Ask Curology: What does glycolic acid do?

Should you exfoliate with this alpha hydroxy acid?

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Oct 20, 2020 · 4 min read

Person rubbing skincare cream on their face
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Welcome to Ask Curology, penned by one of our in-house medical providers in response to your questions about all things skincare. This week we ask: is glycolic acid an effective ingredient for your skin? Here’s what we know.

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Dear Curology,

I was asking my friends how to get glowy skin, and more than one of them mentioned glycolic acid. Supposedly, it’s the best thing ever for acne and signs of aging. But there are so many different glycolic acid products out there, it’s hard to tell how it actually works. So I have a couple questions for you! What is glycolic acid really? What are the benefits? How often should I use it? And what glycolic acid products do you think are the best?


Glow Girl

Dear Glow,

I feel you. Even I get flustered sometimes when browsing the skincare aisle — and skincare is my full-time job! But glycolic acid is definitely an ingredient worth learning about. As you mentioned, it can help with both acne and signs of aging, and many people use it throughout their lifetime to target a variety of skincare concerns. So, let’s get learning!

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that’s derived from sugarcane (sweet!). You can find it at lower strengths in over-the-counter products and at higher strengths as a treatment in a dermatologist’s office. Glycolic acid is generally safe to use,¹ but there are a few things to consider before you start slathering your skin with this topical acid.

What are the benefits?

Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant that helps buff away dead surface skin cells without going deep into pores. This makes it a great option for those with dry or sensitive skin! AHAs (including glycolic acid) have been shown to help unclog pores, improve skin texture, reduce fine lines and wrinkles,² boost collagen production, and fade dark spots.³ Whew! Talk about a multi-talented ingredient.

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What are the risks?

Be aware that AHAs (including glycolic acid) can make you more sensitive to the sun.⁴ So, it’s important to only use these products at night. And as always, make sure to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 every day.

Also, keep in mind that exfoliation is easy to overdo. Over-exfoliated skin has lost too many dead surface skin cells. This can cause your skin to look shiny but not oily. Over-exfoliation can also result in redness, tightness, and dryness. If you start to experience any of these symptoms with glycolic acid, back off a bit!

How can you add glycolic acid to your routine?

If you’d like to try adding an over-the-counter glycolic acid product to your routine, we suggest you start by using it just 1–2 times per week at bedtime. If you’re able to tolerate the product without dryness or irritation, you can slowly start using it more often.

There are lots of great glycolic acid products out there, but here are a few of our favorites:

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We hope you find this information helpful! Feel free to sound off in the comments with questions, or get in touch with your Curology medical provider. If you’re not a member yet, you can sign up for a free month of Curology (just pay $4.95 + tax to cover shipping and handling). Members get paired with an in-house medical provider (like me!) for a custom skincare experience.

All my best,

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.


  1. Jane Liedtka. Glycolic Acid. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. (2016, November 3).

  2. Jessica H. Rabe, et al. Photoaging: mechanisms and repair. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (July 2006).

  3. Andrea L Zaenglein, et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016, February 17).

  4. Jane Liedtka. Glycolic Acid. Ibid.

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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