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Glycolic Acid (Alpha Hydroxy Acid - AHA)

Naturally Occurring Acid Which Powerfully Exfoliates

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: November 23, 2019

The Essential Information

Glycolic acid gently yet powerfully exfoliates the skin, helping to unclog pores and reduce acne. That's the important part. But it also evens out skin tone and makes the skin look noticeably fresher within days after you begin using it, which is a secondary fun part.


  • All Over Treatment: Add it to The Acne.org Regimen after 1 month to insure reliably and completely clear skin. Because it is so powerful, use it only every other night at full strength, or mix it 1/2 and 1/2 with Acne.org Moisturizer every night.
  • Body Acne: The combination of benzoyl peroxide + glycolic acid represents a powerful arsenal against body acne.
  • Spot Treatment: If you see a zit start appearing, apply some benzoyl peroxide on the spot, wait for it to dry, and then apply a bit of glycolic acid. The combination is often strong enough to preven the zit from forming. [Note: Putting an ice cube in a Ziploc-type bag and icing the emerging zit twice a day for 5 minutes is hugely helpful as well.]
  • Combatting Irritation: Physical irritation of the skin, like when a facemask rubs against the skin during sports, can lead to a breakout. Applying glycolic acid to physically irritated areas of the skin can help prevent a breakout in those areas.

The Science

Evidence that glycolic acid works

Many of us here at Acne.org have known for years that alpha hydroxy acid helps keep us clearer. Finally, the scientific community is backing us up:1-7

The Journal of Dermatology

According to a 2012 article in The Journal of Dermatology "... experiments performed by Atzori et al. and by our group showed significant improvement of inflammatory eruptions from the first application."1

Journal of German Dermatological Society (JDDG)

According to a 2012 article in the Journal of the German Dermatological Society "... Patients assess their skin as more tensile, firmer, smoother and more youthful looking after the use of AHA containing products. For mild acne, the efficacy has been proven by double-blinded, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials."2

Glycolic Acid

Uses for Glycolic Acid

All Over Treatment

Uses for Glycolic Acid: All Over Treatment

Glycolic acid can take The Acne.org Regimen to the next level, helping you to achieve even more reliably clear skin. After you've been on The Acne.org Regimen for at least 1 month, try using glycolic acid in place of your usual nightly moisturizer every 2-3 days. Alternately, mix an equal amount of glycolic acid and moisturizer in your palm and apply this way every night.

Usage: Use a thin line when applying to the face. More than this and it may sting too much.

Flakiness control: If you are on The Acne.org Regimen and are having problems with flaky skin, adding in glycolic acid as outlined above will completely eliminate flakes.

Body Acne

Uses for Glycolic Acid: Body Acne

The one-two punch of benzoyl peroxide and glycolic acid works brilliantly at treating the more stubborn skin of the back/body and back of the neck.

Usage: Be generous when treating your body.

Spot Treatment

Uses for Glycolic Acid: Spot Treatment

If you see a zit forming try blasting it with 10% glycolic acid after you have applied 2.5% benzoyl peroxide and allowed it to dry. Many people find that this prevents the zit from maturing. Keep in mind that the way this works best is if you catch it very early.

Usage: Use a tiny amount.

Combatting Irritation

Uses for Glycolic Acid: Combatting Irritation

When anything rubs against the skin repeatedly, such as a chin strap or baseball cap for example, it irritates the skin and can cause a breakout. Attempt to avoid or reduce irritation when possible. If you do end up irritating your skin, you may find that applying glycolic acid after your next Regimen application can help prevent an irritation-induced acne flare up.

Usage: The amount varies depending upon how large of an area is irritated.

Important Notice!

AHA may increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun and particularly the possibility of sunburn. Use a sunscreen and limit sun exposure while using AHA and for a week after discontinuing its use.

Do not use AHA until you have been on The Acne.org Regimen for 3-4 weeks. It can produce a severe sting if you use it at the onset of a benzoyl peroxide regimen.


  1. Takenaka, Y., Hayashi, N., Takeda, M., Ashikaga, S. & Kawashima, M. Glycolic acid chemical peeling improves inflammatory acne eruptions through its inhibitory and bactericidal effects on Propionibacterium acnes. J. Dermatol. 39, 350-354 (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21950544
  2. Babilas, P., Knie, U. & Abels, C. Cosmetic and dermatologic uses of alpha hydroxy acids. J. Dtsch. Dermatol. Ges. 10, 488-491 (2012). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22916351
  3. Kempiak, S. & Uebelhoer, N. Superficial chemical peels and microdermabrasion for acne vulgaris. Semin. Cutan. Med. Surg. 27, 212-220 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18786500
  4. Aztori L, Brundu, M. A., Orru, A. & Biggio, P. Glycolic acid peels in the treatment of acne. J. Eur. Acad. Dermatol. Venereol. 12, 119-122 (1999). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10343939
  5. Kornhauser, A., Coelho, S. & Hearing, V. Applications of hydroxy acids: Classifications, mechanisms, and photoactivity. Clin. Cosmet. Investig. Dermatol. 3, 135-214 (2010). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3047947/
  6. Kessler E, Flanagan, K., Chia, C., Rogers, C. & glaser, D. A.. Comparison of Α- and Β-hydroxy acid chemical peels in the treatment of mild to moderately severe facial acne vulgaris. Dermatol. Surg. 34, 45-50 (2008). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18053051
  7. Ilknur T, Demirtasoglu, M., Bicak, M. U. & Ozkan, S. Glycolic acid peels versus amino fruit acid peels for acne. J. Cosmet. Laser Ther. 12, 242-245 (2010). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20825257

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