Using Glycolic Acid to Treat Acne
Glycolic acid is one of the most useful products for “peeling” the skin to remove the brown spots that often linger on the skin after acne heals. Glycolic acid has to be used at the right concentration and at the right pH to work, and not every skin type responds well to glycolic acid in acne treatment. Here is what you need to know about glycolic acid for acne-affected skin.
- Glycolic acid is a “fruit acid” used to peel blemished skin.
- Glycolic acid has to be used at the right concentration and the right pH or it won’t work.
- The most expensive glycolic acid products work about as well as the least expensive glycolic acid products.
- Any product that you put on the skin for only a few seconds before rinsing does your skin little or no good.
- Alcohol and essential oils can trigger new blemishes even if the other ingredients in the product remove old blemishes.
What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxyl acid (AHA) derived from sugarcane. Glycolic acid is often combined with benzoyl peroxide to create acne treatments. This acid is able to deeply penetrate the skin due to the fact that it has small molecules1, making it also one of the best treatments for wrinkles, fine lines, oiliness, dullness and blackheads. Chemicals peels which have this acid are quite effective in treating inflammatory acne2. Most chemical peels use a high percentage of glycolic acid, which make them effective when properly used.
In addition, consistent use of this acid in lower doses will also get you good results, just as much as heavy concentration peels, except that this is safer to use with a lower chance of causing skin irritation. This acid works by inhibiting the growth of p. acnes3, which is the bacteria that is responsible for the growth of acne. Peels and creams made using glycolic acid exfoliate the skin4, helping to get rid of dead skin cells and unclog pores. Exfoliation is important since oily skin and acne prone skin exfoliate naturally much more slowly than other skin types. This makes them prone to big, clogged pores, which can result in nodular acne or whiteheads and blackheads. According to the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, increasing the ability of the skin to naturally exfoliate reduces chances of acne flare ups.
Glycolic acid also keeps the skin moisturized5. This together with the removal of dry, flaky skin cells helps to keep the skin healthy and balanced since the production of oil and sebum on the skin is regulated. Spot treatment on an affected area can prove to be effective if dealt with early enough. If you notice a pimple forming, treat it with 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide and give it time to dry. Then apply 10 percent glycolic acid, this combination of benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid helps stubborn skin parts on the body, such as the back and the back of the neck. When using this treatment, apply it in generous amounts on the affected area.
For glycolic acid to be effective, you need to use it at a pH of 3 to 4, so that it doesn’t burn your skin or cause skin irritation. A product that just has pure glycolic acid at lower concentration levels is much more effective than a product that combines this acid with other ingredients.
Exfoliation products that contain glycolic acid or lactic acid are a much better substitute for products that contain salicylic acid if you are pregnant6; it is risky to use salicylic acid when you are pregnant.
Where Would You Find Glycolic Acid Products?
Most people don’t go to the cosmetics counter or surf the internet with “glycolic acid” in mind when they look for acne skin care. And most acne products that contain glycolic acid don’t have the term “glycolic acid” in their names. Here are some common glycolic acid acne products, good and bad, expensive and inexpensive:
- [C] Renewal Double Renewal System by Sothys Paris sells for US $120 for two 0.5 oz (14 gram) tubes of glycolic acid and a neutralizing agent.
- Acne Spot Treatment by Murad retails for US $19.95 for 0.5 oz/15 ml.
- Acne Wash by B. Kamins, Chemist retails for US $34.00 for 8 oz/240 ml.
- Advanced Solutions Complete Acne Therapy System by Neutrogena retails for US $24.99.
- Alpha Hydrox Foaming
- Clear Skin Blemish Dissolver by Kinerase retails for US $39.00 for 0.12 oz/4 ml.
- Clearskin Blemish Clearing Pads by Avon sell for US $4.99 per box of 30.
- Facial Cleansers I, II, and III, with 12%, 15%, and 20% glycolic acids by M. D. Forte, retail for US $25, $28, and $30.
- Pores No More Vacuum Cleaner by Dr. Brandt retails for US $45.00.
- PurAcne Oxygen Purifying Gel by G. M. Collin retails for US $36.00 for 8 oz/240 ml.
Now let’s take a look at what makes these glycolic acid products work, or not.
[C] Renewal Double Renewal System
This pricy glycolic acid product provides a small amount of glycolic acid—about 3.6%, up to 30% may be beneficial—that is followed with small amount of a neutralizing agent that ensures there is no lasting irritation to the skin. For about $120 a treatment once or twice a week, it will lighten brown spots left when pimples heal in about two months. Unlike other Sothys products, it is fragrance-free and safe for allergy-prone skin.
