Glycolic acid is to skin care what jeans are to your wardrobe: It may not be the fanciest, but it is certainly a staple of anyone who knows what’s what in beauty (or fashion).
Here’s why. Glycolic acid is the smallest of the alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), so it penetrates skin better and faster than any of its AHA counterparts like lactic acid, malic acid, or mandelic acid. Both in vitro and in vivo tests have shown glycolic acid may increase collagen production, fibroblast proliferation, and cell turnover rates (Dermatologic Surgery).
Glycolic acid acts as both a moisturizer and an exfoliator. With regular use, studies show glycolic acid will increase the skin’s natural supply of hyaluronic acid. It also exfoliates by increasing the separation of skin cells, a process called corneocyte desquamation, resulting in even more cell turnover! And you know what that means: smoother, more elastic skin (Skin Therapy Letter).
For these reasons, you’ll find glycolic acid in more skin care products than any of the other AHAs. You’ll find glycolic acid over the counter in concentrations of less than 5 percent all the way up to 30 percent, and you’ll find dermatologists and aestheticians administering glycolic acid in the 20 percent to 70 percent range. Whether you choose the at-home or in-office route, it is recommended that you get at least six weeks’ worth of treatments, since this is generally how long it takes for your existing skin cells to turnover.
With that said, here are my 5 favorite glycolic acid treatments of all time:
Best Glycolic Acid Treatment for Regular Use: Dr. Dennis Gross AlphaBeta Peel Extra Strength
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength claims to “improve skin firmness, tone, and texture, […] and diminishes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, boosts skin density and vitality, and reduce pore size and breakouts.”
One of the reasons this is my #1 is because it also contains a BHA, salicylic acid, which keeps blackheads and breakouts at bay. Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble chemical exfoliant that can remove debris from the pore, creating the appearance of skin smoothness. However, according to Dr. Diana Draelos, an associate professor of dermatology at Wake Forest School of Medicine, it cannot measurably reduce pore size, only cleanse the area. Still, according to Mount Kisco, New York dermatologist David E. Bank, M.D.: “The goal is to keep pores clean and at their smallest,” so salicylic acid is excellent to use to clean the pores. However, salicylic acid does not actually change pore size; rather, it cleans the pores, which enables them to then be closed after cell turnover is increased, etc.
This best glycolic acid treatment also contains all of the other major AHAs (lactic acid, malic acid, mandelic acid), plus green tea and vitamins C and E, which may further help improve the appearance of dark spots and uneven skin tone. Green tea has been found to be effective as a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory ingredient in skin care formulations. In addition, green tea has promise as a treatment against rosacea. According to Dr. Gary Goldfaden, M.D., “In a recent dermatological comparison study, the use of a lotion containing a tea extract produced a 70% improvement in rosacea compared to use of a lotion containing the base ingredients alone. This tea extract is rich in antioxidant polyphenols and contains a variety of potent flavonoids.” Verifying this is a 2003 study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, which reports that green tea reduces UVB-induced inflammation as measured by double-fold skin swelling. This is also a great ingredient in Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength because it will help reduce some of the inflammation caused by a potent salicylic acid/glycolic acid peel combination. The combination of vitamin C and vitamin E and ubiquinone have been found to synergistically enhance the power of one another, and have been reported by Djerassi et. al. to prevent the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines (although in different forms of C and E). Vitamin C and vitamin E have also been shown in this study, amongst others, to enhance the photoprotective effects of sunscreen, which is most likely why the product is recommended for morning use.
And, yes, Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength is strong. I recommend using it once/week to start, and gradually work up to use 2-3 times per week. You don’t need more than that!
Ingredients in Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength
Water, Alcohol Denat. (SD Alcohol 40-B), Glycolic Acid, Potassium Hydroxide, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Water, Salicylic Acid, Polysorbate 20, Lactic Acid, Mandelic Acid, Malic Acid, Citric Acid, Salix Alba (Willow) Bark Extract, Menthone Glycerin Acetal, Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Achillea Millefolium Extract, Anthemis Nobilis (Chamomile) Flower Extract, Soy Isoflavones, Copper PCA, Zinc PCA, Lecithin, Disodium EDTA, Alcohol, Polysorbate 80, Fragrance (Parfum), Linalool, Benzyl Salicylate, Benzoic Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate.
Water, Sodium Bicarbonate, Resveratrol, Retinol, Ascorbic Acid, Ubiquinone, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Phospholipids, Retinyl Palmitate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Soy Isoflavones, Achillea Millefolium Extract , Camellia Sinensis Leaf Extract, Raphanus Sativus (Radish) Root Extract, Copper PCA, Sodium PCA, Zinc PCA, Lecithin, Polysorbate 20, Polysorbate 80, Alcohol, BHT, Octoxynol-9, Simethicone, Tetrasodium EDTA, Sodium Benzoate, Phenoxyethanol.
