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Glycolic Products: The what, why and how. Exfoliating for clearer, brighter skin.

Posted Mar 02 2009 1:51am
As an esthetician, I've seen first hand the glorious radiance that results from glycolic use. I've done my best to compile all the relevant information in one place for you, so that you don't have to go searching everywhere to get your answer.

This month on Spa Boutique, we're highlighting products containing glycolics. But we just wanted to make sure everyone is clear on what and who they are for! Let's begin shall we?


Glycolic Acid is an naturally occurring fruit acid that is found in fruits, beets and sugar cane. It's one of five Alpha Hydroxy Acids (lactic, malic, citric and tartaric...more on  those next week) that are used through out skincare for various purposes.

Glycolic itself is used to encourage the shedding of old, sun damaged, dull, built up surface skin cells to reveal  new, healthy skin. In other words, it exfoliates. Really, really well.

Higher percentages are used professionally by physicians, dermatologists and some spas  to do Chemical Peels; lower percentages are completely safe to use at home on a regular basis.


This is just neat. When applied to the skin it penetrates, dissolving  the "glue" that holds the dead skin cells together and on the skin. No longer attached, they start to peel off. This is not as horrific as it sounds. Once those are  gone, you're left with all that new, baby-fresh skin. Beautiful.

Because of this they can cause sun-sensitivities, so wear sunscreen.


They great thing about glycolics is that in varying degrees and formulations they're beneficial for almost everyone. Standard contraindications apply though, as with most slightly-more-aggressive-skincare:

  • Accutane users. Wait at least a year after your finished your round of this medication before you attempt glycolic use. Burning and scarring has been know to happen.
  • Herpes, cold sores, severe acne or any other reason for having open lesions on the skin. Wait until everything is completely healed before branching into glycolic use.
  • Undergoing cancer treatment.
  • Extremely sensitive skin or rosacea. Look for specific formulations for these skin types such as MD Skincare. If it's too much for your skin, you'll know. Stop using it.
  • Extreme, thick scarring.
  • Bleeding disorders
  • ** Pregnancy ** This is something that comes up quite frequently and has no definitive answer. There are no studies proving or dis-proving the safety of glycolic use during pregnancy. More than likely it's fine, but always consult your doctor first. During the first 3-6 months of a pregnancy skin can be more reactive as well, so do be cautious and use the gentlest skincare possible.

Why are they so awesome?

  • It will help to reduce the look of the first signs of aging, fine lines, brown spots and help clear up the appearance of acne.
  • It exfoliates, leaving skin radiant and smooth
  • It may increase circulation, improving collagen and elastin production over time, this has not been fully proven yet though
  • It allows other products to penetrate easier, meaning that obscenely expensive serum you purchased will do a better job.
  • Glycolics are also moisturizing as well, but a regular use of a moisturizer is always recommended

How does it benefit specific skin types?

All product usage ultimately comes down to personal taste and experience, but it's always good to make sure you have realistic expectations and are using the product properly to see results. Regardless of skintype or condition some pinkness or tingling may occur but it should never be unbearable. Always finish with a moisturizer and SPF.

  • Normal Skin: 2-3 times a week will help to refine texture, exfoliate away build up and may fade small scars.
  • Dry skin: Following the directions of your specific product, it will help to moisturize and increase the effectiveness of serums and moisturizers applied afterward. You may experience some flaky patches for a bit, but stick to it!
  • Oily/acneic skin: More consistent use, daily or twice daily, glycolics will help to control oil. That in combination with the exfoliating properties will help to clear and even out the skin. At the beginning there may be a flare up of blackheads and pimples, but this is common and should calm down after awhile. Also look for brands that combine salicylic acid with the glycolic for effective results.
  • Mature Skin: Consistent use will again help to dimish the look of fine lines and make all other anti-aging products more effective. Glycolic products can be used in combination with Retin-A, but should be used alternately. This is an aggressive and effective way to improve texture but can cause irritation and redness. Talk to your dermatologist or esthetician before under going this course, and pay attention to how your skin reacts.
  • Sensitive: Use glycolics with caution, do a spot test on your inner wrist to see how it goes. If there is no reaction then by all means go ahead! Gradually work up to more regular use.

Interesting and important facts that did not fit under the other headings.

You absolutely must use a full skincare regimen with glycolics. They do not protect the skin in any way and can leave it slightly more vulnerable. Hydrate and apply sunscreen, ideally as a mineral makeup. Those tend to be gentler on the skin and more effective sunblocks. I cannot stress this enough.

You don't necessarily have to use glycolic products year round. Some professionals say yes, some no. Talk to your skincare solution provider to see what they recommend for you. You can always use them in cycles. 3 months on, 3 months off.

The percentages for home use should be around 10%, but new findings are saying the % doesn't matter as much as the pH. I could not find a reliable source of information to provide an answer to that though. Many professional lines will not even display the % (such as MD Skincare ) and some do ( B. Kamins, Intaglio ). You'll know if it's working if you get a slight tingling.

If you suffer from those little bumpies on the backs of your arms, Keratosis Pilaris, a glycolic product can be great to solve that.

In Conclusion:

Glycolics provide a simple and extremely effective way to a beautiful complexion. They've come a long way and are more effective and easier to tolerate than ever before. If you haven't tried them before, Spa Boutique carries several lines: Intaglio, Skeyndor, B.Kamins and MD Skincare. For the month of February, everything in our Glycolics Catergory is 20% off. This is a great time to try!

If you have any further questions, please don't hesitate to ask. We live for this stuff.

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