Treating breakouts, evening out skin texture, and removing dead skin cells all at once may seem like a big ask from a single beauty product — but there’s one potent ingredient that can tackle all three concerns (and more) all on its own: glycolic acid. “The water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), of which [glycolic acid] is the smallest, is most often used as an exfoliant in skin-care formulas,” explains cosmetic chemist Stephen Alain Ko.
While providing powerful exfoliation, the powerhouse AHA also improves skin tone, texture, and minimizes hyperpigmentation. You can also expect some boosts to skin’s collagen production —and since the acid helps remove dead skin cells and prevents other buildup from clogging your pores, products with the ingredient can help stop acne breakouts. In short, there’s very little that glycolic acid can’t do.
If you’re new to glycolic acid, it’s best to ease into using the chemical exfoliant. “Start using it slowly, with a lower concentration of 10 percent or less, or with a glycolic acid cleanser,” says Corey L. Hartman, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, Alabama. As your skin adjusts over time, you can start adding products with the sloughing acid into your regime in higher concentrations.
It’s important to note that dermatologists we’ve interviewed agree that glycolic acid is most ideal for oily and acne-prone skin types. However, if you have sensitive skin, you can still proceed — with caution. Consult your board-certified dermatologist before using the ingredient to figure out which treatments (coupled with soothing ingredients like glycerin) are best for you.
No matter what the season, using glycolic acid will keep your skin clear and bright year-round. Ahead, we’ve gathered up 17 of the best glycolic acid products — recommended by dermatologists and Allure editors — in a range of concentrations and formats, to help get you glowing no matter what the state of your skin at the moment.
Ready to feel more confident when reading your beauty products’ ingredient labels? Enter, the Allure Ingredient Index. In this comprehensive guide, you’ll find everything you need to know about the most in-demand (and under-the-radar) ingredients in your favorite skin-care products.