Best Glycolic Acid Products: Top 5 Picks Using 50 Studies (Science Explained)
Attention all skin warriors:
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Alright everybody, here’s the thing. I’m constantly getting asked for product recommendations, so I thought I would start a new series dedicated to just that: my top picks across many different categories including moisturizers, toners, chemical exfoliates, face washes, serums etc.
If you’ve been a longtime reader, you know I don’t shy away from calling products garbage if I believe they’re…. well, sh*t. I have no patience for deceptive marketing and it’s something that irks the hell out of me after 7+ years of burning cash on products that only made my skin worse. For reference, here’s an old photo.
You can read more about my story here. With that said, today we’ll be kicking it off with the best glycolic acid products (top 5). But before we get into each product individually, let’s quickly discuss what glycolic acid is and why you would want to use it.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is Glycolic Acid?
- 2 1. Drunk Elephant Glycolic Night Serum
- 3 2. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel
- 4 3. Pixi Glow Tonic Exfoliating Toner
- 5 4. Acne.org AHA
- 6 5. COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid
- 7 Want to Subscribe for Updates?
What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant and part of the AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) family. It has the smallest molecular size of all AHAs so it penetrates the skin more easily.
It’s most notable benefits include revitalizing skin tone, reducing wrinkles, increasing the skin’s moisture levels, improving texture and tactile roughness, and fading hyperpigmentation. (1, 2, 3, 4)
As far as acne is concerned, glycolic acid is reasonably effective against whiteheads and inflamed lesions. (5, 6) In higher concentrations it improves atrophic acne scars by increasing collagen production. (7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13) Collagen being the main structural protein found in skin that keeps it from aging.
And last but certainly NOT least — glycolic acid requires a pH of about 4.0 or lower to effectively exfoliate the skin and do everything I just listed above. If you don’t know what pH is, and why it matters when it comes to skincare, click that link for more information.
With that said, I have done all the work for you to ensure that every product recommendation in this article is within optimal pH range to work.
Without further ado, let’s get started!
1. Drunk Elephant Glycolic Night Serum
Coming in at the top of the list… an ungodly expensive AHA serum. Christ, Drunk Elephant! Could you please lower the prices of your products for the rest of us mortals? We ain’t all dropping wads of cash like Donald Trump.
The Drunk Elephant Glycolic Night Serum has a light gel-like texture and is formulated at an effective pH of 3.8-4.0. It comes in airtight container to ensure ingredient freshness and eliminate accidental spoilage. The tube it comes in makes it an excellent option for frequent travelers.
So why’s this thing so incredible? Just look at the ingredient list. Sexy mother eff!
“Water, Glycolic Acid, Salicylic Acid, Butylene Glycol, Citric Acid, Lactic Acid, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Aesculus Hippocastanum (Horse Chestnut) Seed Extract, Arctostaphylos Uva-Ursi Leaf Extract, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Rubus Idaeus (Raspberry) Fruit Extract, Buddleja Davidii Meristem Cell Culture, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (Yeast) Extract, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Juice Extract, Opuntia Ficus-Indica (Cactus) Extract, Sclerocarya Birrea (Marula) Seed Oil, Allantoin, Sodium Hyaluronate, Crosspolymer, Propanediol, Xanthan Gum, Galactoarabinan, Hydroxyethylcellulose, Disodium EDTA, Hexylene Glycol, Caprylyl Glycol, Ethylhexylglycerin, Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjustor), Phenoxyethanol.”
Ingredients of interest are highlighted in bold. Let’s break down each.
Besides glycolic acid, Drunk elephant decided to throw 1% salicylic acid into the mix!
Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, but differs from gycolic acid because it’s oil-soluble. In other words, it reaches deeper into the crooks and crannies of pores to dissolve oil, dead skin, and the general gunk that causes acne and blackheads. AHAs on the other hand, like glycolic acid, are water-soluble and primarily work on the surface of skin.
Research has also shown that salicylic acid targets every pathological cause of acne. It is anti-bacteral, anti-inflammatory, and a keratolytic agent (i.e. removes dead skin). (14) And for that reason, i considered a more effective acne treatment than your AHAs.
