The Holy Grail ingredient for exfoliation (and all-round better skin)

Everything you need to know about the AHA

Beauty Crew Contributing Editor / February 28 2022

Good things come to those who use glycolic acid. It’s kind of an all-round superstar in the skin department. Up there as one of the best ingredients for your skin (yep, every skin type will love it), if you two haven’t met yet, prepare for your skin to change for the better. Here’s *everything* you need to know about glycolic acid.

What is glycolic acid?

“Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that delivers powerful chemical exfoliation,” says skin care expert Peter Thomas Roth, who heroes glycolic acid in several of his namesake products (fun fact: his first-ever products all featured glycolic acid). Most commonly derived from sugarcane, this natural fruit acid exfoliates the outermost dead layer of the skin to reveal a brighter and more even complexion. It’s a gentler way to exfoliate and your skin will thank you for it.

How does glycolic acid benefit skin?

Alpha-H’s Director Michelle Doherty calls glycolic acid the Holy Grail for exfoliation. So what does glycolic acid do for your complexion? “It works to shift dead skin cells from the surface of your skin, revealing fresh skin and effectively diminishing wrinkles, pigmentation and sun damage for a more even-toned and luminous complexion,” she explains. “When glycolic acid is applied to the skin, it activates the production of more collagen fibres and cell turnover. In addition, skin hydration is also boosted thanks to its ability to stimulate your skin’s natural production of hyaluronic acid.”

Um, where has this ingredient been all our lives?!

One of the key things that sets glycolic acid apart from other acids is its molecular size. “Glycolic acid’s small molecular size allows it to penetrate deeper into the skin, triggering exfoliation on the walls of pores and reducing the build-up of cells in pores, which can lead to breakouts,” says Doherty. “Larger complementary ingredients are able to latch onto the smaller glycolic acid molecules, allowing them to be transported deeper into the skin, maximising their impact.”

“Glycolic acid visibly helps improve the look of fine lines, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, pores, smoothness and radiance.”
Peter Thomas Roth
Peter Thomas Roth Clinicare Skin Care

Glycolic acid as a dandruff remedy

Glycolic acid is great for skin because of its micro-exfoliating properties. 

However, this also makes it an excellent weapon in fighting persistent dandruff.

The unlikely remedy has been pioneered by the TikTok community as a one and done solution for helping to shed those pesky skin particles with ease. 

TikTokers have been soaking their scalps in the uber affordable The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($16.30 at Adore Beauty) to help slough away dead skin cells and promote cellular turnover.

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

The solution is applied and massaged into the scalp and roots of the hair after shampoo, and then followed by a hydrating spritz of rosewater to minimise the risk of drying out the skin. 

Repeat fortnightly for best results and to keep that dreaded dandruff at bay.

The result? Clean strands and a purified, flake-free scalp.

But there’s more…

There are also many other ways to reap the benefits of glycolic acid…

Calistatee (AKA the TikToker who clued us in on the anti-dandruff hack) has been experimenting with glycolic acid and uses it in many different ways. 

In a recent video, she shares her favourite ways to “use glycolic acid everywhere but my face”. 

The versatile skin care ingredient helps the content creator deal with everything from butt and back acne and strawberry legs to ingrown hairs, and even cracked feet.

Calistatee simply applies The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($16.30 at Adore Beauty) to a cotton pad and gently sweeps the product over the intended area of treatment.

Who should be using glycolic acid?

Given glycolic acid’s long list of benefits, it’s unsurprisingly suitable for most skin types. “Mature, sun damaged, prematurely aged and acne-scarred skins will find it particularly beneficial,” notes Doherty.

“Because it is an exfoliant that accelerates cell turnover, it’s best suited to skins 25 years or over, where this process has slowed down,” she adds.

Low concentrations of glycolic acid are considered safe to use during pregnancy, however it’s always best to consult your doctor first.

What percentage of glycolic acid is best?

“The highest percentage is most effective but it also depends on the formulation,” says Roth. “In general, glycolic acid products work for all skin types including combination, oily, sensitive, dry and problem skin.  However, before using a glycolic product, I recommend checking the label to make sure it’s the right product for you. See which skin types it’s made for and follow the suggested usage.”

Doherty adds that the secret to the efficacy of Alpha-H’s delivery of glycolic acid in their Liquid Gold formulations lies in the low pH delivery they employ. “A higher pH results in a weaker peel as the acid has been partially neutralised, whereas a lower pH delivery results in deeper peeling, and the more of an effect it can impart on the live skin cells. With a pH of around 2.8, some 90 per cent of the glycolic acid in Liquid Gold is bioavailable to be utilised by our skin.”

“As all our Liquid Gold formulations deliver the AHA in a low pH formula, they are very active; this is the reason you will experience a tingly sensation when you apply a Liquid Gold product, and is also why you will then see visible and measurable results in the skin.”

Like most active ingredients, start off slow, then work your way up

“When incorporating glycolic acid into your skin care routine, a good rule of thumb is to use it two to three times a week at first and build to daily use if well-tolerated,” says Roth.

