February 8, 2024

Glycolic Acid: Why Do Skin Creams Use It?


Avanthika Nityanand

M.Sc Human Genetics, B.Sc Plant Biology & Plant Biotechnology

Visit our LinkedInVisit LinkedIn Profile
Glycolic Acid: Why Do Skin Creams Use It?
Quick Links

Updated on: 11th March, 2024

Hello, beautiful and handsome readers! Before you read this article, I would like to say this: at Livest Health, we are strong proponents of the idea that your skin color doesn't define your beauty. Sometimes, it feels like the world has this little box of what's considered beautiful, totally missing out on all skin tones' amazing variety and unique charm. It's all about embracing who we are, including our skin color. It boosts our self-worth and welcomes everyone into the beauty conversation. Beauty? It's feeling good in your skin, celebrating what makes you you, and appreciating everyone's uniqueness. Let's shift our skincare goals towards health and feeling great rather than trying to fit into a narrow beauty standard. 🙂

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugarcane, known for its small molecular size that allows it to penetrate the skin effectively. [ref]

Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient in skincare products. It is celebrated for its exfoliating properties, which help remove dead skin cells from the skin's surface.

This promotes skin renewal, leading to a smoother, more radiant complexion. [ref]

Glycolic acid is used in various skincare formulations, including cleansers, toners, creams, and peels, making it versatile in over-the-counter and professional skincare treatments.

What Does Glycolic Acid Do for the Skin?

Glycolic acid acts primarily as an exfoliant.

It dissolves the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be sloughed off the skin's surface, revealing the newer, healthier skin beneath.

Regularly using glycolic acid can improve skin texture, reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, and diminish hyperpigmentation.

It also helps to unclog pores, reducing the likelihood of acne breakouts.

By increasing cell turnover, glycolic acid promotes a more youthful, vibrant complexion.

Does Glycolic Acid Remove Tan?

Firstly, it's essential to understand what a tan is. Tanning occurs when the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun or artificial sources, causing the skin to produce more melanin to protect itself.

Melanin is the pigment that gives skin its color; the more melanin produced, the darker the skin appears. A tan is essentially a sign of skin damage, as the skin is trying to protect itself from further UV damage.

woman in blue bikini sitting on a beach towel
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

Glycolic acid's mechanism of action does not directly target melanin production; instead, it accelerates the shedding of the outermost layer of the skin. [ref] Through this process, glycolic acid can help diminish the appearance of a tan by accelerating the removal of tanned skin cells from the surface.

However, it's important to note that while glycolic acid can help fade a tan over time, its effectiveness may vary depending on the depth of the tan and individual skin types.

Furthermore, while glycolic acid can help remove a superficial tan, it does not prevent the skin from tanning again. To protect the skin from further UV damage and tanning, it is crucial to use broad-spectrum sunscreen with an appropriate SPF level daily, even on cloudy days. Sunscreen not only helps prevent tanning but also protects against skin cancer and premature aging caused by sun exposure.

When incorporating glycolic acid into your skincare regimen, starting with lower concentrations is essential to minimize the risk of irritation and gradually increase as your skin tolerates it.

Additionally, because glycolic acid can make the skin more sensitive, individuals with certain skin conditions or sensitivities should consult with a dermatologist before using products containing this ingredient.

Does Glycolic Acid Lighten Skin?

Glycolic acid can lighten the appearance of the skin by promoting the removal of dead skin cells and reducing hyperpigmentation.

It can help fade dark spots, age spots, and melasma, leading to a more even skin tone.

However, glycolic acid does not bleach the skin; its lightening effect is due to its ability to exfoliate and speed up cell renewal, which can reduce the intensity of pigmentation irregularities over time.

Is Glycolic Acid Safe for Skin?

Glycolic acid is generally safe for most skin types when used correctly.

However, its exfoliant potency can cause irritation, redness, and sensitivity, especially in higher concentrations or overused.

It is important to start with lower concentrations if you are new to glycolic acid and to use it as directed.

People with sensitive skin or conditions like eczema or rosacea should use glycolic acid cautiously and consult a dermatologist before incorporating it into their skincare routine.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Cream?

Using glycolic acid cream effectively involves starting with a product with a suitable concentration for your skin type and tolerance.

Initially, apply the cream to clean, dry skin once every other night or as directed to allow your skin to adjust.

Apply a small amount evenly across the face, avoiding the eye area.

Over time, you may increase the frequency of application as your skin becomes more accustomed to the acid.

Always follow up with a broad-spectrum sunscreen during the day, as glycolic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.

Can Glycolic Acid Be Used Daily?

Glycolic acid can be used daily, but whether it should be depends on the product's concentration and your skin's sensitivity.

Lower concentrations (below 10%) in over-the-counter products are generally safe for daily use if your skin tolerates it well. [ref]

Higher concentrations in professional treatments or peels should be used less frequently to prevent over-exfoliation and irritation.

It's crucial to listen to your skin and adjust usage based on its reactions, potentially starting with less frequent applications and gradually increasing as tolerated.

