Glycolic acid, what does it do to your skin?

As the name suggests, glycolic acid is an acid and falls under the AHA’s fruit acids (alpha hydroxy acids) group. Fruit acids are substances in cosmetics that make the acidity (pH) more acidic. It doesn’t always come from a fruit. The origin of glycolic acid often comes from cane sugar and is water soluble. Glycolic acid is available in serums, tonic and foamer. It is one of the additions to your skin care ritual.

Why an acid on your skin?

The concentration of glycolic acid is between 5-15% and has an acidity (pH) between 2.5-3.8. The longer glycolic acid makes contact with the skin and the higher the concentration, the deeper it penetrates into the upper horny layer (epidermis).

What glycolic acid does is remove ‘dead’ skin cells, causing your skin to temporarily flake. The dead skin cells in your upper horny layer are not harmful in themselves. But if these cells keep piling up, your skin can look dull and clog skin pores.

Glycolic acid can help you remove excess dead skin cells by peeling away this layer. The peeling creates a thinner superficial skin cell layer, making your skin smoother and looking fresher. Glycolic acid can also reduce pigment spots, coarse pores, skin impurities and improve your skin hydration. At concentrations higher than 15%, it can stimulate collagen production in your skin.

Flaking without persistent skin irritation, redness and burning is normal. If you quickly have sensitive skin, glycolic acid is less suitable. Applying a nurturing soothing ingredients afterwards ensures better skin hydration and less irritation.

Glycolic acid is an intermediate step in your ritual?

Glycolic acid is a step after cleansing your skin. If you apply it in the morning, sun protection is extremely important, at least SPF30. Your skin is more fragile and sensitive in the sun. If your skin does not protect well against the sun, you can develop pigment spots faster

Glycolic acid in the evening you can then apply a skin care with calming ingredients, such as products with avena sativa (oats), cucumber extract, Aloe Vera, Ectoine.

Build up glycolic acid slowly at first to see how your skin reacts to it. For example, in the evening and every two to three days. If there is no skin reaction (persistent itching, redness, burning), you can use it every other day or daily. If your skin is naturally dry, it is better to use it three times a week.

Once your skin becomes smoother and more radiant, you can maintain it by reducing the frequency to once or twice a week.

What should you not combine glycolic acid with?

What you don’t want is for your skin to be overstimulated by glycolic acid. This skin irritation can lead to pigment spots, also called post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. In people with darker skin types, Fitzpatrick 4 and above, dark spot recovery can take a long time.

What not to do:

Glycolic Acid Glycolzuur Botuline Toxine Botulinum Toxine

When you receive acne treatment with topical agents such as tretinoin cream, differin gel, benzoyl peroxide cream and isotretione cure. Your skin is already stimulated by the acne treatment and adding glycolic acid causes more skin irritations.

Combine with other acids such as salicylic acid, lactic acid, lemon (citric acid) acid, apple/pear (malic acid) acid and almond (mandalic acid) acid.

Combining glycolic acid with vitamin C. Vitamin C is naturally an acid. And do not combine with mildly irritating ingredients such as retinol (vitamin A).

It makes sense, don’t exfoliate your skin. Exfoliating your skin mechanically also removes your top dead skin cell layer. Combining glycolic acid with scrubbing can cause more skin damage, which can cause irritation.

Glycolic acid is not suitable for people with sensitive or eczema skin.


Tang SC, Yang JH. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules. 2018;23(4):863.

Now that you are here

If your skin care consists of cleansing, moisturizing and protecting, a serum can be an extra step to keep your skin in condition. Meer over wat is een serum en hoe past het in mijn huidroutine?

Picture of Dr. Francis Wu

Dr. Francis Wu

Dr. Francis Wu, een vooraanstaande dermatoloog, is de drijvende kracht achter Iconic Elements. Hij heeft sinds 2004 zijn expertise ingezet om een veilige en effectieve huidverzorgingslijn te creëren, geschikt voor zowel gezonde huid als huidproblemen. Iconic Elements, opgericht in 2016, is de eerste brede skincare lijn in Nederland ontwikkeld door een dermatoloog. Als medisch specialist streeft Dr. Wu naar het bevorderen van het welzijn van mensen door hoogwaardige en effectieve huidverzorgingsproducten te bieden. De proefdiervrije en vegan producten vermijden schadelijke chemicaliën en bevatten natuurlijke ingrediënten.
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