What steps in your skin care routine should include glycolic acid?

“It can be in ALL your steps or just the ones you want!” says Roth. “For example, my Glycolic Solutions collection includes a 3% Glycolic Cleanser, 8% Glycolic Toner and 10% Glycolic Moisturizer. Just choose the product or percentage of glycolic that best suits your needs and you’re good to go. Each of my glycolic products is gentle, yet powerful and effective.”

8 glycolic acid products to try

By now you’re probably halfway to Priceline or have opened up another browser and are already searching for ways to get your glycolic acid fix. We don’t blame you. In fact, we’ve pulled together a list of some of the best glycolic acid skin care products you can buy - and there’s basically something for every step of your skin care routine so you can pick the one that fits in best with your existing regimen. 

#8 / Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner
This toner has earned itself a cult status and is a popular glycolic formula for skin that’s dry or congested. It contains two per cent glycolic acid and grapefruit extract (also an AHA), which allows it to exfoliate and improve dullness, while also addressing signs of ageing and minimising the appearance of acne scars.
Percentage of glycolic acid: 2%
Cost: $27 at MECCA

Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner

#7 / NIP+FAB Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme
If you’re after a more potent version of the brand’s best-selling glycolic acid peel pads, try the Glycolic Fix Night Pads, which contain Nip and Fab’s highest level of glycolic acid at five per cent. Addressing pigmentation and acne scars in addition to gently exfoliating, we also love that this formula contains salicylic acid, lactic acid and hyaluronic acid - the gang’s all here!
Percentage of glycolic acid: 5%
Cost: was $36.99 now $25.89 at Priceline

NIP+FAB Glycolic Fix Night Pads Extreme

#6 / Murad Age Reform AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser
Welcome to the cleanest skin of your life; This highly-active exfoliating face wash means business. It manually exfoliates with jojoba beads, and then there’s glycolic acid and lactic acid and salicylic acid in there for a thorough chemical exfoliation. Hello, glow.
Cost: $62 at Adore Beauty

Murad Age Reform AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

#5 / Alpha-H Liquid Gold
Made in Australia, this glycolic acid treatment not only works wonders on ageing skin, pigmentation and sun damage, and improving the clarity and brightness of skin, but it will also uncomplicate your skin care routine because it works as a toner, exfoliator, serum and moisturiser in one. “Our cult product, Liquid Gold is recommended for use on alternate evenings. Just cleanse and apply Liquid Gold for salon results in one easy step,” says Doherty. You can read our reviews for it in our round-up of the best toners.
Percentage of glycolic acid: 5%
Cost: was $69.95 now $59.46 at Adore Beauty

Alpha-H Liquid Gold

#4 / Andalou Naturals Brightening Pumpkin Honey Glycolic Mask
Brighter, smoother and more supple skin - and you get to kick back with a mask on. Sounds good to us! Glycolic acid along with pumpkin puree work hard in the Andalou Naturals Brightening Pumpkin Honey Glycolic Mask to shift those dead skin cells to reveal the glow you always knew you had hiding under there somewhere.
Cost: $20.99 at Chemist Warehouse

Andalou Naturals Brightening Pumpkin Honey Glycolic Mask

#3 / The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
Mildly exfoliate your way to a smooth, even and glowing complexion with this bargain buy. The formula contains soothing aloe vera, ginseng and Tasmanian pepperberry and has a pH of 3.6 for maximum effectiveness without the risk of irritation; if you’re wanting to ease into the world of glycolic, give this one a go.
Percentage of glycolic acid: 7%
Cost: $16.30 at Adore Beauty

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution

#2 / Paula’s Choice RESIST Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA
We’ll let you in on a secret - it’s not just your face that can benefit from glycolic acid. Exfoliate head to toe (and top up your hydration levels while you’re at it) with this Paula’s Choice body lotion. It’s also just what you need if you suffer from red bumps, bacne and rough patches of skin.
Percentage of glycolic acid: 10%
Cost: was $43 now $36.55 at Paula's Choice

Paula’s Choice RESIST Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA

#1 / Malin+Goetz Glycolic Acid Face Pads
Face pads are a popular way to get your glycolic acid fix, and this Malin+Goetz one boasts a physician-grade 10 per cent glycolic acid in an at-home formula. Plus, it only contains three ingredients - water, glycolic acid, and ammonium hydroxide. It’s not suitable for sensitive skin types, but if it’s something strong and effective you need, this is it.
Percentage of glycolic acid: 10%
Cost: $66 at MECCA

Malin+Goetz Glycolic Acid Face Pads

If you’re looking for the best ingredient for acne and blackheads, salicylic acid is for you - here’s everything you need to know about the beta hydroxy acid (BHA).

Main image credit: @deciem

Chelsea is BEAUTYcrew’s Contributing Editor. She has a sweet spot for anything that claims to make skin glow and won’t leave the house without a slick of mascara. Chelsea has 10 years of experience as a beauty editor and her words can be found on BEAUTYcrew, Women’s Health, Daily Addict, The Joye and Primped.