Other products that works as well, however, cost over 75% less, such as the Neutrogena Advanced Solutions product mentioned below.
Acne Spot Treatment by Murad
Murad is one of the best known names in skin care. That does not guarantee all Murad products will work.
The Murad Acne Spot Treatment contains a tiny amount of glycolic acid for removing dead skin cells that can block pores from dry skin, plus about 1% salicylic acid for removing dead skin cells that can block pores from oily skin. The main active ingredient in the product, however, is sulfur.
Sulfur really does kill bacteria7 and relieve irritation, but none of the ingredients in the spot treatment stays on the skin to do any good. They are rinsed down the drain almost as soon as they are put on the skin.
Acne Wash by B. Kamins, Chemist
Acne Wash by B. Kamins, Chemist is unusual among products that claim to stop acne breakouts in that it actually stops acne breakouts. The main active ingredient in this formula is salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that helps open pores on either dry or oily skin. The product contains glycolic acid and lactic acid (fruit and milk acids, respectively) to buffer the other ingredients and to break down dead skin that isn’t stuck to the skin with oil.
There is just a little mint in this formula, enough to make it smell nice, but not enough to cause irritation. Still, it’s probably a good idea to be careful when using this product around the eyes. The longer you leave the product on your skin before your rinse—up to about 5 minutes—the more good it will do for your skin.
Advanced Solutions Complete Acne Therapy System (by Neutrogena)
Here is a combination of three products that only cost $24.99 that also actually work for treating acne and preventing breakouts. This Neutrogena acne therapy system has you start with a cleansing scrub. There is a tiny amount of glycolic acid and salicylic acid in the product, but it really works by the “scrubbing” action of tiny beads of polyethylene plastic in the foaming cleanser. These beads remove dead skin and hardened skin oil without scratching or cutting the skin.
The acne therapy system also offers a Sun Shield Day Lotion with SPF 15. The added benefit of this product is that it protects the skin with zinc oxide. The zinc in the formula helps reduce inflammation8 and irritation in the skin in addition to protecting the skin against mild sun for short periods. The only possible drawbacks to using this sunblock are that it’s really not strong enough for tropical or desert skin protection, and it can leave a slight white cast to the skin.
Finally, the Advanced Solutions Complete Acne Therapy System provides an overnight skin treatment that contains 2.5% benzoyl peroxide, and just the benzoyl peroxide, not a lot of additional ingredients that can irritate the skin. This is enough to kill acne bacteria9 without causing any irritation on most skin types. It is always a good idea, however, to test any acne product on your forearm before using it on your face. If it causes arm irritation, it will certainly cause face irritation, and you should be sure to take the product back for a refund.
Alpha Hydrox Foaming Face Wash
Here is a product that actually works at a bargain price. It strips off makeup without harming the skin, but because it contains alpha-hydroxy acids, including glycolic acid, it will also slowly get rid of browning and discoloration. Safe to use even on darker skin, this product only costs about $0.40 per use, compared to $120 for some other brands. The formula available in the USA may not actually contain glycolic acid, using citric acid instead, but works just as well as those that do.
Clear Skin Blemish Dissolver by Kinerase
Here is a product that contains the right amount of glycolic acid at the right pH to remove blemishes. Unfortunately, it also contains the right amount of lemon oil to cause them to return.
Clearskin Blemish Clearing Pads by Avon
Here is another product that contains the right amount of glycolic acid and salicylic acid at the right pH to exfoliate the skin and remove brown blemishes. This product contains so much alcohol, however, that it stimulates the production of sebum and causes new breakouts that make you constantly need to the product.
Facial Cleansers I, II, and III, with 12%, 15%, and 20% glycolic acids by M. D. Forte
Here are some products that won’t harm your skin. They just won’t do your skin any particular good, either, because the glycolic acid in the cleanser is almost immediately rinsed down the drain. Many much less expensive cleansers work just as well. Be sure not to splash any of these products into your eyes10. They will burn.
Pores No More Vacuum Cleaner by Dr. Brandt
One of the lingering problems of successful acne treatment is enlarged pores, especially after removal of blackheads. There is no vacuum and not a lot of cleaner with Pores No More Vacuum Cleaner by Dr. Brandt. Instead, this product is a mask you apply to the skin. Like most facial masks, it is good for removing excess oil. It just won’t remove pores. If you want to conceal pores, use powder to create an even matte on your skin. It’s a lot less expensive, and it doesn’t contain any of the irritant ingredients in this mask, including alcohol and lavender oil.
