What Does Glycolic Acid Do for Skin?

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: November 3, 2022

What is Glycolic Acid and What Does it Do for Your Skin

Whether your issue is dryness, sun damage, blemishes, or dullness or you just want your beautiful skin to continue to be beautiful as you age, glycolic acid—like other alpha hydroxy and beta hydroxy acids—is one of the best ways to improve your skin in both the short and the long term.

Used in combination with physical exfoliants in an instant-glow face polish, as the key ingredient in a powerful once-a-week overnight peel, or as an adjunct to make a great self-tan work even better, AHAs and BHAs are incredibly effective compounds that deliver noticeable results.

Glycolic, lactic, citric, and malic acids are all in the category of AHAs that make wonderful facial exfoliators—they work by gently removing the top layer of dead skin cells (along with pollution, grime, makeup, and anything else that might potentially clog pores) through natural chemical exfoliation. Salicylic acid works in a similar manner. The advantage of chemical exfoliation is that it’s extremely even—unlike physical exfoliation, which is less uniform. (The two work well together—a combination of chemical and physical exfoliants like the microminerals in GOOPGLOW Microderm can be extremely beneficial.) The results are the reason glycolic acid and other AHAs are so beloved by so many different skin types: They can help unclog pores, soften the appearance of wrinkles, minimize the look of dark spots, and even increase moisture in skin. After a good exfoliation with AHAs, your skin should be soft and smooth and look decidedly glowier.

  1. For Allover Glow
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator goop, $125/$112 with subscription
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Microderm Instant Glow Exfoliator goop, $125/$112 with subscription

Like all exfoliants, AHAs and salicylic acid facilitate the absorption of any treatment that follows. Different types of acids yield different benefits, so it’s often useful to combine them in skin treatments. Glycolic acid, for instance, is the smallest molecule among the alpha hydroxy acids, so it can go deeper into the layers of the skin; it was initially developed for the treatment of extremely dry skin. Salicylic acid has soothing and antibacterial properties, so it can be helpful for breakout-prone skin. A combination of glycolic and salicylic acids in treatments can help smooth texture; the blend of glycolic and phytic acids in the G.Tox tonic helps clear pores and soothe blemishes.

The concentrations of a particular acid within a formula, as well as the way the acid is delivered, can make a big difference in results: At lower concentrations, AHAs can be gentle enough for even sensitive skin. New clean skin-care tech allows treatments like the GOOPGLOW Flower Acids Resurfacing Toner—a gently exfoliating cocktail of citric, hibiscus, and prickly pear flower acids that works for every skin type, including sensitive—to deliver significant results without the irritation often associated with retexturizing formulas.

  1. goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Flower Acids Resurfacing Toner goop, $45/$40 with subscription
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Flower Acids Resurfacing Toner goop, $45/$40 with subscription
  2. goop Beauty G.Tox Malachite + AHA Pore Refining Tonic goop, $75/$68 with subscription
    goop Beauty G.Tox Malachite + AHA Pore Refining Tonic goop, $75/$68 with subscription

At higher concentrations, like the 15% glycolic acid in the GOOPGLOW Overnight Glow Peel, AHAs can work powerfully to retexturize, clarify, and refine. Inspired by professional treatments, the peel goes to work refreshing and resurfacing skin overnight and costs a fraction of what an in-office session goes for.

  1. goop Beauty GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Overnight Glow Peel goop, $125/$112 with subscription
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW 15% Glycolic Acid Overnight Glow Peel goop, $125/$112 with subscription

Radiance-Boosting Masks

While the GOOPGLOW peel is swiped on before bed so the active ingredients can work overnight, you can leave more traditional masks on for just a few minutes, allowing the botanicals, alpha or beta hydroxy acids, and phytonutrients to work in synergy. Smooth the formula that best suits you onto cleansed skin, wait the suggested amount of time (or less, depending how sensitive you are), rinse—and relish the glow.

