You may have heard of its more famous sister salicylic acid, but chances are, you’ve been using glycolic acid in exfoliating products without even realising it.
It’s an alpha-hydroxy acid (a.k.a. AHA), whose star is burning bright as an effective hero ingredient in beauty products. Glycolic acid offers a myriad of benefits, from anti-ageing to brightening and dark spot lightening – and one of the best at that even.
Want to find out more about glycolic acid? Daily Vanity has put together a quick guide to tell you what you need to know about this miracle ingredient and 18 of the best products to try.
What are the differences between glycolic acid and salicylic acid?
Glycolic acid belongs to the group of AHAs, which are water-soluble acids. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), an oil-soluble compound. While there are several different types of AHAs – all of which are said to be ace at exfoliating – glycolic acid yields the best results with the least harmful effects.
A derivative of sugar cane, glycolic acid is also the AHA with the smallest molecular structure, which explains why it’s so effective at delivering such sweet results. It really goes right into the skin to exfoliate it thoroughly, dissolving dead skin cells and encouraging cell turnover in the process. Happy effects of all this is a boost in moisture and collagen production.
Salicylic acid, however, decreases sebum production in the skin. It’s better suited for those with oily, acne-prone skin because sebum can clog pores and increase your chances of a breakout. The exfoliating, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects of salicylic acid are also great for acne-prone skin.
The benefits of glycolic acid
Because of its powers of gentle exfoliation, glycolic acid is extolled for its skin rejuvenation and anti-ageing properties. Smoothing out fine lines and wrinkles, plumping out the skin, fading hyperpigmentation, brightening the skin tone, and unblocking pores are all par for the course when you use a glycolic acid-infused product in your routine.
A 10% concentration of glycolic acid is the maximum concentration that over-the-counter glycolic acid products are allowed to contain, but that’s certainly more than enough for your weekly exfoliation at home.
How should I use glycolic acid properly?
You’ll want to make sure you don’t mix glycolic acid or other AHAs with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) or retinol, as these will render your AHAs ineffective. If you’re exfoliating your skin with glycolic acid, make sure you slather on sunscreen – the ingredient increases your skin’s sun sensitivity.
While applying a product with a higher percentage of glycolic acid may feel more potent, that’s not always the case. The pH value of the product is just as important. You’ll want to look for a higher acid concentration and a lower pH value for the best effect, as this helps to break down the glue binding dead skin cells more quickly in a process, known as the keratolytic effect.
15 best glycolic acid products to try
Without further ado, scope out these well-reviewed glycolic acid products that we’ve found and say hello to the best skin you’ve seen in a while!
1. Pixi Glow Tonic
If this is your first encounter with glycolic acid, the Pixi Glow Tonic is a good place to start. You may have seen it all over your social media feeds because it’s supposedly THAT good and has reached cult classic status among beauty junkies (we’ve reviewed it ourselves too, read it here).
It is a lightweight resurfacing toner that’s not too harsh – containing a middling 5% concentration of glycolic acid so your face doesn’t feel stripped. It also contains aloe leaf juice and horse chestnut to calm your skin down as the acid exfoliates.
We’d say this is as gentle as glycolic acid toners go, and we love that it strikes a great balance between shedding off those dead skin cells and keeping your skin hydrated.
Get it at RM70 (100ml) or RM145 (250ml) from Sephora.my.
2. Derma E Overnight Peel
Clean beauty brand Derma E’s Overnight Peel contains 5% glycolic acid and promises a gentle exfoliating experience with its leave-on overnight formula that’s basically one-and-done.
While creamy in texture, it absorbs quickly into the skin, so you don’t need to worry about transferring this all over your pillow. Fans of this peel like that it does exactly what it says it’ll do – peel off those dull dead skin cells overnight as you sleep, so you wake up with radiant, renewed skin after washing off.
Other awesome ingredients that are included in this formula include fellow AHA lactic acid to reduce pigmentation, and jojoba seed oil, which is an emollient that richly moisturises the skin. We do love ourselves a multitasking product!
