After having performed over 30,000 in-office glycolic peels and giving tens of thousands of glycolic products to my patients, I’ve seen that glycolic acid is without a doubt the best exfoliant available for home use if your goal is to have more beautiful, healthier and younger looking skin. So without getting lost in chemistry, I’ll explain exactly what this incredibly versatile cosmeceutical chemical is and why it’s my favorite.
Glycolic acid, of course, is an acid, and it’s the most important member of the alpha hydroxy acid family, especially for skincare products. When properly used and formulated, it’s very gentle yet extremely effective. It naturally comes from sugar cane, which is why it’s called a fruit acid, but I’ll bet that the glycolic in most skincare products today is synthesized in a commercial lab.
There are five reasons that glycolic is the current gold standard in chemical exfoliants. First… is its unsurpassed efficacy. Next, it provides the most consistent AND predictable results. Glycolic is also extremely versatile and can be tweaked to treat an array of skin conditions. It can be chemically “tweaked” to both maximize its efficacy and minimize irritation at the same time. And last and most important, it has unparalleled patient satisfaction.
So now let’s dig in.
Glycolic is the smallest molecule of all the AHA’s, which is one of the reasons it’s such a great chemical exfoliant. It works by dissolving the glue between the dead cells in the uppermost layers of the epidermis which then causes those excess dulling, clogging and unhealthy cells to fall off… which is exactly what exfoliation is… the removal of dead cells.
And I almost always prefer chemical exfoliants over physical ones. That’s because certain chemical exfoliants, like glycolic, can be formulated to maintain a constant and specific strength so that no matter how they’re used, they’ll always have a precise strength… which is so important for achieving predictable and optimal results. On the other hand, physical exfoliants usually have variable and inconsistent results because their effects and results depend on how they’re used and there rarely is consistency in people’s techniques of use.
A compelling part of glycolic’s success is its wide therapeutic margin. And by that, I mean I can vary its strength in at-home skincare products, from 1 – 20%, allowing me to choose the appropriate strength product for your skintype and skincare problem… including facial rejuvenation, the prevention and control of acne, or the removal of early abnormal cells that can otherwise go on to become precancerous actinic keratoses.
Salicylic acid on the other hand has a very narrow range… from 0.5 – 2% without prescription, and 2% just doesn’t have the exfoliation power needed for most of the problems I mentioned above.
To both optimize the efficacy and speed of exfoliation and prevent unnecessary irritation, glycolic can be tweaked in the lab in two ways. First, the pH… which tells you how strong an acid is… it can be adjusted so that’s it’s not too low, which would burn and sting. Second, glycolic also can be precisely buffered to insure stability of the free glycolic in the product. It’s the free acid that does the exfoliating, not the glycolic that is attached to other chemicals. Proper buffering insures a constant amount of active free acid throughout the life of the product so you get predictable and consistent results, and so the product doesn’t degrade over time or become irritating.
The fact that glycolic can be tweaked so that it’s maximally effective yet non irritating is another major reason for it’s incredible success. I used to use retinoids in the 1980s, before glycolic was available. Retinoids are effective exfoliants but are much more difficult to use, require a prescription and commonly can cause irritation, sun sensitivity and even broken capillaries. I have countless stories of patients and viewers being irritated by retinoids because they’re so therapeutically brittle. When glycolic became available in the early 1990’s, it quickly became my exfoliant of choice as it’s much more effective and much less irritating in addition to the other reasons I’ve already mentioned.
But the most important part of the glycolic story is they are patient proven: the unprecedented level of patient and user satisfaction from using glycolic products really says it all. While I’ve described glycolic as the gold standard in exfoliation, glycolic users have demonstrated it, with their results and what borders on their religious use of them.
Ten’s of thousands of unique patients and 100,000 patient’s opinions can’t be wrong.
So why haven’t you heard more about glycolic over the years? When it was first formulated, it was patented and its owner charged licensing fees for its use, so it became too expensive for mainstream adoption. Recently, however, that patent expired so more skincare companies are now economically able to avail themselves and their clients of glycolic’s efficacy.
While I’ve loved and have been working with and refining multiple applications of glycolic for almost two decades, now after watching this episode, consider yourself also ahead of the curve!