Best Glycolic Acid Treatment for Sunspots: Murad Advanced Active Radiance Serum
Truth be told, I was using just about everything to get rid of sunspots, and I was at my wit’s end. And then I came across Murad Advanced Active Radiance Serum. This serum has a super-high concentration of glycolic acid, plus a fair concentration of vitamin C as both tetrahexyldecyl absorbate and sodium ascorbyl phosphate, plus vitamin C-reinforcing vitamin E, and a solid dose of ultra-brightening licorice extract (Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate).
For those of you who know I’m an L-ascorbic acid nut, let me tell you, I still used vitamin C as L-ascorbic acid in the morning when I introduced this product into my nightly routine (in lieu of retinol for a few months). But it is worth it to use other vitamin C derivatives as well, particularly when you’re using 15-20% L-ascorbic acid and still getting sunspots (like I was).
Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate is a form of vitamin C that is oil-soluble. This powerful antioxidant can penetrate both the epidermis (the uppermost layer of skin) and dermis (the deepest layer of skin), whereas L-ascorbic acid appears to only penetrate the uppermost layer of the skin. This means some people speculate tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate may have superior brightening and lightening action, because skin cells are formed by fibroblasts located deep within the skin layers. Still others aren’t sure.
Sodium ascorbyl phosphate is a water-soluble form of L-ascorbic acid. According to a 2001 study in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics, sodium ascorbyl phosphate has greater long-term stability than other vitamin C derivative,s like ascorbyl palmitate, when each is used in similar concentrations. Unlike ascorbyl palmitate, sodium ascorbyl phosphate is stable in water-in-oil emulsions and oil-in-water emulsions. I like it because it doesn’t break down in light, heat, and air.
After several weeks of using Murad Advanced Active Radiance Serum nightly, my sunspots were definitely lighter, and that’s saying something. I highly recommend this product as a treatment for improving the appearance of sunspots, uneven skin tone, and dull skin.
Ingredients in Murad Advanced Active Radiance Serum
Water (Aqua), Glycolic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Cyclopentasiloxane, Urea, Yeast Amino Acids, Trehalose, Inositol, Taurine, Betaine, Hydrolyzed Opuntia Ficus Indica Flower Extract, Hexapeptide-2, Hydrolyzed Jojoba Esters, Jojoba Esters, Dimethicone Crosspolymer, Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract, Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract, Enantia Chlorantha (Bark) Extract, Oleanolic Acid, Ectoin, Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, Biotin, Mannitol, Zinc Gluconate, Tocopheryl Acetate, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Silica Dimethyl Silylate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Tetrahexyldecyl Ascorbate, Ascorbic Acid, Chitosan, Propyl Gallate, Methyl Diisopropyl Propionamide, Ethyl Menthane Carboxamide, Menthyl Lactate, Lauryl Laurate, Hydroxyethyl Behenamidopropyl Dimonium Chloride, Ethylhexylglycerin, Silica, Xanthan Gum, PPG-26-Buteth-26, PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium Hydroxide, Disodium EDTA, Phenoxyethanol, Caprylyl Glycol, Chlorphenesin, Limonene, Fragrance (Parfum), Yellow 5 (CI 19140), Orange 4 (CI 15510)
Best Concentrated Glycolic Acid Product: Glytone Rejuvenating Lotion 20
Glytone Rejuvenating Lotion 20 says it contains a “20% Free Acid value to ensure maximum rejuvenating benefits as it moisturizes your skin.” What this means to most of us is that 20% glycolic acid is strong for an over-the-counter product, meaning that your skin will get the appearance of fewer fine lines and wrinkles, increased smoothness, and improved evenness of skin tone with regular use over time. Glytone Rejuvenating Lotion 20 made my skin feel quite a bit smoother the first time I used it. The initial use didn’t make my skin look as radiant as reviews I’d read promised, but I saw more changes with subsequent use.
Initially, there was a little tingling and warming when I applied it, but it went away after I washed the peel off. My skin was a little red for the rest of the night after I used it, but by the morning it was back to my normal coloring. Other than that, I had little irritation and my skin was noticeably smoother. I’ll admit, this isn’t a sunspot smasher like the Dr. Dennis Gross or Murad product, but it does get the job done against fine lines and wrinkles over time!