What can be considered glycolic acid’s little sister. :p This too falls in the AHA family, but is far gentler than glycolic acid because it has a higher molecular weight meaning it penetrates the skin less deeply and rapidly.
Clinical studies have shown that lactic acid effectively hydrates skin, lightens hyperpigmenation, and increases ceramide production, which is excellent for strengthening the skin’s natural barrier. (15, 16)
Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice
Aloe vera! A skincare ingredient everyone’s heard about. Known colloquially to non-skincare addicts as the stuff to slather on after an awful sunburn. There are two kinds of people in this world….
It’s been used in skincare for thousands of years, and research has shown it exerts anti-inflammatory, anti-septic, healing, soothing, and lightening properties. (17) It may also serve as a useful adjunct for the treatment of psoriasis. (18) Here’s an old picture of my body psoriasis in case you don’t know what that is.
Buddleja Davidii Meristem Cell Culture
This ones a bit new to me. But it’s a stem cell culture that protects against photodamage from UVA rays (i.e. sun damage), via its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (19)
Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (Yeast) Extract
A species of yeasts used in winemaking, baking, and brewing. In cosmetics it’s used as a skin-conditioner. Research has shown it reduces oxidative stress (important for anti-aging), and increases the moisture levels of skin by reducing transepidermal water loss (TEWL). (20)
Sclerocarya Birrea (Marula) Seed Oil
A signature oil to the Drunk Elephant line. It’s rich in oleic fatty acid, and has some antioxidant benefits because of its naturally occurring tocopherols, sterols, and flavonoids. (21)
The T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum also comes with the addition of other soothing extracts and antioxidants like green tea, raspberry, horse chestnut, grape, cactus etc. and moisturizing ingredients like allantoin and hyaluronic acid.
In other words, this thing is just a beast of a cosmetic! Almost every single ingredient in this formula has some kind of benefit, which makes it worth the higher price point. Major kudos to the cosmetic chemists at Drunk Elephant for this beauty.
Who is the best for?
Anyone who is looking for some serious exfoliation and skin brightening. In my opinion, this is one of the best anti-aging serums available today. With its potency however, must come caution!
This is some heavier duty stuff, so if you have sensitive skin (e.g. rosacea) think twice before purchasing. Recall how this product has a combination of a few different chemical exfoliants (i.e. glycolic, lactic, citric, salicylic)! If you have never used any of these before — chill!
You gotta climb up the skincare ropes before deciding to go nuclear, skincare newbies. If you decide to opt out for this serum make absolutely certain you introduce it slowly or you run the risk of over-exfoliating the skin. Start out using it once or twice a week and go up from there.
Additionally, if you have sensitivities to malassezia as is the case with seborrheic dermatitis, pityrosporum folliculitis (“fungal acne”), and eczema — MAKE SURE TO PATCH TEST.
I can’t find any research to back this directly, but the saccharomyces cerevisiae extract in Drunk Elephant might aggravate all the skin conditions mentioned above. I say this because a similar genus of fungi (galactomyces) has been shown to upregulate aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AhR) which cause all these skin diseases to flare. (22, 23, 24)
2. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel
It’s a light gel-like, 8% glycolic acid exfoliant formulated at an optimal 3.5-3.9 pH. It feels very soothing on the skin, and leaves behind the slightest sticky feeling. Nothing problematic in my opinion, and I’m somebody who despises the sticky feeling of products.
Aesthetics shouldn’t matter much anyway, considering AHAs should only be used at night since they can increase your sensitivity to the sun.
Let’s breakdown the ingredient list. Here it is in full:
Water (Aqua), Glycolic Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjuster), Chamomilla Recutita Matricaria Flower Extract (chamomile/skin-soothing), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice (hydration), Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract (green tea/antioxidant/skin-soothing), Sodium Hyaluronate (skin replenishing), Panthenol (hydration), Sodium PCA (skin replenishing), Propylene Glycol (hydration/penetration enhancer), Butylene Glycol (hydration/penetration enhancer), Hydroxyethylcellulose (texture-enhancing), Polyquaternium-10 (texture-enhancing), Phenoxyethanol (preservative), Sodium Benzoate (preservative).
