Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid Background

Glycolic acid molecule

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) and is a common ingredient in a range of skin care producs.    Alpha-hydroxy acids are organic acids that are naturally produced by sugar cane and certain kinds of fruit. In addition to glycolic acid, other AHAs include lactic, malic, citric, and tartaric acids.

Glycolic acid is the smallest of the AHAs and it readily penetrates into the skin. Because of this, glycolic acid is a popular ingredient in many cosmetic skin products. It is used primarily as a chemical exfoliant that breaks up the outermost layer of the epidermis, which is composed primarily of dead skin cells.

Low strength glycolic acid formulations are available over the counter, while higher strength products are available by prescription and are generally administered in a dermatology office or other medical setting.

Glycolic Acid in the Treatment of Acne

Glycolic acid treatments are usually used for the treatment of mild acne scarring and other skin blemishes. In this application, glycolic acid does a good job of reducing minor skin irregularities and improving the overall appearance of the skin. However, glycolic acid (and most mild chemical peels) do not work well in the treatment of serious acne scarring. There is also some research that suggests that glycolic acid treatment can help improve active acne vulgaris symptoms, although many patients report little or no positive impact on active acne symptoms. At low concentrations, glycolic acid has a similar effect as other keratolytic agents, like salicylic acid. However, even in studies that demonstrate improvements after glycolic acid treatment, very few of these patients experience significant or complete resolution of their acne symptoms.

Patient Reviews of Glycolic Acid

Glycolc Acid Reviews @ Glycolic Reviews – has reviews and forums where patients can discuss their experiences with different acne medications. However, it is important to be aware that some of the information and statements posted on these forums are innacurate, or even completely wrong.
Glycolic Acid Reviews @ Glycolic Acid Reviews – RealSelf also offers forums where patients can discuss and review their experiences. Again, some of the information submitted by users is not accurate.

Cost and Availability of Glycolic Acid

Sugar Cane is a Natural Source of Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid Side Effects

The most common adverse effects of topical glycolic acid treatment are skin irritation, peeling, redness, and scaling. Some patients experience problems with erythema and hyperpigmentation. Generally, side effects resolve within 2 weeks of treatment.  The improper or excessive use of glycolic acid can burn the skin and cause permanent skin damage.

For more information about contraindications in general, refer to Avoiding Negative Drug Interactions.

Related Articles from The Science of Acne

Avoiding Negative Drug Interactions
A Guide to Buying Prescription Medications on the Internet
Prescription Medications Used in Acne Treatment
What causes acne?

References and Sources


PDR Staff Writers. 2011. 2011 Physicians’ Desk Reference
Gallagher. 2011. Antibiotics Simplified, Second Edition
Habif. 2009. Clinical Dermatology
Goodheart. 2006. Acne For Dummies
Bartlett. 2012. Johns Hopkins Antibiotics Guide 2012 (Johns Hopkins Medicine)

Online Resources

Glycolic Acid @ Wikipedia

Scientific Research Articles

  1. Atzori, et al. 1999. Glycolic acid peeling in the treatment of acne.
  2. Wang, et al. 1997. The effect of glycolic acid on the treatment of acne in Asian skin.
  3. Katsambas, et al. 1989. Glycolic Acid versus Jessner’s Solution: Which Is Better for Facial Acne Patients?
  4. Kim, et al. 1999. Clinical studies of 20% azelaic acid cream in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Comparison with vehicle and topical tretinoin.
  5. Spellman, et al. 1998. Efficacy and safety of azelaic acid and glycolic acid combination therapy compared with tretinoin therapy for acne.
  6. Fartasch, et al. 1997. Mode of action of glycolic acid on human stratum corneum:
    ultrastructural and functional evaluation of the epidermal barrier.
  7. Reddu. 2003. The therapeutic value of glycolic acid peels in dermatology.
  8. Kessler, et al. 2003. Comparison of α- and β-Hydroxy Acid Chemical Peels in the Treatment of Mild to Moderately Severe Facial Acne Vulgaris.
  9. Alam, et al. 2002. Glycolic Acid Peels Compared to Microdermabrasion: A Right-Left Controlled Trial of Efficacy and Patient Satisfaction.
  10. Garg, et al. 1989. Glycolic Acid Peels Versus Salicylic–Mandelic Acid Peels in Active Acne Vulgaris and Post-Acne Scarring and Hyperpigmentation: A Comparative Study.