Glycolic Acid Lotion

Glycolic Acid can be found in various skin care products.
Unusual Skin Care Ingredients Image Gallery Glycolic acid can be found in various anti-aging skin care products. See more pictures of unusual skin care ingredients.
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The anti-aging movement has seen its share of out-there remedies and downright dangerous concoctions. In the early 1990s, a new product hit the streets promising the end of wrinkles -- alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA. Although the idea of slathering acid on one's face was (and probably still is) a bit frightening, dermatologists assured us it was fine. AHAs are natural substances found in items such as sugar cane and sour milk, and their use as an ingredient in anti-aging creams has stood the test of time as a potential remedy for fine lines and wrinkles. Products with AHA are also applied topically to exfoliate the skin and to reduce the appearance of age spots, acne scars and irregular pigmentation. In addition to skin care products, AHAs have been used in cosmetics, hair and bath products, colognes, and sun-related products [source: FDA].

Lactic, citric and tartaric acids are among the alpha hydroxy acids used in skin care products. But when AHAs initially became popular, glycolic acid -- a naturally occurring compound in sugar cane -- led the way.


Glycolic acid is one of the mildest types of AHA, and products that use it can be found in both over-the-counter and prescription-strength formulas. Over-the-counter glycolic acid formulations are usually intended for daily use and are left on the skin. "Discontinuous use" glycolic acid products are meant to be applied to the skin for a short time and then thoroughly removed. Discontinuous use treatments are usually administered by an aesthetician or are prescribed by a dermatologist [source: FDA].

Read on to learn how glycolic acid can reduce the appearance of aging signs on your hands and face in addition to how it can help fight acne and other chronic skin conditions.


Benefits of Glycolic Acid Lotion

Glycolic acid is a common component of anti-aging products, such as lotions, because it can refresh skin on the face and tops of hands. It exfoliates the surface layer, making skin look smoother by promoting healthy cell growth to replace the dead skin cells [source: Janes]. Used together with hydroquinone, a bleaching agent, it might help minimize or erase the appearance of age spots, acne discoloration or other hyperpigmentation. The glycolic acid lotion slowly gets rid of dead surface cells, allowing the bleaching agent to penetrate so that new cells are nonpigmented.

Glycolic acid lotion may also be beneficial for skin that is prone to acne. First, the acid has drying properties, which can be useful in combating oily skin. Also, as the acid exfoliates, it can clear up blocked pores and prevent future breakouts by keeping pores from getting clogged again by dead skin cells. This pore-cleaning property may also help in treatment of a similar skin condition -- folliculitis. Common in men, this acne-like disorder happens as a result of shaving nicks that can get infected with bacteria [source: Valeo]. By keeping pores open, glycolic acid may help prevent these conditions that result from dead skin cells not sloughing off naturally.


Other skin conditions that glycolic acid lotion might be used for include rosacea, a chronic inflammatory condition often characterized by a red face, and ichthyosis vulgaris, an inherited disease characterized by dry and scaly skin. A dermatologist might prescribe a mild glycolic acid wash or lotion as part of the treatment plan for rosacea to get the redness under control [source: American Academy of Dermatology]. There is no known cure for ichthyosis vulgaris, so the acid can help to manage the symptoms [source: Mayo Clinic].

As for safety, glycolic acid is commonly used in lotions and other skin care products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports a study by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel that found glycolic acid is safe to be used in cosmetics at a concentration of up to 10 percent [source: FDA]. Products with stronger concentrations may be safe in certain situations, such as when applied by an aesthetician or dermatologist.

Now that you know about the benefits of glycolic acid lotion, read on to learn more about how to use it.


Using Glycolic Acid Lotion

It should be fine to use a glycolic acid lotion at the end of your regular skin care routine, even if the lotion isn't used daily. However, because of the acid's ability to remove dead skin cells, you probably shouldn't use a scrub or other exfoliating product along with the glycolic acid lotion. Also, if you are taking any topical medications, be sure to talk with your doctor before using any AHA product since it can increase your skin's sensitivity.

If you're using an over-the-counter product with glycolic acid, it probably has a concentration of somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. Even low concentrations can irritate the skin, especially skin that tends to be dry or sensitive [source: WebMD]. You can use these formulas on a daily basis, but might be best to start with application every other day and work up to daily use so you can gauge your skin's reaction. You might also opt for a lower concentration and work up to a higher one. Some of these lotions might have moisturizers already in them to counteract the acid's drying tendency, but if not, you can apply some of your own to keep your skin smooth and supple.


If you're using glycolic acid or any other AHA, it's vital that you also use sunscreen. Studies have shown that AHAs increase sensitivity to ultraviolet rays. The extra sun sensitivity is temporary and will disappear quickly if you stop using products that contain AHAs [source: FDA] Still, doctors advise applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing while using an AHA and for up to a week after stopping treatment.

So if you're looking to hide signs of aging, acne discoloration or other unsightly spots, then glycolic acid lotions and creams might be worth a look. For more information on glycolic acid and other products that use it, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Chemical Peeling: What to Expect Before, During, and After." 2008. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Non-Facial Aging Skin: Treatments." (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • American Academy of Dermatology. "Rosacea Treatment: Bumps and Pus-filled Lesions." (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • Bouchez, Colette. "Oily Skin: Solutions that Work -- No Matter What Your Age." Web. MD. Oct. 19, 2007. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • Janes, Beth. "Easy Fixes for Your Age-Giveaway Zones." WebMD. Sept. 9, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Age Spots (Liver Spots)." March 20, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Dark circles under eyes." Dec. 11, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Ichthyosis vulgaris." May 10, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Stretch marks." July 17, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Alpha Hydroxy Acids in Cosmetics." July 10, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 14, 2009)
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Guidance: Labeling for Cosmetics Containing Alpha Hydroxy Acids." Jan. 10, 2005. (Accessed Sept. 14, 2009)
  • Valeo, Tom. "Acne Treatments for Men." WebMD. Jan. 6, 2008. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)
  • WebMD. "Choosing Skin Care Products: Know Your Ingredients." Feb. 17, 2009. (Accessed Sept. 13, 2009)