Glycolic Acid

We see glycolic acid as a skincare ingredient a lot. This is another chemical that has been glamorised and I wanted to put my molecular medic hat on to break down what it is and if it's worth the hype.

**N.B I am not a dermatologist and if you have any concerns or questions I highly recommend asking a dermatologist or GP and take this overview with a pinch of salt before determining if glycolic acid is good for you.  This is just what I found with my research with my overall opinion in the summary.  

What is it and How does it work
Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) with the chemical formula of C2H4O3 (HOCH2COOH).  As a result, the chemical structure facilitates easy penetration into the skin.  It acts to get rid of dead skin cells by weakening their lipid binding properties to reveal the layer of skin underneath the epidermis (weaken intracellular cohesion of stratum corneum), thereby increasing skin cell turnover and promoting the appearance of an even skintone. (7) The dead skin cells will result in discoloration, uneven skin tones, and dullness. Therefore, glycolic acid causes the skin to appear glowy and youthful, explaining why it is a great ingredient for dry skin by acting as a peeling mask (1).  

  • Dermatologists have been using this product for years, and no systemic toxicity has been noted due to topical use. (1) 
  • Chemical peeling has been coined chemoexfoiliation or dermapeeling.  It has been proven to reduce wrinkles due to ageing. (2)  Furthermore, it acts to minimise the appearance of pores which results in youthful look.  
  • Glycolic acid has been seen to disrupt abnormal keratinisation in acne formation, enabling developing pimples to be dislodged.  (3)  It also facilitates prevention of future acne breakouts.  
  • A study conducted showed that glycolic acid reduces pigmentation due to wounding and the re-epithelisation process which is where the epithelial cells form over a denuded region of the skin.  This is defined as loss of the epidermis, usually as a result of burning, wounds, and mechanical forces such as friction.  The study found that it can also aid in the postinflammatory hyperpigmentation in acne. (5) Therefore, it is said to reduce the impact of scarring due to acne.
  • Glycolic acid exfoliation is said to be appropriate for all skin types and is preferred over cleansers as it ensures deeper penetration through the skin layers compared to cleansers which stay on the skin for only 15-30 seconds. 
  • Glycolic acid aids in collagen production. (8) It has been found to enhance collegen and fibronectin synthesis in the fibroblast.  This causes the skin to appear firm and healthy. 
  • One should be cautious when using this and avoid the under-eye area.  Skin is thinnest in this region, therefore, acute exposure to glycolic acid can lead to dermal and eye irritation. (1)
  • A randomised control trial found that 90% of the 20 patients receiving a glycolic acid cream had reduced acne but 1 patient was excluded due to formation of ezcema on the face.  Before using the product religiously, ensure that you test a patch of skin on the jawline prior. (4)  If you are experiencing a burning sensation when using the product, stop immediately.
  • One should also be mindful of the concentration of the glycolic acid as increasing concentration increases acidity due to lower pHs.  It is recommended to gradually introduce glycolic acid into your routine to build up tolerance and reduce likelihood of irritation.  Most products contain 8%-15% of glycolic acid, and as aforementioned, start from the lowest and slowly work your way upwards if you feel it is necessary.  
  • There has been contrasting studies regarding the sun sensitivity of glycolic acid.  Some studies found that glycolic acid protects against UVB-induced inflammation in mice but that may not apply to humans. (6) However, AHAs have been associated with increased sun sensitivity and other studies claim that glycolic acid use increases sun sensitivity. (9) Given that using sun screen should be a vital step in everyone's skincare routine to reduce chances of burns, discoloration, wrinkles, and progression of skin cancers or tumours, regardless of whether glycolic acid is protective or increases sensitivity to sun, ALWAYS use sunscreen, especially post a glycolic peel to be sure.
Overall, I do believe that glycolic acid will have many benefits to the skin with long-term use and should be introduced into one's skincare regime as an exfoiliant rather than a cleanser for better and optimum results.  It is vital to use sunscreen after use and everyday regardless of the products in your daily routine and glycolic acid further incentivises this.  Furthermore, ensure that you work your way up the concentrations to increase tolerance and avoid thinner areas such as around the eyes to reduce irritation.  Lastly, with any product, always do a patch test prior to use to ensure that you do not have an adverse allergic reaction such as ezcema, rashes, or burning.  



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