What Does The Science Say?


In 2008, a 12-week, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial tested the effectiveness of a topical cream combining retinol, lactose, and glycolic acid on improving photodamaged skin. Forty female volunteers applied the active cream on one side of their face and a placebo on the other side twice daily. The results showed significant improvements in the appearance of photodamaged skin on the side treated with the active cream compared to the baseline and the placebo-treated side. [ref]

Study Summary: A cream containing retinol, lactose, and glycolic acid significantly improved photodamaged skin compared to placebo in a 12-week trial with forty female volunteers.

A 2014 double-blind, placebo-controlled, split-face clinical trial of 24 subjects investigated the effectiveness and safety of 40% glycolic acid peels for treating moderate acne vulgaris in Asian skin. Results showed that the glycolic acid-treated sides experienced significant reductions in acne lesions compared to baseline and performed better in treating noninflammatory lesions than inflammatory ones. [ref]

a woman looking sideways
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Study Summary: 40% glycolic acid peels significantly reduced moderate acne lesions in Asian skin, particularly noninflammatory types, compared to placebo.

A 2018 double-blind, within-person comparison study was conducted on 25 subjects over 28 days. The objective was to evaluate the effectiveness of using a cosmeceutical product containing glycolic acid, salicylic acid, gluconolactone, and licochalcone A alongside adapalene as an adjunct therapy for mild-to-moderate acne vulgaris. Results indicated that the combination therapy was effective and showed additional benefits in reducing acne complications, suggesting that adding the cosmeceutical product to standard acne treatment could benefit. [ref]

Study Summary: A cosmeceutical blend with glycolic acid, salicylic acid, gluconolactone, and licochalcone A enhances adapalene's effects on mild-to-moderate acne, reducing complications.


In 1998, the International Journal of Toxicology published a report on the safety of glycolic acid. According to the report, an expert panel deemed glycolic and lactic acids safe for cosmetics up to 10% concentration, with a minimum pH of 3.5, provided the products are formulated to minimize sun sensitivity or include sun protection directions. For salon use, these ingredients are considered safe up to 30% concentration, with a minimum pH of 3.0, for brief and discontinuous application by trained professionals, accompanied by recommendations for daily sun protection.

A 2022 study evaluated the effectiveness and safety of commercial low-concentration glycolic acid products on mild to moderate acne across various ages and genders. A total of 30 volunteers were recruited, with 27 completing the trial. Over four weeks, participants used glycolic acid products, significantly improving skin lesions. The study concluded that 5% low-concentration glycolic acid effectively improves the appearance and color of acne-affected skin, suggesting the potential for further extensive clinical research on its benefits for mild to moderate acne treatment. [ref]

Study Summary: The study found that 5% low-concentration glycolic acid products significantly improved mild to moderate acne in diverse participants, highlighting the need for further research.

Treating Skin Conditions

A 2017 study evaluated the effectiveness and safety of combining glycolic acid peels with topical 20% azelaic acid (AA) cream in treating epidermal melasma. Sixty patients were divided into two groups: one received serial GA peels every three weeks alongside twice-daily AA cream, while the control group received only AA cream. The study assessed clinical improvements using the Melasma Area Severity Index (MASI) and melasma-related quality of life through MELASQOL scores. Results showed significant improvements in MASI scores and a reduction in MELASQOL scores in the study group compared to the control group from 12 weeks onwards, indicating enhanced therapeutic efficacy with the combined treatment. [ref]

Study Summary: Combining glycolic acid peels with 20% azelaic acid cream significantly improved epidermal melasma, enhancing therapeutic efficacy.

A 2003 clinical trial explored the effects of estradiol and glycolic acid creams, separately and combined, on reversing aging signs in the skin. Sixty-five patients applied creams containing either 0.01% estradiol, 15% glycolic acid, or both to one side of their face and a placebo cream to the other for six months. Results showed that estradiol increased epidermal thickness by 23%, glycolic acid by 27%, and the combination by 38%, all statistically significant improvements in aging markers like rete peg pattern and epidermal thickness. [ref]

Study Summary: Estradiol and glycolic acid creams, alone and combined, significantly reversed skin aging signs, with the combination showing significant improvement.


Skin creams use glycolic acid primarily because of its powerful exfoliating properties, which help to remove dead skin cells, revealing smoother, brighter, and more youthful-looking skin beneath.

Its small molecular size allows it to penetrate the skin deeply, making it effective in treating a variety of skin concerns, including acne, fine lines, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.

Glycolic acid also boosts collagen production, enhancing skin elasticity and firmness.

Moreover, it improves skin hydration and texture, leading to an overall healthier and more radiant complexion.

Its versatility and effectiveness make glycolic acid a favored ingredient in skincare formulations aimed at rejuvenating and maintaining healthy skin.

You May Also Like: Why Does You Skin Stay Dry Despite Moisturizing?

Share this article

Livest Health's assurance

crossmenuchevron-down-circle linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram