Glycolic Acid For Acne: Can it Stand Alone As an Acne Treatment?

by Kate on January 28, 2013

in Acne, Natural Beauty, Skin Care

If you haven’t tried glycolic acid for your acne, you may want to give it a shot. Glycolic acid helps to treat acne by speeding up your skin’s natural rate of exfoliation. Although many different factors usually combine to create an acne problem, skin that is slow to exfoliate allows bacteria to build up and clog pores, thereby contributing to acne. Glycolic acid also may help prevent acne by keeping your skin’s hydration levels balanced and optimal. How many times have you had the experience of trying a new product that initially dries and clears your skin, but then a few weeks later results in a huge breakout? When the skin is not properly hydrated, it often overproduces oil to compensate, creating all the right conditions for big breakouts. Unlike so many acne treatments, glycolic acid actually helps moisturize the skin through its unique water-binding abilities.

Who Should Try Glycolic Acid?

Ex-Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid Users Who Haven’t Found Relief From Other Natural Methods:

Glycolic Acid is derived from sugar cane, so it does have natural origins. That said, most glycolic acid products are manufactured with a host of other less natural ingredients. That said, it really is the lesser of all evils. So if you’ve tried a bunch of natural methods with no results and still don’t want to go back to benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, then give Glycolic acid a try.

Women Who Are Trying to Get Pregnant

My husband and I recently decided to start trying to conceive. When I went off the birth control pill, my skin went absolutely nuts and the Caveman Regimen just isn’t cutting it anymore. I already was aware that benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are no-no’s in pregnancy, but imagine my frustration to find that basically everything else is off limits too. Glycolic Acid is one of the few products doctors seem to generally support (though opinions vary–many suggest using no products in the first trimester when all your baby’s organs are forming). At my wits end, I’ve recently decided to give it a go and so far so good!

Ever since going on the caveman regimen, I don’t seem to have issues with badly inflamed acne anymore. I’ll still get occasional small red pimples, but no cysts or anything too painful. But since going off the pill, I seem to get tons of clogged pores, small colorless comedones (especially on my forehead) and blackheads. Well, in just a few days of using glycolic acid, my forehead ┬áhas cleared up tremendously, and my skin has this glow to it that makes it look healthier overall. I’ll keep you all updated on the progress.

Adult Acne Sufferers

In my search for the best Glycolic Acid treatment for acne sufferers, I read a ton of positive reviews from adults, particularly older adults. Women in their 40s and up in seemed to get a lot of relief from Glycolic Acid. Plus, the wrinkle-fighting abilities of the Glycolic Acid were much appreciated. It makes sense to me that dryer, more mature skin would do well with Glycolic acid since it helps retain moisture and is, generally, a lot more gentle than some of the other acne treatments on the market.

Anyone Who Wants a Slight Boost to Their Skincare Routine

To use glycolic acid as a stand-alone acne treatment, you’ll want to use it daily. But if you’ve got your skin clear through other methods and just want to fade some hyper-pigmentation or make your skin brighter and more even, glycolic acid can make an impact even just using it once or twice a week.

Choosing a Glycolic Acid For Acne

When choosing a glycolic acid for acne, there are a few things you’ll want to look for. First, be aware that glycolic acid is considered first and foremost a treatment for brightening, evening, and increasing the youthful appearance of your skin. The acne benefits are really just incidental, so many glycolic acid treatments are not optimized for acne-prone skin. When choosing your treatment, be sure to check the label for the following:

PH of 4

Glycolic acid is, in fact, an acid, and for it to work it needs to have a PH low enough for the acidity to be effective at turning over your skin cells, without burning the skin or causing excessive irritation. A PH of about 4 seems to be the optimal PH for glycolic acid.


Many glycolic acid products are formulated for mature skin and thus may contain heavy moisturizers and comedogenic oils meant to moisturize non-acne-prone skin. Check the label and make sure it says oil free. Though you might be able to get away with some of these heavier products, there are oil-free versions available, so why risk it?

Which Glycolic Acid Product Am I Using?

I did a lot of research to decide on the Alpha Hydrox Oil-Free Formula. It contains 10% gylcolic acid, which is generally the highest recommended percentage for daily use. I use mine twice daily and haven’t had any problems. They recommend that you work up to the twice daily usage, but I was able to just jump right in. It is, as the product name states, oil free. It’s also fragrance and alcohol free and has a PH of 4. The only drawback is it does contain parabens, but I honestly haven’t been able to find a paraben-free formula that fits the bill so for now this one will do. Plus, it’s by far the most cost-effective option out there. Some of the comparable products I looked at cost, no joke, 3 times as much. It’s also worth noting that one of the high-end options I looked at was the Peter Thomas Roth 10% Glycolic Acid Treatment which has good reviews, but I found out later that it contains retinyl palmitate, a retinoid (and retinoids are contraindicated for anyone pregnant or trying to conceive).


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*In the spirit of full disclosure, links to products in this post may be affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission if you decide to purchase any of the products I recommend. Know that I only recommend products that I have used and love myself.

*I am not a doctor, a nurse, or any kind of health practitioner. I’m just a gal with a pretty keen intuitive sense, great research abilities, and curiosity that is easily peaked. Please understand that my advice is really just another opinion and it’s for you (and your doctor) to decide the best course for your health and well-being.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky March 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I actually have a Glycolic wash at home and, funny enough, I just placed an order to replenish my Proactiv gentle formula (which is all salicylic acid based.) Since I ran out of Proactiv recently, my skin had been going nuts (which is also diet related, but even with a bad diet, Proactiv actually keeps acne at bay).

I tried the Glycolic wash and was surprised to find it wasn’t horribly drying like my Proactiv normally is, and noticed my skin peeling and my acne healing later that day. After reading your post I think I will give the glycolic wash another try. I was unsure about it after the first use. Do you supplement with any sort of moisturizer after the wash? I have really bad skin – it’s sensitive, ruddy, acne prone (cystic if I accidentally eat gluten), dry, tight, yet oily on my forehead and nose. A lot of my acne is around my mouth, chin, jawline, and hairline on the back of my neck. Hoping to find out what works for you, so I can adopt a similar regimen!

Thanks again for this post!


Kate March 9, 2013 at 12:06 am

I’m hoping to find out what works for me too lol! My pregnancy has my skin acting totally wacky–breaking out in places I wasn’t before and clear in places I wasn’t before. Sigh.

In any case, the glycolic acid definitely helps. I’m actually using a 10% glyoclic acid solution you apply rather than a wash. I was using it twice a day morning and night, but my skin did start to get a little dry so I cut back to just using it at night.

Actually, if you’re familiar with the site, the creator recommends using benzoyl peroxide in conjunction with glycolic acid to get the best results. So you could try maybe replacing some of your proactive applications with the glycolic acid and see how that works for you. I’m definitely a fan of gradually weaning off products rather than just quickly switching over so as to avoid upsetting your skin’s equilibrium (which can cause a breakout).

If you use the version of glycolic acid called AHA+ you probably won’t need a moisturizer because it contains a lot of moisturizing ingredients. But many other glycolic acid products can be drying so definitely keep your moisturizer handy. Just use your best judgment–if your skin is peeling or tight then definitely use a moisturizer (otherwise the irritation will cause breakouts). Hope that helps!


Dani March 21, 2013 at 6:46 am

I use a neutrogena ultra gentle daily cleanser (no parabens) morning and night and a glycolic product morning and night. I’ve been using glycolic acid for years and love it. I have a three step routine from glytone that I purchased from dermstore. The glycolic face wash drys me out so I alternate that and some times I use it as a face mask, leaving it on for a minute. To treat larger pimples that occasionally pop up I spot treat with mario badeschu drying cream. I swear by that stuff and it is pregnancy friendly. I stressed over all the different reviews on glycolic acid and pregnancy, especially after my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage, but so many women have used it successfully and I really love it for my face. Once I started using it again I noticed an improvement in my fine line between my eyebrow. I discovered glycolic acid when I was 23 and started breaking out with horrible chin acne. The glytone skin care system step one made a huge difference. I’ve tried Peter Thomas Roth glycolic acid products and like those a lot too, but glytone seems a little more ingredient friendly since we are trying to conceive again.


Dani March 30, 2013 at 10:35 am

I love glycolic acid. I had stopped it for awhile and when I started it back up my husband commented on how smooth my skins looks. I still breakout, but once I started using glycolic years ago my spots were less cystic and more just “spots”. I like to spot treat with Mario Badeschus Drying Cream which I swear by! And it’s pregnancy friendly; that’s how I discovered it. I was googling pregnancy safe skincare. Unfortunately, I lost my first pregnancy at 7 wks and 5 days. I am nearing 30 and have minor fine lines and I believe this is because of the glycolic acid. I use a skincare system I purchased from called Glytone. I’ve tried Peter Thomas Roth, but a lot of their ingredients contain Vitamin A. Glytone seems to have less ingredients so I stick with that. There is a seperate glycolic lotion for day and night and a face wash. I skip the face wash in the winter, because it’s too drying. I still use step 1 too (there are 3 steps). To help with dryness I got a facial moisturizer thats oil free and for sensitive skin that helps a lot.


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