Right off the bat, we see that there is some overlap with Drunk Elephant because this includes aloe vera (hydrating, soothing), green tea extract (antioxidant, skin-soothing), and sodium hyaluronate (hydrating). See the section above for more details about what each of these do individually.
Chamomilla Recutita Matricaria Flower Extract
A provitamin of b5. This soothes and moisturizers the skin by preventing water loss (TEWL). (29, 30) It helps regulate the cycle of keratinocytes to prevent dull and tired-looking skin. (31) It might also help heal wounds and treat eczema. (32, 33)
Who is this best suited for?
This is great for all skin types, including those who lean on the sensitive side because it comes in a gel vehicle. Glycolic acid suspended in a gel has been shown to reduce irritation by slowing the rate at which the acid penetrates. (34)
Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel also provides some slight hydration, which makes it a suitable option for dry or dehydrated skin.
3. Pixi Glow Tonic Exfoliating Toner
The Pixi Glow Tonic feels exactly like water and can be used as a toner. This leaves absolutely no residue on skin, and smells slightly of lipstick. I personally like the scent. :p
It only contains 5% glycolic acid and is formulated at a slighter higher pH (4-5) meaning it’s not as potent as the other options making it excellent for sensitive skin. (More about this in a bit).
Here’s the full ingredient list.
Aqua, Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice, Hamamelis Virginiana (Witch Hazel) Leaf Extract, Aesculus Hippocastanum (Horse Chestnut) Seed Extract, Glycolic Acid, Ammonium Glycolate, Glycerin, Butylene Glycol, Hexylene Glycol, Fructose, Glucose, Sucrose, Urea, Dextrin, Alanine, Glutamic Acid, Aspartic Acid, Hexyl Nicotinate, Panax Ginseng Root Extract, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Biotin, Polysorbate 20, Fragrance.
Like Paula’s Choice and Drunk Elephant, this comes with aloe vera juice to help sooth the skin.
Witch Hazel Leaf Extract
Horse Chestnut Extract
Like Drunk Elephant, the Pixi Glow Tonic comes with horse chestnut. This is an antioxidant and soothing extract that helps calm down redness by stimulating circulation and repairing capillaries (small blood vessels). (40)
A humectant that hydrates the skin by binding water to its surface.
Fructose, Glucose, Sucrose.
These are all natural sugars. It’s hard to say exactly what effect these have on skin, but synthetic ones like xylitol help dissolve biofilms. (41, 42) This is great for balancing out the healthy bacteria that live on the skin’s surface, which is important because biofilms have been implicated in ~80% of all human infections. (43)
It’s one of my personal favorite ingredients because it’s gentle, hydrating, and removes dead skin all at the same time. Studies have shown it can also reduce the irritation caused by harsh cleansing detergents like sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). (48, 49)
To read more about urea, check out this sexy link.
Ginseng Root Extract
May help lighten skin and dark spots by inhibiting melanogenesis, or the process by which melanin is produced. (50) More about this in the next section!
Who’s this best for?
The Pixi Glow Tonic is a great option for sensitive skin types because of its slightly higher pH (4-5), which means there’s less concentrated acid in the solution. If you are the kind of person that does not respond well to chemical exfoliation — this is your best bet. And for my impulsive readers out there, meet your new BFF.
It’s harder to overdue it with this one, so using it more frequently is less likely to result in accidental irritation or over-exfoliation. Like I mentioned in my full review though, just because it’s gentler and has a higher pH DOES NOT mean it won’t exfoliate the skin! Don’t underestimate its ability to do so, or you’ll end up like this moron (me) and have glassy looking skin within a couple weeks.
Start using it once every other day. Like all the other AHAs listed, you can expect this to brighten skin, lighten acne scars, and reveal smoother skin.
4. Acne.org AHA
Here’s the complete ingredient list.
