Look to your left. See your co-worker over there with the annoyingly good skin?
And the women who always look like the picture of health and wellness you know for a fact eat Maccas and might smoke a cigarette on the weekends?
They’re probably putting acid on their faces. Glycolic acid, that is.
If you’re still using an exfoliating scrub with little bits in it, it’s time to catch up and get on the chemical exfoliation train to glowy, radiant skin.
But… why am I putting actual acid on my face again, you ask? Don’t worry, it’s not a dumb question at all.
That’s why we asked a dermatologist to unpack exactly why you need to start putting glycolic acid on your face. And exactly how.
What is glycolic acid?
Think of glycolic acid as the chief of Alpha Hydroxy Acids. They’re commonly labelled on lotions and potions as AHAs.
“Specifically, glycolic acid is an AHA primarily found in sugar cane. It’s a small crystal that is dissolved into a gel or liquid to be applied to the skin and is favoured for it’s water-binding properties and small molecular structure, which can easily penetrate into the skin’s surface and do all the things,” dermatologist Dr Liz Dawes-Higgs told Mamamia.
What does glycolic acid do for your skin?
Put simply, it makes your skin glow.
As for how, Dr Dawes-Higgs likens glycolic acid exfoliation to “removing the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin together.”
It’s not nearly as gross as that sounds though.
Specifically, she explained exactly how the acid works to give you that coveted ‘I drink eight glasses of water a day’ glow.
“Glycolic acid is a peeling agent, a superficial chemical peel, that works on the top layer of the skin to remove the dead cells. This helps to freshen the appearance of skin by evening out skin texture and colour making the skin look brighter or healthier in appearance,” she said.
“When applied to the skin, AHAs work by removing the top layers of dead skin cells. They can also increase the thickness of deeper layers of skin, promoting firmness.”
Aside from it’s knack for cleaning out the gunk in your skin cells that can cause blackheads and whiteheads (shudder), glycolic acid also dabbles in anti-ageing by treating fine lines and overall skin texture.
How is chemical exfoliation different from physical exfoliation?
Exfoliation is exfoliation. Both chemical and physical exfoliation will clear away dead skin and debris living on your lovely face.
It's the how that separates the two.
"Physical exfoliation uses a physical brush or a scrub product to mechanically peel away the dead skin cells," Dr Dawes-Higgs said.
These scrub products can include fruit exfoliants and nut pips such as apricot kernels or walnut shells. Yes, they're Jesus compared to micro beads (the little plastic balls you used to find in some supermarket exfoliant brands).
Proceed with caution though - these physical exfoliants can cause micro tears that leave your skin susceptible to environmental damage, pollution, and sun damage, as skincare expert Paula Begoun told The Cut.
Just to push the knife in a little further, dermatologist and chemical exfoliation expert Dr Dennis Gross told Byrdie physical exfoliation is "primitive" and "like using sandpaper on your face". Yeah.
Chemical exfoliation, on the other hand, is like dusting your face with a feather. Dipped in acid.
"Chemical exfoliation uses an acid, like glycolic acid, to dissolve the dead cells from the top layer of the skin," Dr Dawes-Higgs explained.
Although you wouldn't normally use the word 'gentle' to describe acid, regular use of products with small amounts of AHAs is the gentlest form of exfoliation. There's also zero risk of micro tears.
Is chemical exfoliation suitable for all skin types?
Short answer, yes. But on a couple conditions.
- If you have sensitive skin, Dr Dawes-Higgs advised using a product with a lower acid concentration.
- Skincare junkies, avoid doubling up on extra strength skincare ingredients - alternate your glycolic acid exfoliant with retinol serums or other AHA products.
If in doubt, start off slow. Yes, doing a patch test is boring and you just want to get the stuff on your face ASAP, but it's worth it if you know your skin tends to freak out about new products.
How to use glycolic acid skincare
The best thing about glycolic acid is it's in so many things. You can get it in cleansers, exfoliating pads, moisturisers, serums and toners - you have options to suit both your needs (i.e. the strength you want) and your budget.
Mamamia's Executive Editor Leigh Campbell - who moonlights as a beauty guru thanks to 15 years' experience as a beauty editor - recommended doing most of your acid exfoliation at night as you won't need to worry about being diligent with sun protection.
If you are applying in the morning, make sure you don't skip your facial sunscreen.
Here are some non-threatening options ranked from affordable to you're not buying brunch this month.
The Ordinary is known for its no-frills approach to skincare.
This toning solution contains seven per cent glycolic acid to resurface and gently exfoliate the skin, and amino acids, aloe vera, ginseng and Tasmania pepperberry to soothe and reduce irritation that sometimes comes with acid use.
Saturate a cotton pad and sweep across your face and neck at night for best results. Don't wash off though.
NIP+FAB Glycolic Fix Serum, $22.99
This overnight serum is packed with four per cent glycolic acid to smooth the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles and buff your skin's surface for a smoother, less congested texture.
Apply before bed every second night to wake up looking refreshed, even if you're not.
NIP+FAB Glycolic Fix Daily Cleansing Pads, 60pk for $23.99
These exfoliating pads are soaked in glycolic acid (2.8 per cent) and might just be the perfect entry level AHA product.
They're easy to use (swipe at night after cleansing) and easy to store, and have the added benefits of hyaluronic acid (the skin plumping kind of acid). Oh, and they're currently 31 per cent off.
This easy moisturiser promises to reclaim your morning bounce with the help of glycolic acid, hyaluronic acid, shea butter, and argan and rosehip oils.
Apply after moisturiser but before foundation on the days you need a something extra.
Dr. Lewinn's Reversaderm Glycolic Clarifying Cleanser 100 mL, 2pk for $26.98
As for as strength goes, this 12 per cent glycolic acid cleanser a hard worker. The non-foaming cleanser is particularly great if you've got sun damaged skin or acne scarring.
We can't talk about glycolic acid exfoliation without dropping this guy's name.
Adored by skin obsessives and regular folk around the world, the cult-favourite skin resurfacing treatment does it all.
Apply evenly to the face, neck and decolletage using a cotton pad every other night (max. three to four nights a week), avoiding the eyes and lips.
The trick is to then go to sleep without applying any other creams or serums.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel, 30 day packettes for $128
British beauty blogger Elle McNamara swears by these individually packaged facial wipes for her signature 'just had a facial' glow. They're $$$, but in her opinion, well worth it.
This product does not muck around.
With a blend of 12 per cent glycolic, lactic, tartaric, citric and salicylic acids, this Drunk Elephant cult-favourite is an intensive night treatment that combats pretty much all of your skin concerns from wrinkles and pigmentation to acne and dull tone.
It is expensive though, so you might want to start with a cheaper product to make sure acid exfoliation is for you before investing.
Again, use every other night and don't rinse off. It's also normal to feel a slight tingling sensation after application.
Have you tried glycolic acid exfoliation? What products have you tried and loved?