  1. For Moisturizing Dry Skin
    Okoko Beauté Majestique Cleanser, goop, $116
    Okoko Beauté Majestique Cleanser goop, $116
  2. For Breakouts and Oily Skin
    Follain Dual Detox Mask, goop, $34
    Follain Dual Detox Mask goop, $34

For Smooth Skin All Over (and a Better Tan)

In the same way exfoliating your face has an instant (and long-term) brightening effect, sloughing away dead cells on your body results in silkier, more-even skin and, again, has the added benefit of allowing any treatment you put on next—like body butter or self-tanner—to penetrate more easily.

  1. Nécessaire The Body Exfoliator, goop, $30
    Nécessaire The Body Exfoliator goop, $30
  2. Saltyface Tanning Water, goop, $44
    Saltyface Tanning Water goop, $44

Essential Cleansers

No matter your skin type, the cleansing step is a powerful way to use glycolic acid and other alpha and beta hydroxy acids to boost skin.

  1. Daily Scrub
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Cloudberry Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser, goop, $28/$25 with subscription
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW
    Cloudberry Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser
    goop, $28/$25 with subscription
  2. Gel
    Plantkos Phyto Exfoliating Cleanser, goop, $37
    Plantkos Phyto Exfoliating Cleanser goop, $37
  3. Cream
    Humanrace Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator, goop, $46
    Humanrace Lotus Enzyme Exfoliator goop, $46

AHA Essences

These water-based formulas are great for both hydrating and balancing skin, and they help prep for treatment products to follow. Apply them after cleansing and before moisturizing or smooth or spritz them on throughout the day for an instant skin pick-me-up.

  1. Lactic Acid
    Vintner’s Daughter Active Treatment Essence, goop, $225
    Vintner’s Daughter Active Treatment Essence goop, $225
  2. Salicylic Acid
    Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence, goop, $72
    Tata Harper Hydrating Floral Essence goop, $72

Best AHA Serums

Exfoliating serums silky texture makes them brilliant for targeting any number of skin issues, including dullness, blemishes, dryness, and more.

  1. For Firming
    Tata Harper Elixir Vitae, goop, $475
    Tata Harper Elixir Vitae goop, $475
  2. For Brightening
    Alpyn Beauty Bearberry & Vitamin C Glow Serum, goop, $59
    Alpyn Beauty Bearberry & Vitamin C Glow Serum goop, $59
  3. For Evening Tone
    True Botanicals Repair Nightly Treatment, goop, $140
    True Botanicals Repair Nightly Treatment goop, $140

Face Moisturizer

Moisturizing makes lines and wrinkles less visible; moisturizers that have even small concentrations of alpha hydroxy acids can have an even more significant line-smoothing effect.

  1. Ultrarich for Dry Skin
    Alpyn Beauty Plantegenius Melt Moisturizer, goop, $60
    Alpyn Beauty Plantgenius Melt Moisturizer goop, $60
  2. Soothing (and Rose-Scented) for Normal Skin
    Skin Design London Alpine Rose Glow, goop, $150
    Skin Design London Alpine Rose Glow goop, $150

Acids in a Breakout Routine

AHAs and BHAs can dissolve oil, dirt, makeup, pollution, and other residue, making them excellent for oily skin; salicylic acid, in the spot-treatment stickers below, both exfoliates and soothes.

  1. Step 1:
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Cloudberry Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser, goop, $28/$25 with subscription
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW
    Cloudberry Exfoliating Jelly Cleanser
    goop, $28/$25 with subscription
  2. Step 2:
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Flower Acids Resurfacing Toner, goop, $45/$40
    goop Beauty GOOPGLOW Flower Acids Resurfacing Toner goop, $45/$40
  3. Step 3:
    Zitsticka KILLA Kit, goop, $29
    ZitSticka KILLA Kit goop, $29

Why Are There Acids in Shaving Cream?

Even a small dose of AHAs or BHAs in shaving cream helps produce a smoother finish. This one also includes soothing botanicals to protect against razor burn and smells fantastically of spruce and ginger.

  1. Ursa Major Stellar Shave Cream, goop, $26
    Ursa Major Stellar Shave Cream goop, $26