PurAcne Oxygen Purifying Gel by G. M. Collin
Here is another product that offers glycolic and salicylic acids for exfoliating the skin in a form that gets rinsed down the drain before they have a chance to work. The rose, geranium, boldo, arnica, and chamomile extracts in the product, however, stick to skin and can cause skin irritation long after use11.
Using Glycolic Acid
The best treatment plan when using glycolic acid is to use a cleanser, which probably has benzoyl peroxide too, for two to three weeks and then follow this up by using glycolic peels for six weeks. If this doesn’t work, simply stop treatments for a week or two and then start another round of treatment. Do this until your skin clears. Giving your skin a break in between treatment periods is essential in preventing your skin from getting stripped of essential oils.
Since most glycolic acid treatments are meant to be used on mature skin, they mostly have moisturizers and comodogenic oils that aim at moisturizing non acne affected skin. When purchasing a product, always check the ingredients and choose oil free versions. Women who are in their 40’s and above find this product such an advantage to use, since it helps to fight wrinkles and keep the skin moisturized, plus is it quite gentle on the skin.
When used as a standalone product, you can use this treatment plan on a daily basis but if your skin is already clear and you are just using the product to fade away hyper pigmentation on the skin, you can use this product once or twice a week.
There are various risks to using this product if it is not properly handled due to the fact that it is an active ingredient. It can cause redness of skin or irritation if it is used at a higher concentration than what your skin is used to. In severe cases it can lead to frosting, though this typically only happens during strong, deep chemical peels. This is where your skin crusts as a form of self preservation. This can last for several days. If you pick at this frosting, it will lead to scarring and hyper pigmentation. Only use a concentration of 10 percent or more if you know what you are doing. It is not necessary to use a concentration of 20 percent or more. A higher concentration does not necessarily mean more effectiveness. Mild concentrations when used consistently will work to clear acne and keep blackheads away. Even though benzoyl peroxide and retinol can be used together, you have to be careful since you can experience skin irritation if you use products that have vitamin A, Accutane or AHA since BP makes skin sensitive12. It is advisable to use sunscreen when using BP to prevent skin hyper pigmentation.
In general, the glycolic acid products that work the best are also the least expensive. Acne treatment systems tend to be the easiest way to treat acne, including Exposed Skin Care.
- Sharad J. Glycolic acid peel therapy – a current review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2013;6:281–288. Published 2013 Nov 11.
- Chen X, Wang S, Yang M, Li L. Chemical peels for acne vulgaris: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. BMJ Open. 2018;8(4):e019607. Published 2018 Apr 28.
- Takenaka Y, Hayashi N, Takeda M, Ashikaga S, Kawashima M. Glycolic acid chemical peeling improves inflammatory acne eruptions through its inhibitory and bactericidal effects on Propionibacterium acnes. J Dermatol. 2012 Apr;39(4):350-4.
- Soleymani T, Lanoue J, Rahman Z. A Practical Approach to Chemical Peels: A Review of Fundamentals and Step-by-step Algorithmic Protocol for Treatment. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2018;11(8):21–28.
- Vidt DG, Bergfeld WF. Cosmetic use of alpha-hydroxy acids. Cleve Clin J Med. 1997 Jun;64(6):327-9. Review.
- Trivedi MK, Kroumpouzos G, Murase JE. A review of the safety of cosmetic procedures during pregnancy and lactation. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2017;3(1):6–10. Published 2017 Feb 27.
- Gupta AK, Nicol K. The use of sulfur in dermatology. J Drugs Dermatol. 2004 Jul-Aug;3(4):427-31. Review.
- Gupta M, Mahajan VK, Mehta KS, Chauhan PS. Zinc therapy in dermatology: a review. Dermatol Res Pract. 2014;2014:709152.
- Kraft J, Freiman A. Management of acne. CMAJ. 2011;183(7):E430–E435.
- U.S. National Librery of Medicine. Glycolid acid. Retrieved from (https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/glycolic_acid)
- Hausen BM. [Arnica allergy]. Hautarzt. 1980 Jan;31(1):10-7. Review. German
- Kawashima M, Nagare T, Doi M. Clinical efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide for acne vulgaris: Comparison between Japanese and Western patients. J Dermatol. 2017;44(11):1212–1218.
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