Pretty much everyone dreams of radiant skin, right? I know I do. That fresh, dewy, and healthy look is just so sought after. We'll do anything to make it happen. But most of us, unfortunately, aren't born with naturally radiant skin. I don't have too many skin complaints, but I still don't wake up every morning with a glowy face. When my skin goes through its dry spells, my face looks far from it.
But luckily, there are plenty of ingredients and products that can help you get that glow. Glycolic acid is one of them. It's an alpha-hydroxy acid, which is found in food and plant products—glycolic acid comes from sugar cane. "AHAs like glycolic acid are useful in skincare, as they break the bonds between dead skin cells," explains board-certified dermatologist Ife Rodney, MD, FAAD, of Eternal Dermatology and Aesthetics. "Glycolic acid speeds up cell turnover of these surface cells while stimulating new skin cell growth. Because it is a very small molecule, it easily penetrates the skin to give quick results. As it also stimulates collagen production deeper in the skin, it reduces the appearance of wrinkles, fine lines, acne scars, and chronic sun damage."
In particular, AHAs are ideal for oily or combination skin types because they easily penetrate the skin and remove excess oil and dead skin. And Rodney says that if you have dry, scaly skin or a dull complexion, glycolic acid may also be a perfect match. "It sloughs off the dry, dull skin to reveal a glowing complexion," she adds.
Some skin types might want to use glycolic acid products with caution, though. If you have sensitive skin, you might experience irritation, especially if you use it too frequently or at high concentrations. "Also, people with darker skin types should be cautious when using glycolic acid. Although glycolic acid is an effective treatment for dark spots, it can instead be the cause of hyperpigmentation (skin darkening) when the higher concentrations cause irritation and inflammation," Rodney says.
A great way to incorporate glycolic acid into your skincare routine is through a cleanser. Rodney says that with a glycolic acid cleanser, you can get a gentle dose of AHA to exfoliate the skin, improve hydration, and promote collagen growth. "A cleanser has the advantage of being in a formulation that is not left on the skin for extended periods, but instead is applied for a short time, then washed off. This way, you get the exfoliation without irritation," she says.
Because there is a low concentration of glycolic acid in the cleansers, it's safe to use every day. But Rodney recommends testing the product first for signs of irritation. And if you are using this type of cleanser, make sure to be even more careful about sun protection. "Since glycolic acid removes the top layer of cells, your skin is more vulnerable to sun damage," Rodney says. "It's important that you use a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and above before you head outside. Glycolic acid cleansers can also be harsh on your skin when combined with other products containing retinol and benzoyl peroxide, or other AHAs."
When it comes to choosing a glycolic acid cleanser, Rodney says the first thing you should look for on the label is the concentration level. "You'll typically want a concentration of less than 10%," she recommends. "Look for other AHAs like lactic acid or mandelic acid, that work well with glycolic acid. If the cleanser also contains hydrating ingredients, like glycerin, that's an added bonus."
Take a look at some glycolic acid cleansers Rodney recommends below, plus other editors' picks.
Rodney says this cleanser from Mario Badescu contains about 4% glycolic acid and a range of plant extracts to smooth and moisturize your skin.
Rodney also recommends Glytone's Mild Cream Cleanser. She says it moisturizes the skin with glycerin and vitamin C and contains 3.4% glycolic and lactic acid.
"It can double as a mask since it contains volcanic ash and clay along with glycolic acid to get deep into your pores and wash away the excess buildup," Rodney says.
This cleanser is powered by 8% glycolic acid and 1% phytic acid to dissolve dead skin cells and remove dirt and impurities. It also contains 2% aloe barbadensis leaf extract to leave your skin moisturized and refreshed.
With 3.5% pure glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and aloe, this gel cleanser will resurface the skin and minimize pores.
Free of alcohol and sulfates, this foam cleanser works to cleanse makeup, debris, and dirt. It's formulated with glycolic, azelaic, gluconolactone, and salicylic acids, plus green coffee bean extract to promote a glow.
Botanic Tree's exfoliating cleanser contains 10% glycolic acid and tiny microbeads to eliminate dead skin cells, dirt, and makeup. It can also improve hyperpigmentation.
This daily foaming cleanser contains glycolic and lactic acids to clear buildup and refine pores, plus papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin enzymes to exfoliate.
This is one of my favorite daily cleansers. As a fan of gel formulas, I love the consistency and that it also foams up a little when massaging onto your face. It contains both glycolic acid and glycerin, so it exfoliates any dead skin, but it also locks in moisture and hydration.
Insta Natural's glycolic cleanser has anti-aging benefits—it's formulated to reduce the look of fine lines, pores, and uneven texture. It's a gentle exfoliator with glycolic acid, cucumber extract, organic chamomile, green tea extract, sugar cane, willow bark, and vitamin E.
Glow Recipe's lightweight gel formula consists of blueberry extract (to protect against environmental stressors), hyaluronic acid (for deep hydration), and an AHA blend of lactic acid and glycolic acid (for exfoliation).
This cleanser might be the most concentrated one on the list with 27% glycolic acid. Even though it's powerful, it won't strip the skin dry. It also contains soothing allantoin, aloe, and chamomile extracts.
This creamy cleanser has both AHA and BHAs for a deep clean—in particular, it has glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids. There's also jojoba beads for mechanical exfoliation.
Not only does this cleanser contain glycolic acid, but it also contains vitamin C, which means it has extra brightening powers.
Tarte's AHA/BHA cleanser contains a complex of lactic, glycolic, and salicylic acids to retexturize and refine the skin. Other ingredients like apple extract, peppermint, and eucalyptus will leave the skin feeling hydrated and refreshed.
And for a body wash option, try this one from Sanitas. It will deeply exfoliate and smooth the skin of any roughness. It also contains aloe vera to prevent any irritation.