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Today, I wanted to talk acids! Glycolic acid is the most famous chemical exfoliant and I'd venture to say that a few years back, about 2/3rds of the non-manual exfoliants on the market were glycolic acid-based. However, there's a lot more choice these days so today I'm talking through why I don't use glycolic acid that much in my routine any more and what I've found that I prefer...
The downsides of glycolic
Glycolic acid is often considered the gold standard of chemical exfoliation due to its ability to clear dead skin cells and give a brighter, more radiant complexion. However, it also has the smallest molecular size out of the exfoliating acids we have at our disposal, meaning it can penetrate deeply into the skin and possibly cause irritation. For this reason, if you have sensitive skin or you're highly prone to hyperpigmentation, it's probably not a great idea to use it at over a 5% concentration. Whilst glycolic acid can treat uneven skin tone, irritation leads to inflammation, which leads to pigmentation, so if that's an issue for you; keep with the 5% or find a different acid. For me, I'm fairly comfortable with 10% as a once-weekly peel but don't reach for ridiculously high percentages any more. Obviously you need to be patch testing everything and you have to wear your sunscreen every single day.
For me, I often find that glycolic acid can be the most drying and irritating acid, and I used to really overuse it back in the day! That's not glycolic acid's fault, it's just that was the chemical exfoliant of the time and it was common wisdom to exfoliate every morning and every evening with something like the Pixi Glow Tonic* | £18. Whilst I don't think this is a bad product, I think maybe a lot of people didn't really understand that 5% glycolic acid is a fair amount and something that you probably only need to use 3 evenings a week.
As I've gotten more and more into skincare, I've realised that the workhorses of my routine (in terms of actives) are really my Vitamin C in the AM and my retinoid in the PM, and amazing gentle ingredients to tackle uneven skin tone like tranexamic acid and azelaic acid have become more popular, so exfoliation is really a supporting player in my routine rather than the backbone of it. The knock-on effect of this is that I'm pretty reticent to give up my retinoid and my Vitamin C, which don't always work that well alongside such a strong acid. I personally reach for retinal and ascorbic acid, which are pretty direct forms of these ingredients that can cause irritation if your skin isn't used to them or if you start doing too much and using them alongside other potentially-irritating ingredients. Therefore, my options are: a once-a-week more intense peel or a gentle acid that can be layered underneath my retinoid in the evening (you can still use acids in the morning - I just tend to keep things quicker in the AM and do any extras in the PM).
The acids I reach for now
My favourites are: lactic acid, mandelic acid and PHAs (I do also use salicylic acid when I need its breakout-busting benefits, but that's on an 'as and when' basis rather than as part of my weekly exfoliation routine). All of these ingredients have a larger molecular size than glycolic acid, but mandelic acid can actually be great for hyperpigmentation, PHAs are the most gentle and hydrating option and lactic acid is kind of the best of both worlds for me; it has some hydrating properties, it's gentler than glycolic but still packs a punch in terms of giving you smooth, glowing and even skin. I would go for 10% in PHAs and mandelic, and 5% in lactic, unless I really needed to up it, in which case 10% lactic is also fine for my skin.
The glycolic formulas and blends I recommend
There are still a few glycolic formulas I reach for, but I actually tend to utilise it more as part of an acid blend, so it's in a lower concentration and feels gentler. The added benefit is that formulating it with different acids means you're getting exfoliation on multiple levels of your skin. All that in mind (alongside the personal preferences I've just discussed), here are my top formulas featuring glycolic acid...
Good Molecules Glycolic Exfoliating Toner* | $14 | This is such a great, well-rounded formula to brighten and smooth the skin. The 3.5% concentration of glycolic makes this a gentle option for me, and I can even use it before my retinoid without any irritation 3 times a week. That's not all; there's so much good in here! There's soothing aloe, a little bit of niacinamide (to help with pigmentation issues and oil production and to boost skin barrier function), a bit of salicylic to help with congestion, lots of hydrators (so this isn't at all drying or irritating for me) and galactomyces ferment for that fresh, glowing skin look. Overall, it's a great well-rounded formula.
Pestle & Mortar Exfoliate Toner* | £27 | This formula actually contains 6.8% glycolic acid so it's for those more comfortable and used to this ingredient, but it's just very well-thought-out and doesn't irritate my skin, so if you want to up the ante a little: this is a product I still find to be gentle enough to use maybe three times a week. It pairs the glycolic acid with soothing and hydrating ingredients like allantoin, aloe, cucumber, niacinamide and green tea. It's all about formulation for me.
Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel* | from £19 | It's a classic for a reason! I would definitely like to try the gentle version of this to see if I can use it alongside my retinoid, but throwing this in once a week is a great concentrated punch for me (I don't go for it daily, as the name suggests!) I also find these so handy for travel. The first part of the two-step process contains glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid and malic acid (which kind of acts as a booster). You wait a couple of minutes then go in with the second step: the neutraliser, which has resveratrol as an antioxidant and also a little bit of retinol and Vitamin C to get those benefits in whilst you have that increased penetration from exfoliating the skin.
Algenist Blue Algae Vitamin C Dark Spot Correcting Peel* | £80 | This is pricey, but it contains so many amazing ingredients and using this once a week helped my skin clarity, tone, smoothness and overall appearance so much! We of course have our glycolic acid alongside salicylic and mandelic. Outside of these full-on exfoliators we have ascorbic acid (pure form Vitamin C), tranexamic acid and azelaic acid to really help tackle dark spots. This is all buffered with lots of glycerin and plant oils to really ensure the overall formulation isn't too much. It's not for beginners, but if you want a strong, effective peel that's not going to be too harsh: I really recommend checking it out.
Versed Doctor's Visit Instant Resurfacing Mask* | £16.50 | This jelly mask can be used once a week and is formulated with lactic, salicylic and glycolic acids. There are also some fruit enzymes in here to gently help with the exfoliation process. We also have some antioxidants in the mix here. I find this to be such an effective skin-smoothing and brightening treatment but it's still really nice and gentle.
Do you use glycolic acid in your routine? What are your favourite products containing it?