Water, Glycolic Acid, Sodium Hydroxide, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Cetyl Palmitate, Sorbitan Stearate, Glycerin, Cyclomethicone, Glyceryl Stearate, Butylene Glycol, Licochalcone Glycyrrhiza glabra (Licorice Root Extract), Tocopheryl Acetate, Squalane, PEG-12 Glyceryl Distearate, PEG-100 Stearate, Magnesium Aluminum Silicate, Xanthan Gum, Sorbic Acid, 1,2-Hexanediol, Caprylyl Glycol.
LIke the Pixi Glow Tonic, this contains glycerin and the addition of squalane — another type of humectant that hydrates the skin by drawing water from the environment and epidermis.
Licorice Root Extract
What I really like about the Acne.org AHA is that it comes with licorice root extract. This helps boost the skin-lightening properties of glycolic acid.
When it comes to fading hyperpigmentation and dark spots, it’s important to do 2 things:
- Increase cell turnover so the spots fade faster.
- Inhibit tyrosinase, a rate-limiting enzyme that produces melanin. Melanin being the pigment that worsens skin discoloration.
On its own, gycolic acid has mild tyrosinase inhibiting properties. (51) However, the bulk of its action against hyperpigmentation comes from accelerating the turnover of the epidermis (outer most layer of skin).
For example, research has shown that 2% liquiritin is significantly more effective than 4% hydroquinone against hyperpigmentation. And mind you, 4% hydroquinone is a medical grade ingredient that requires a prescription from a dermatologist because it’s so potent!
Whether the amount of licorice root extract in the Acne.org AHA is enough to constitute 2% liquiritin is questionable, but at the very least it will exhibit some skin-lightening properties.
Glabridin on the other hand, is one of the main components of licorice root extract and is a strong antioxidant that soothes the skin and reduces redness.
Better known as vitamin E. This may also assist glycolic acid in fading dark spots by inhibiting the enzyme that creates melanin (tyrosinase). A couple studies have also shown that vitamin E is good for burn wounds and scars, however the scientific consensus on this is a bit mixed.
Who’s it best for?
The Acne.org AHA is best suited for normal to drier skin types because it comes in a creamy base. This is thicker than the rest of the options I’ve listed thus far, and by far the most moisturizing.
It dries leaving behind a slight oily residue and no tacky feeling. Like I mentioned earlier though, the shininess shouldn’t be a problem considering AHAs should only be used at night.
If you want more information about this product, my full review can be found here.
5. COSRX AHA 7 Whitehead Power Liquid
The COSRX Whitehead Power Liquid is a 7% glycolic acid toner formulated with a 4.0 pH. It has a minimal ingredient list, and is a perfect fit for those that want to use something more “natural.”
According to COSDNA, this only has one potentially pore-clogging ingredient (butylene glycol) which makes it the safest pick in this top 5 in terms of comedogencity. Check out the itty bitty ingredient list it has.
Pyrus malus (apple) fruit water, butylene glycol, glycolic acid, water, niacinamide, sodium hydroxide, 1,2-hexanediol, panthenol, sodium hyaluronate, xanthan gum, ethyl hexanediol
Apple Fruit Water
Instead of using water COSRX opted out for apple juice. :p There isn’t much research on apple water, but according to COSRX it’s gentle, contains natural AHAs, and helps boost the exfoliating power of glycolic acid.
An all-star ingredient that literally does everything! It lightens hyperpigmentation, brightens skin, increases the natural protective factors of the epidermal barrier, treats acne better than antibiotics, and has anti-aging properties.
As an aside, because the COSRX Whitehead Power Liquid has a pH of 4.0 it might turn niacinamide into niacin. This still has the same benefits on skin, but may cause temporary flushing in susceptible individuals. The flushing itself isn’t damaging but feels mildly uncomfortable.
Who’s it best for?
Everybody! This is very gentle on the skin, and I can’t think of scenario where it wouldn’t work for someone, given that their face can tolerate chemical exfoliation.
Alright ladies and gentlemen, that does it for this product guide! Have fun with these glycolic acid products, and say hello to your newly refreshed skin for me. 🙂