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Glycolic Acid & Acne Breakouts

Glycolic Acid & Acne Breakouts Glycolic Acid & Acne Breakouts


Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant derived from sugar cane and is one of the mildest members of the alpha hydroxy family, according to Discovery Health. Applied topically, it encourages cell turnover, diminishes the appearance of surface imperfections and improves skin's overall health. Due to its rejuvenating qualities, glycolic acid is commonly promoted as a treatment for aging. It is also used in over-the-counter and prescription-strength acne products.

How It Works

Unlike exfoliants that use tiny particles to physically buff away skin, glycolic acid exfoliates by penetrating and breaking apart the surface of the epidermis. This uppermost layer of skin is composed of dead and damaged cells held together by sticky, glue-like bonds. By loosening these bonds, glycolic acid helps lift away the dead layer of cells to reveal the newer, healthier skin beneath.


Acne breakouts occur when hair follicles become clogged with sebum, bacteria and dead skin cells. As a chemical exfoliant, glycolic acid works to treat and prevent acne by cleaning blockages and maintaining clear pores. It also possesses a mild drying effect that can offset excessive sebum production.

Another benefit of glycolic acid is its ability to gradually peel away dark marks and spots caused by acne. With consistent, extended use, skin may appear smoother and more even-toned.

Over-The-Counter Glycolic Acid

At-home glycolic acid acne treatments are available in cream, cleanser, lotion and serum form. Typically formulated for daily use, they tend to be milder than their professional-grade counterparts. Even so, over-the-counter products may still irritate the skin. When starting a new treatment, Discovery Health recommends using the product every other day before moving on to daily use.

Glycolic Acid Peels

Facial peels performed by dermatologists and aestheticians can contain up to 70 percent glycolic acid. Though this is stronger than at-home formulations, glycolic acid peels are still relatively mild. According to Dr. Richard G. Fried, author of "Healing Adult Acne," it can take four to six treatments to achieve noticeable results. Each session typically lasts for 15 to 20 minutes, during which time the acid is applied, left on for three minutes, neutralized and washed off.

Side Effects and Warning

The use of any glycolic acid product can produce side effects, including mild redness, irritation and flaking. These effects are temporary, usually lasting no more than a few hours. Immediately discontinue use of the product if side effects persist or become more severe. The FDA also warns that glycolic acid can temporarily increase UV light sensitivity. Avoid sun damage by wearing sunscreen and limiting exposure for at least a week after your final glycolic acid treatment.

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