Of the many chemical exfoliants you can use on your face, glycolic acid is among the best. It is part of the family of Alpha Hydroxy Acids, or AHAs, which break down dead skin cells at the surface of the skin. The most common include glycolic acid (derived from sugar cane), lactic acid (derived from sour milk), and citrus acid (from the peels of numerous citrus fruits).
However, unlike other AHAs — and especially unlike the next most common one, lactic acid — glycolic acid has small molecules which seep slightly further into the skin, to slough away at rough patches and help keep pores clear. The only competition for this is salicylic acid, a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), which focuses a little less on surface buffing than glycolic acid, and a little more on pore clearing and oil balancing.
Thus, for the smoothing tasks, glycolic acid and the other AHAs remain unbeatable. Glycolic acid also stimulates collagen and elastin production in the skin, which keeps skin supple, strong, and resilient.
Depending on the strength and concentration of any product’s AHA ingredients, they can be used daily, weekly, monthly, or some interval between those. Rather, you’ve got to use them as directed, because a daily glycolic cleanser will be a lot more gentle on your skin than an intense (monthly-ish) glycolic peel.
To best understand why you’ve got to be mindful of these formula intensities, know that your skin cells “resurface” every 28 days or so. That means it takes nearly a month for the newest, freshest cells to die out and be replaced by the next class.
So, if you rush things along too much (as in, you exfoliate too intensely), then you’ll start to harm these youthful, fresher cells before they’re ready to retire. This leads to redness, burning, and dryness. So, always use chemical exfoliants as directed!
Here are some of our favorite glycolic acid products, which work with different intensities (as well as different ingredient pairings) to keep your skin clear, smooth, and youthful. It’s not important to stock up on all of them, but it is important to exfoliate regularly. Just do so as directed by the product you choose — and make sure in some way, you are getting routine exfoliation on a weekly basis.
Best daily-use glycolic acid products for the face
Dr. Dennis Gross AHA/BHA Daily Cleansing Gel
This gentle daily cleanser breaks down dead cells and keeps pores free of debris.
Buy the Dr. Dennis Gross AHA/BHA Daily Cleansing Gel here for $38
Protocol-Lab Double Alpha Hydroxy Cleanser with Green Tea Extract and Aloe
Glycolic acid teams up with lactic acid for a skin-smoothing, spot-clearing finish—and one that tingles as it works.
Buy the Protocol-Lab Double Alpha Hydroxy Cleanser here for $48
Exuviance Glycolic Expert Daily Face Moisturizer
A daily hydrating cream that packs the glycolic acid for a simultaneous smoothing effect.
Buy the Exuviance Glycolic Expert Daily Face Moisturizer here for $50
Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Night Cream
This bedtime moisturizer preserves hydration levels in skin while you slumber, and its glycolic concentration also ensures smoother, clearer complexion upon rising.
Buy the Caudalie Vinoperfect Brightening Glycolic Night Cream here for $65
Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum
This serum brightens complexion and counters dark spots with Vitamin C, while simultaneously buffing dead skin (and gently so).
Buy the Murad Vitamin C Glycolic Brightening Serum here for $85
Best Twice-Weekly Glycolic Acid Products for the Face
Alpha-H Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment with Glycolic Acid
This twice weekly exfoliant is as run–of-the-mill as you need in an exfoliating serum (in the best way possible, too). Its low-medium concentration of glycolic acid allows for regular use without overly grating the skin.
Buy the Alpha-H Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment with Glycolic Acid here for $56
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
A post-cleansing toner that balances the skin’s oil levels, calms irritation or sensitivities, while simultaneously breaking down dead skin cells. Brilliant.
Buy The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution here for $10
Best monthly glycolic acid products for the face
Perfect Image Glycolic Acid 30% Face Peel Serum
This professional-level peel should be done carefully and precisely as directed; anything more can leave skin reddened.
Buy Perfect Image Glycolic Acid here for $27
Herbivore PRISM 20% AHA + 5% BHA Exfoliating Glow Facial
We like using this peel monthly for a hard reset on complexion—and best of all, it leaves skin as radiant as the product packaging itself. (It can be used more frequently than that; twice weekly, even.)
Buy Herbivore PRISM 20% AHA + 5% BHA Exfoliating Glow Facial here for $58
Best glycolic acid products for the body
Glytone Exfoliating Body Lotion With 17.5 Free Acid Value Glycolic Acid
An exfoliating body lotion that softens and smooths skin on the daily; don’t use this one on your face, however. (It could clog pores or irritate the sensitive skin there.)
Buy the Glytone Exfoliating Body Lotion here for $44
Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta® Exfoliating Body Treatment Peel (8 pack)
Use these body peel wipes once weekly or every few weeks for a thorough chemical-induced shellacking. They contain high grades of lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acid for a smooth, even finish.
Buy the Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Exfoliating Body Treatment Peel here for $58
Ready for an even deeper crash course in chemical exfoliation? Here’s how to exfoliate your entire body.
Photo via Getty