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Glycolic Acid: The small and mighty exfoliant


Hydroxy acids are chemical exfoliants that have become increasingly popular in the cosmetic world. Promoted as an alternative to physical scrubs, these molecules offer benefits such as younger, smoother, and brighter-looking skin without being abrasive. One of the most popular and recognisable hydroxy acids is glycolic acid. But what exactly is glycolic acid, how does it work and what are the skin benefits?

Hydroxy Acids

Firstly, it’s important for to understand a little more about the different hydroxy acids. These molecules are naturally occurring carboxylic acids, which can be synthetic or can be derived from natural sources like sugar cane, milk, or fruits.

The two most common types of hydroxy acids used in cosmetics are beta-hydroxy acid (BHAs) and alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). In terms of their chemistry, the main difference between these molecules is their structure. Both are effective exfoliants, but these structural differences result in BHAs and AHAs having individual functionalities and behaviours.

BHAs, like salicylic acid, dissolve in oil. Salicylic acid can have anti-bacterial properties and target blocked pores. This makes them particularly effective for use on oily, congested, and spot-prone skin. AHAs, like lactic and glycolic acid, will dissolve in water. These are better suited to combating dryness and skin which is showing signs of aging.

Glycolic acid is the most commonly used AHA for exfoliation. So, now let’s focus on glycolic acids to understand their effect on the skin.

The Skin and Glycolic Acid

Our skin consists of cells surrounded by lipids, which form a ‘brick and mortar’ type structure, the cells acting as the bricks and the lipids acting as the mortar. Our skin is constantly renewing itself, with new cells being produced in the deeper layers and ‘dead’ cells being shed from the very top layer. This top layer is a necessary protective part of the skin's structure, but it can thicken, resulting in uneven texture and a dull appearance.

Glycolic acid works by boosting the skin renewal process, unsticking the ‘bricks’ from the ‘mortar’ and allowing the cells to shed evenly from the skin, revealing the smoother, brighter skin underneath. Glycolic acid is smaller in size and has a lower molecular weight, compared with other AHAs, which means it can also penetrate deeper into the skin. It offers other skin benefits such as improved collagen production, increase cell turnover, and improved appearance of skin blemishes, wrinkles, and hyperpigmentation.

It’s clear to see why glycolic acid is such a popular choice! But these benefits aren’t exclusive to facial skincare. Glycolic acid can be used in body applications too, for instance, to smooth stubborn rough patches on the knees and elbows or help exfoliate pesky ingrown hairs.

It is possible for glycolic acid to make the skin more sensitive to light and, in certain individuals, may cause irritation. It is always recommended to follow the on-pack directions, apply an SPF during the day, avoid direct sun exposure where possible, and discontinue use if irritation occurs.

Formulating Glycolic Acid

The intensity of the action will depend on how much glycolic acid has been incorporated into the formulation. A lower inclusion of glycolic acid will provide a gentler exfoliation effect, while a higher inclusion level will offer a more intensive experience. As you may be able to tell by the name, glycolic acid is an acid, and so works best at a lower pH but this needs to be balanced to avoid irritation. Different hydroxy acids may have restrictions on the use levels and pH, to minimise the risk of irritation. The addition of supporting ingredients can help to protect and support the skin.

There are multiple factors to consider when formulating with glycolic acid to ensure optimum product performance. Our experienced team is able to refine formulations to establish ideal inclusion levels and pH, depending on the target market and product format, whilst achieving the most desirable effect.


Here at Orean, our team of industry experts has a track record of producing premium beauty for prestigious brands across the globe. If you are looking to create an AHA-based contact us today. We look forward to hearing from you. We can. We do. We care.

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