Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant that is used for improving the appearance of aged, sun-damaged, or acne-prone skin. Glycolic acid does not remove dead skin cells, but rather breaks down the "glue" that holds dead cells together on the surface layer of skin and stimulates new cell growth to replace these cells. Glycolic acid can also be found in some home remedies to treat dandruff and other scalp issues such as seborrheic dermatitis.
Glycolic acid can be found in many over the counter products, with concentrations of between 5% and 50%. To treat acne-prone skin effectively it is best to use a higher concentration of glycolic acid. Glycolic acid works best when applied to washed skin at room temperature. In most cases it is applied once or twice a day for a period of 4–6 weeks, before slowing using the product once a week as maintenance therapy or using another method of exfoliating the skin. Currently, glycolic acid is approved for use in the treatment of acne and photoaged skin by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as well as by Health Canada. High concentrations of glycolic acid are also available by prescription in some countries.
Glycolic acid is used to treat mild to moderate acne. It helps to unblock pores and remove dead skin cells that can clog pores and cause acne. When applied topically it helps to prevent the formation of new acne lesions and can speed up healing time for those that are already present. Glycolic acid is also used for treating fine wrinkles, photoaged skin, and large pores. Photoaged skin develops as a result of exposure to sunlight causing the skin to age prematurely. Glycolic acid is helpful in reversing the skin's effects on hyperpigmentation and fine lines. Glycolic acid is also used to amend dry, sensitized or damaged skin.
Glycolic Acid in High Concentration is allowed by the FDA and Health Canada for topical use only.
Mild to moderate acne vulgaris:
In 2004 a double-blind study was conducted at the University of Minnesota Medical School that used 0.6% glycolic acid peels for 20 minutes three times per week. There were 84 patients in the study group and 84 patients in the control group, which received no treatment (placebo). Chemical peels have long been considered the gold standard for exfoliation and skin rejuvenation. However, these procedures are often expensive and can be time consuming. In an effort to provide both immediate and lasting results, some consumers are turning to at-home glycolic acid peels as a healthier alternative that can reduce acne, fine lines, wrinkles and pigmentation issues.
The popularity of glycolic acid has led to a surge in demand over the last few years – but this fast-growing beauty trend is also causing supply chain hiccups. In order to meet this increased demand, suppliers have turned to cheaper sources of the compound, resulting in an inconsistent performance and risk of safety concerns. In a recent article for The Hollywood Reporter, I explored why so many people now swear by glycolic acid and how its performance can differ from product to product. While glycolic acid is generally safe when taken orally in pill form, it can be very dangerous if used as a topical tanning agent or home chemistry experiment.
As the U.S. market continues to grow, so will the demand for brands and suppliers that can guarantee consistent quality. It's good to see a study on the real-life effectiveness of glycolic acid, rather than just anti-acne or anti-aging claims.