very effective in the treatment of hyperpigmentation, melasma, acne scars and oily skin.

About the pH

If buying an over-the-counter glycolic acid product, it’s important to pay attention to the pH concentration.   In professional strength peels, the Ph will be as low as 0.6, whereas, over-the-counter products will have a pH concentration of as much as 2.5.

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