What is Glycolic Acid?

Creams with glycolic acid are often used for chemical peels.

Glycolic acid is perhaps the best known of a group of chemicals called fruit acids or alpha hydroxy acids (AHA). It is derived from sugar cane, so it can be considered a natural product. Citric acid from oranges and other citrus fruits also fall under the same classification as glycolic acid.

Industrial uses for this product include rust removal and degreasing, so pure glycolic acid – usually sold in concentrations of 70% or more – is extremely dangerous for exposed skin. In fact, the government considers any product with a concentration greater than 10% a hazardous material.

Glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane.

Most consumers are aware of glycolic acid not for its industrial uses but for its cosmetic uses. It is usually used as a natural skin exfoliant and moisturizer, although there is much debate about its safety and effectiveness. Some proponents suggest that products with glycolic acid concentrations of less than 10% are virtually useless. The problem is that many large-scale cosmetics producers do not increase acid levels for fear of liability and class-action lawsuits. Some smaller cosmetic companies with high-end customers offer products with at least a 10% acid concentration.

Citric acid from fruits such as tangerines falls into the same category as glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid acts as an exfoliating agent due to its high acidity but easy solubility. When placed on the skin as part of an exfoliating cream or gel, it goes under the damaged top layers of the skin and destroys the ‘glue’ that holds dead skin to the surface. As this dead skin is chemically burned off, the other ingredients carry off the individual flakes and a water rinse neutralizes the remaining acid. The result is a much smoother skin surface and a more youthful appearance. A secondary benefit is the product’s ability to draw moisturizers to the surface of freshly exfoliated skin. That’s why cosmetic counters often sell a complete skin care system; the remainder of the alpha hydroxy range contains moisturizers and neutralizers to counteract the corrosive actions of glycolic acid.

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Glycolic acid removes layers of dead skin.

Cosmetic scrubs and moisturizers containing glycolic acid can make the user’s skin especially sensitive to the sun, so many skin care experts recommend using sunscreen after exfoliating with these products. Some clients seeking a more thorough exfoliation may opt for a chemical peel. In general, a chemical peel involves thoroughly cleansing the skin followed by the application of a powerful AHA such as glycolic acid. Acid concentration levels in chemical peels can reach 50% or more. Even industrial suppliers of glycolic acid limit its concentration to 70%, so this is actually a very powerful chemical process.

Skin care experts advise that people using glycolic acid products should use sunscreen with a very high sun protection factor (SPF).

Very often, after a chemical peel, the patient’s skin will look extremely sunburnt. It often takes several recovery days to fully recover from a chemical peel. Proponents of the process say it may look dangerous or ugly, but the results make up for the temporary discomfort.

Whether or not this product is the miracle ingredient in a cosmetic Fountain of Youth, there is no doubt that it is effective when used correctly and at the proper concentration level for an individual’s exfoliation and hydration needs. As with any other acid, due attention must be given to storage and access. Young children can get serious skin rashes or internal problems if products are applied or swallowed incorrectly.

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