When it comes to exfoliating, it’s time to graduate from syrupy gels packed with tiny grains. Yes, these scrubs — also known as physical exfoliators — feel like they’re getting the job done. But sometimes, we need something tougher. That’s why, in dire cases, I reach for a chemical exfoliator.
Exfoliating with chemicals, really? Yes, and here’s why: These potions of alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids (a.k.a. the stuff that makes your face really, really clean) seep deep into pores to slough away all of the dirt, grime, and impurities lingering within. And, unlike bead-filled scrubs, these exfoliants are much gentler, making them a safer choice for even the most sensitive of skin types.
Sure, there are tons of chemically exfoliating ingredients to choose from, but one that always leaves my skin with a refined and fresh feel is a dermatologist-approved hero: glycolic acid.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
The name may sound intimidating, but Dr. Loretta Ciraldo — the creator of luxury skincare line Dr. Loretta and industry veteran of 40 years — says glycolic acid is actually one of the most popular alpha hydroxy acids (also known as “fruit acids”) in the world of dermatology.
According to Ciraldo, you can think of this chemical exfoliant as a grime dejector: “It un-glues dead cells from each other at the skin surface and in our pores,” she says. “Glycolic acid is excellent for lessening breakouts and improving pore appearance, fading hyperpigmentation, including melasma and acne scars, firming skin, and lessening the appearance of lines and wrinkles.”
Who Can Use Glycolic Acid?
This signature skincare ingredient is great for a variety of issues, Ciraldo explains. It’s a great fit for anyone with acne-prone or oily skin, as well as anyone dealing with hyperpigmentation or dry skin conditions like keratosis pilaris and seborrheic dermatitis. Glycolic acid is usually well-tolerated by most moderately sensitive skin types, as it can be diluted and adjusted depending on your skin’s tolerance. “If you are using a more concentrated strength, like 10%, you can always neutralize it by rinsing it off with water,” she notes. If your skin is ultra-sensitive, however, she suggests steering clear.
How To Add Glycolic Acid Into Your Skincare Routine
If you’ve got the time and money, you can easily get a glycolic acid treatment, widely touted as a “glycolic peel,” at your trusted skincare professional’s office. Dr. Ciraldo says that you can get an in-office treatment with up to 70 percent concentration, but the strength will depend on what your dermatologist finds most suitable for your skin type.
But, Ciraldo notes that at-home products can be a more time-sensitive (and wallet-friendly) alternative. “It’s been shown that using 10% at home regularly can produce excellent visual improvement of an array of skin issues,” she says. And that’s where these 11 glycolic acid-filled products come in. Time to infuse this skin saver into your at-home regimen.
The Best Glycolic Acid-Filled Skincare Products
Moon Juice Beauty Shroom Exfoliating Acid Potion
This powerful elixir is a fan-favorite for its intense exfoliation. It’s basically a facial in a bottle. The potent mixture of gunk-removing glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids rapidly increases cellular turnover, helping unclog and minimize pore appearance. In one single swipe, you’ll have your most youthful glow yet.
Dr. Loretta Micro Peel Peptide Pads
These medical-grade peel pads are saturated in a powerful glycolic acid formula. And while they’ll remove each and every impurity lingering in your pores, you won’t feel the burn. Since they’re fueled with soothing chamomile, these peel pads will give your complexion a total detox without any sign of irritation. Sensitive skin types, these are for you.
Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Drunk Elephant’s night serum is basically magic in a bottle. The gel texture seeps into your skin to clarify and remove excess dirt, oil, and pollutants and is packed with skin-purifying ingredients like glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric, and salicylic acids. Plus, it tackles just about every skin concern under the sun. Discoloration, wrinkles, enlarged pores, and oiliness won’t stand a chance.
Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner
A budget-friendly toner that has a mild formula to exfoliate your skin without any harsh grains or beads? We’re sold. It’s fortified with glycolic acid and grapefruit extract to gently rid your face of dirt and grime, while aloe vera calms things down. The result? You’re glowing.
Caudalie Glycolic Peel
This washable peel is as impressive as any in-office treatment. It visibly tightens pores and tones skin while sucking away oil and renewing your skin’s texture, and will mattify even the slickest of oily skin types.
BIOSSANCE Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Facial
Two is better than one. This physical and chemical exfoliator will get rid of every inch of pollutants from your skin. Squalane and glycolic acid work together to go deep into your pores, while gentle mineral spheres mildly scrub the surface of your skin, ridding it of any dry patches and flakes. Skin will be refined from the inside-out, for brighter and smoother days ahead.
Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser
It’s a cleanser, but also an exfoliant, which means your skin will get the best purifying treatment in a single wash. The oil-free formula serves a hefty anti-aging punch, cleansing your face of even the most stubborn of dirt – and waterproof makeup.
Indie Lee Banish Stick
When you feel that blemish coming in on the day you REALLY wish it wasn’t, there’s no time to waste. This spot treatment goes straight to the root of any problematic pimple thanks to its formula of powerhouse ingredients: glycolic and salicylic acid, witch hazel, and zinc sulfate. Together, they make the ultimate zit zapper.
OLEHENRIKSEN Stay Balanced Oil Control Cleansing Cloths
Toss your makeup removing wipes in the garbage because these cleansing cloths are about to give them a run for their money. They’re formulated with skin-polishing glycolic acid, along with the power of AHA brethren lactic acid, and will lift and loosen any dead skin cells that clog your pores. Just a few dabs and ahhhh! – your skin will finally be able to breathe.
Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum
Skin feeling lackluster? Use this illuminating serum to get a little extra oomph. It works to transform dull skin while eliminating harmful pollutants through the power of nine alpha and beta hydroxy acids, as well as a mixture of nourishing antioxidants.
Dr Roebuck’s Lifesaver Skin Brightening Toner
This concoction of glycolic acid and organic witch hazel helps decrease redness and excessive oil production, while soothing aloe vera keeps skin comfortable and calm. It brightens, tightens, and soothes your skin all at the same time. You’ll be left with minimized pores and fewer blackheads. It’s a total lifesaver.