Ingredients in Glytone Rejuvenating Lotion 20
Water (Aqua), Glycolic Acid, Ceteareth-6 Olivate, PEG-6 Caprylic/Capric Glycedrides, Isododecane, Dimethicone, Glycerin, Sodium Hydroxide, Silica, Polysorbate 20, Microcrystalline Cellulose, Polysilicone-11, Stearyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Ceteareth-20, Hydrolyzed Corn Starch, Cellulose Gum, Propylene Glycol, Imidazolidinyl Urea, Methylparaben, Propylparaben.
Best Skin-Firming Glycolic Acid Treatment: Exuviance Glycolic Block
Like the Glytone product, Exuviance Glycolic Block appears to contain a high concentration of glycolic acid, which I similarly estimate to be in the 15-20% range. However, Exuviance Glycolic Block also contains a fairly high concentration of the amino acid arginine, which may help to speed the healing of skin cell damage and wounds (Wilderness and Environmental Damage, 2014; JPEN, 2014). It also contains butylene glycol and cetyl alcohol, to help speed the delivery of the ingredients into the skin. Overall, this is the best glycolic acid treatment for getting fast firming results for the skin.
Ingredients in Exuviance Glycolic Acid Block
Aqua (Water), Glycolic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Cetyl Alcohol, Ammonium Hydroxide, Arginine, Octyldodecyl Neopentanoate, Glyceryl Stearate, Glycerin, PEG-100 Stearate, Acetyl Hydroxyproline, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Dimethicone, Tocopheryl (Vitamin E) Acetate, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract, Rosa Centifolia Flower Extract, Sambucus Nigra Flower Extract, Calendula Officinalis Flower Extract, Sorbitan Stearate, PEG-40 Stearate, Propylene Glycol, Ethylhexyl Hydroxystearate, Xanthan Gum, PEG-75 Stearate, Disodium EDTA, Ceteth-20, Steareth-20, Polysorbate 20, Caprylyl Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Chlorphenesin.
Best (Mostly) Natural Glycolic Acid Treatment: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum is a fantastic product from a brand that manages to be both fantastically on-trend and scientifically on-point with its ingredients and delivery systems.
This is a fantastic product I can only surmise from the ingredients list to be somewhere around 60-70% natural, for those of you who care about that sort of thing. (I, for one, do not think natural means better.) I have not talked to the company, so I cannot be sure exactly how many of the ingredients in Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum are natural. At any rate, it’s hard to find a product with natural extracts that contains 10% glycolic acid, and this serum has it.
Despite the fact that horse chestnut and bearberry will not lighten your sunspots as well as, say, 4% hydroquinone or 10% glycolic acid (the latter of which is in this product), I do like the ingredients amongst natural extracts. Horse chestnut seed extract has been shown to have a high scavenging ability and cell-protective effects. Additionally, it contains saponins that are potentially anti-inflammatory (International Journal of Cosmetic Science).
Horse chestnut extract can also reduce capillary fragility. By preventing the leakage of fluids, stops inflammation in the area (International Journal of Cosmetic Science). A review of five clinical studies show that its use as both a topical gel and an oral capsule have been proven safe and effective in subjects for the treatment of venous insufficiency, a condition where veins have difficulties transporting blood back to the heart (Advances in Therapy). This anti-inflammatory action could help to soothe the face, making it appear younger and more vibrant.
As for bearberry, a 2008 study found that bearberry lightened hyperpigmentation up to 70 percent, whereas the industry standard hydroquinone was effective in 78 percent of cases. However, due to incessant reports of irritation from hydroquinone use, as well as possible ochronosis development, bearberry holds a great deal of promise for those with sensitive or darker skin. In addition, bearberry has also been found to have antibacterial and antioxidant activity.
So while this isn’t my favorite glycolic acid treatment overall, it is one of the best glycolic acid treatments out there, because it does work.
Ingredients in Drunk Elephant TLC Framboos Glycolic Night Serum
Water, Glycolic Acid, Salicylic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Citric Acid, Lactic Acid, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Aesculus Hippocastanum (Horse Chestnut) Seed Extract, Arctostaphylos Uva-Ursi Leaf Extract, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Rubus Idaeus (Raspberry) Fruit Extract, Buddleja Davidii Meristem Cell Culture, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (Yeast) Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Juice Extract, Opuntia Ficus-Indica (Cactus) Extract, Sclerocarya Birrea (Marula) Seed Oil, Allantoin, Sodium Hyaluronate Crosspolymer, Propanediol, Xanthan Gum, Galactoarabinan, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Disodium EDTA, Hexylene Glycol, Caprylyl Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjustor), Phenoxyethanol.