Your 30s are a strange time. Your friends are settling down and getting married and having kids, grey hairs start popping up in the mirror, and you experience a strange skin care phenomenon: acne AND wrinkles. Cute.
And while the stuff that you used when you were 16 might not cut it anymore, there is something you can use to nip both skin issues in the bud. It’s called glycolic acid, and there’s a reason why it’s in every peel and exfoliator.
What is glycolic acid?
Glycolic acid is an exfoliant in the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) group that’s found naturally in plants like sugar cane, beets, and pineapple. It has the smallest molecule of the acid group, which means your skin can absorb it quickly—making it produce the most visible results in less time than other AHAs.
Cool, so what exactly does it do?
Glycolic acid is commonly used to unclog pores and treat acne, says Debra Jaliman, M.D., the assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. That’s because glycolic acid is a powerful exfoliant, clearing away the dead skin cells that can fill up your cells and lead to blackheads and whiteheads.
However, you’ll also find it in anti-aging products and peels, since the exfoliating ingredient can help treat dullness, uneven skin tone, and fine lines. Research also shows that glycolic acid can increase collagen production and thicken the outer layer of the skin—leaving you with a plumper and more even texture.
How do you use glycolic acid?
Jennifer MacGregor, M.D., of Union Square Laser Dermatology, says as with other AHAs, you should use a product with glycolic acid in the morning on a clean face, then use an antioxidant serum and sunscreen.
As for what kind of product is best, Jaliman prefers a glycolic acid peel (like Pixi Glow Peel Pads) or a cleanser that has glycolic acid.
Since it’s such a powerful ingredient, you’ll likely want to stay away from using potent exfoliating compounds like retinol or other alpha hydroxy acids on the days when you use glycolic acid (otherwise, you’ll risk drying out your skin). Either stick with it as your main treatment, or alternate days with other ingredients.
MacGregor says that sensitive skin types are generally pretty tolerant of glycolic acid. However, if you’re worried about it, try starting out at a lower concentration, or using it every other day, to see how your skin deals.