Get it at RM103.90 from Shopee.
3. Innisfree Green Barley Gommage Peeling Mask
For those of you who love the sight of dead skin cells balling up as you massage the product into your face, this Innisfree Gommage mask is the product for you. “Gommage” is a French exfoliation technique that has the meaning of erasing! And erase it does for sure, as it pulls double duty as a chemical and physical exfoliant.
This dual-acid mask contains both glycolic acid and salicylic acid to reveal baby soft skin in literally three minutes. Its other active ingredient is fermented green barley from Jeju island, which is a natural exfoliator that works really well with cellulose to gently scrub your skin.
Get it at RM45 on Althea.
4. Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel
This product was awarded Best Facial Exfoliant Pad in our most recent Beauty Awards, and for good reason! It’s an excellent peel to use daily for rejuvenated, radiant skin. Yes, it also tightens up those pesky fine lines, evens out your skin tone and clears out blocked pores.
This is a two-step treatment, comprising two wipes that are soaked in loads of the good stuff. The first wipe contains a potent cocktail of seven different AHAs and BHAs, including our acid of the moment, glycolic acid, to exfoliate dead skin cells and clean out clogged pores.
Crack open the second wipe that’s packed with retinol and resveratrol to turn back the clock on your skin. These potent ingredients increase collagen production and protect the skin from free radical damage.
Get it at RM536 for a box of 30 from Shopee.
5. Glossier Solution
If you’re a beauty junkie – or even if you’re not – this holy grail exfoliator in its distinctive pretty pink bottle will be a sight for sore eyes. It’s known for being one of the gentlest chemical exfoliators on the market, containing a very palatable cocktail of alpha, beta, and even poly-hydroxy acids that your skin will love.
Some of the active acids in this cult product include glycolic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, and gluconolactone. Four weeks is all it takes for this best-selling solution to grant its multitude of benefits on your dull and congested face.
Get it at RM99.52 (USD24) from Glossier, and ship it to Malaysia via a parcel-forwarding service.
6. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% Exfoliator
If you’re Team Gel when it comes to skincare products, you’ll like this weightless gel exfoliator from Paula’s Choice. Containing 8% concentration of glycolic acid with the optimal pH range of 3.5 to 3.9, this leave-on exfoliator really does as it says it will and perfects the skin.
Non-abrasive and extremely effective, this gel will leave your skin looking and feeling noticeably revitalised. It’s even gentle enough to use twice a day but we recommend going easy if you’re just starting out with AHAs.
Get it at RM145 from Paula’s Choice Malaysia.
7. The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution
We aren’t surprised to find cult brand The Ordinary here with a glycolic acid toner on this list. Known for its hero ingredient products, this toner is precisely that – a water-based glycolic acid toner that’s power-packed with a 7% concentration of glycolic acid.
To counter any potential skin irritation that could occur, this toner also includes soothing botanical extracts like Tasmanian pepperberry extract, aloe vera extract and ginseng extract, as well as hydrating and healing amino acids. Talk about a truly potent toner!
Get it at RM80 from Threebs.
8. Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner
Another AHA toner on this list is Mario Badescu’s glycolic acid toner with zero alcohol. It stands out for its lower concentration of glycolic acid at only 2%, so it’s gentle enough for daily use.
The glycolic acid works really well together with soothing aloe and grapefruit to refine pores and reduce the appearance of fine lines without stripping your skin of moisture. Side note: How pretty is the soothing aqua colour of this toner?
Get it at RM105 from Sephora.my.
9. IT Cosmetics Hello Results Baby-Smooth Glycolic Peel + Caring Oil
Meet this time-saving, two-in-one product that’s one part exfoliating peel, one part soothing oil by IT Cosmetics: Hello Results Baby-Smooth Glycolic Peel + Caring Oil. You can see the two visible products layers separated in the bottle, so give it a satisfying shake before pumping it onto your hand for application.
