Ask a Derm: What Is Glycolic Acid and How Should I Incorporate It Into My Routine?

Woman putting a peel on her face.

Even the most skincare-savvy individuals would love to get insider intel from a dermatologist. But sometimes, it’s hard to ask a licensed provider your most burning questions — maybe you believe your concern is too trivial, or you’re embarrassed to get the answer in a face-to-face appointment. That’s why SpotlyteTM brings you Ask a DermTM, a regular column where we have professionals provide the answers to your questions, no matter how big or how small. In this installment of Ask a Derm, Dr. Neal Schultz breaks down everything about glycolic acid: who should be using it, how to use it, and what is it, anyway?

Take a close look at your skin. Does it appear dull? Dry? Rough? If so, there’s a high probability that dead skin cells are to blame. And not only do they sound icky, but they can cause a decidedly undesirable effect: an older-looking epidermis.  “These dead cells that accumulate are invisible to your eye, but what they do is very visible, because it’s those dead cells that cause your skin to become rough instead of smooth,” explains NYC cosmetic dermatologist Dr. Neal Schultz.

When you’re younger, your dead skin cells fall off in sync on a 28-day schedule. It’s the way they’re pre-programmed (and what makes young skin smooth and bright). “As we get older, some of those cell and skin cycles go off-kilter,” says Dr. Schultz. “Instead of shedding on the 28th day, some are retained until the 40th day or the 60th day — maybe the 80th day.”

Thankfully, there are over-the-counter (OTC) solutions to make skin smoother — namely chemical exfoliants, with Dr. Schultz’s preferred choice being glycolic acid. “When skin is smooth, it reflects light. It looks brighter. It’s more radiant. It’s more even-toned,” he explains of exfoliation. Dr. Schultz also notes that makeup and products ultimately look better when applied to smooth skin, rather than the alternative.

But what is this mystery ingredient glycolic acid made of, and how does it achieve these desirable results?

Even though glycolic acid sounds like an unusual and even nerve-wracking chemical, it’s actually very natural. “Glycolic acid is an [alpha hydroxy] acid made from sugar; it’s a result of fermentation,” Dr. Schultz explains. “It’s [the most effective] of the alpha hydroxy acids...It’s in a class of chemicals called exfoliants, meaning it causes dead cells to [shed]. It doesn’t take off live cells, just [old] ones.”

Most people (who have hit puberty and beyond) can safely use low concentrations of this chemical exfoliant. Dr. Schultz even has patients in their eighties and nineties who visit his Park Avenue practice for glycolic acid peels. For this reason, he calls it an “ageless treatment.”

Dr. Schultz recommends using glycolic acid every night at home (unless you get a professional glycolic acid peel that day). Daily use will activate your fibroblasts (collagen-forming cells) and as a result, skin becomes firmer and plumper. Some people even notice a reduction in the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Dr. Schultz also uses the ingredient to combat acne on patients.

“It’s a wonderfully versatile chemical,” Schultz notes. That said, you might need to build tolerance to the ingredient if you’ve never used it before. If you were to use too strong of a concentration of glycolic right off the bat, you could irritate your skin. Dr. Schultz compares using glycolic acid to going to the gym: Just like you wouldn’t want to start a weight lifting regimen with the heaviest dumbbells, you wouldn’t want to start using the highest concentration of glycolic acid available.

Instead, begin by slowly yet steadily incorporating the ingredient into your routine. Schultz recommends starting with a product that only contains a low percentage of glycolic acid. From there, he suggests gradually increasing the concentration, which will help increase your tolerance and allow your skin to get used to the ingredient. Talk to your licensed provider to see what a good starting percentage would be for you.

You can get your glycolic acid fix through a variety of at-home delivery systems — including creams, pads, and serums  — and via in-office treatments like chemical peels. Each contain different levels of strength, so be sure to double-check before you begin, or to consult with your dermatologist to help you start on your acid-based adventures. Here’s to a bright, exfoliated future!

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