Developed with the help of dermatologists, this product is a wonderful invention indeed. It visibly exfoliates with glycolic acid, then immediately soothes and nourishes the skin with a combination of meadowseed and argan oils. It’s little wonder that it’s suitable for even the most sensitive of skin types for visibly smoother, baby-soft skin.
Get it at RM270.21 from Cult Beauty.
10. Reviva Labs 10% Glycolic Acid Cream
This anti-ageing cream contains 10% glycolic acid, packing a punch whilst remaining gentle on the skin. A plethora of botanical extracts like aloe leaf extract, olive oil, clary oil, safflower oil, carrot root extract, and honeysuckle flower extract work together to keep the skin moisturised, so that it doesn’t dry out while the glycolic acid works its exfoliating magic.
It works like a dream in resurfacing the skin, including lightening dark acne scars, smoothing out wrinkles and brightening dull skin. Major plus point: This cream contains no parabens, phthalates, sulfates, mineral oils, or petroleum, and is animal cruelty-free.
Get it at RM145 from Shopee.
11. Biossance Squalane + Glycolic Renewal Facial Mask
All the awesome benefits of sugarcane converge in this facial mask by Biossance, which contains squalane and glycolic acid as its active ingredients – both of which are proud derivatives of sugarcane.
Let’s chat about the many benefits of squalane. It’s anti-inflammatory, an antioxidant, and an excellent emollient. Paired together with glycolic acid and the other active acids in this mask, you’ve got a triple-action peel, exfoliator, and mask, in one neat squeezy tube.
Ten minutes are all you need for it to polish away the dull and rough patches, minimise fine lines, and shrink pores on your face while hydrating it and keeping it soft.
Get it at RM225 from Sephora.my.
12. NeoStrata Glycolic Renewal Smoothing Lotion
Although it’s packed with a 10% concentration of glycolic and citric acids, this lotion is lightweight with a consistency that’s more like gel – perfect for our humid weather, we say.
Awesome light-as-air texture aside, the absolute best thing about this lotion has to be how it exfoliates so effectively and thoroughly without drying out your skin – a huge plus in our books. The result is radiant smooth skin and unclogged pores with none of the sting and irritation.
Fans of this lotion say that it works wonders for smoothing out skin on the entire body too, from the back to the feet!
Get it at RM128 from Shopee.
13. Andalou Naturals Glycolic Beauty Mask with Pumpkin and Honey
This delicious-sounding pumpkin and honey mask is such a well-kept secret, but now you’re in on it. It brightens, tones, and smooths your skin like a dream, thanks to the star ingredient of the moment, glycolic acid.
As for the organic pumpkin and manuka honey that makes it smell and look just like comforting pumpkin pie? They are precisely what makes this mask so good at what it does. The beta carotene from the pumpkin reverses sun damage while the emollient effects of honey lock the moisture in your skin as the glycolic acid works its resurfacing, brightening magic.
Get it at RM63 from Shopee.
14. Murad Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum
Raved by its users to be a miracle worker for halting those tell-tale signs of ageing, this best-selling lightweight glycolic serum by Murad packs a punchy dose of stabilised vitamin C on top of glycolic acid to prevent further signs of ageing. How’s that for miraculous works?
The added effect of vitamin C fights the harmful effects of free radicals on your skin, the main culprit of dull, sad, tired skin. Coupled with glycolic acid that buffs away the top layer of dead skin cells to reveal fresh skin beneath, this serum breathes new life to dull, stressed skin.
Get it at RM468 from Shopee.
15. Medik8 Sleep Glycolic Treatment
Want the amazing effects of an in-clinic peel without needing to go to one? This one’s for you.
Formulated with a 10% glycolic acid that’s cleverly encapsulated for timed release throughout the night, it works with great efficacy to quietly transform and rejuvenate your skin as you catch your Zs.
It’s recommended that you only use this powerful treatment twice a week to dissolve those dead and dull skin cells, so that your skin has time to repair its barrier in between applications.
Get it at RM201.22 from Cult Beauty.
Featured image credits: @pixibeauty and @biossance on Instagram