Best Glycolic Acid Products: Top 5 Picks Using 50 Studies (Science Explained)
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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
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting AHA Gel is a more budget-friendly option to the Drunk Elephant Glycolic Night Serum, and what I use personally. My full review can be found here.
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
Or more simply put, chamomile. This is a plant extract with antioxidant activity and powerful skin-soothing benefits. (26, 27, 28)
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
A strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. (36, 37) Studies have shown it can regenerate the vitamin E levels of skin, prevent moisture loss, reduce redness, and calm irritation. (38, 39)
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)
A moisturizing keratolytic agent that helps slough off dead skin. (44, 45) It’s commonly prescribed for sensitive skin types like eczema, which can’t tolerate regular chemical exfoliation. (46, 47)
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
The Acne.org AHA is a 10% glycolic acid cream with a 4.0-4.1 pH. It makes a good adjunct to the Acne.org regimen, and it’s one of the first AHAs I ever tried. Let’s quickly go over why I like it.
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).
What’s cool about licorice root extract is that it contains liquiritin and glabridin, both of which are strong tyrosinase inhibitors. (52, 53)
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. 🙂
Holy Hell! Your content is amazing! And most importantly, accurate! As a licensed esthetician (and sufferer of adult cystic acne), it upsets me when I see information out there that is not only incorrect, but potentially harmful. And people follow it. So, thank you for your thorough research and relaying it in such a manner that isn’t unobtainable.
Love your posts but I always see the but they never include any of the ordinary’s products or deceit. I always subconsciously add them to the lists of best ….. I think you might like some but they aren’t for the sensitive skinned (well at least the acids) another great post keep going!!
Great reviews! I used the Acne.org AHA for a few years while on their regimen. I remember Dan, the founder of the Acne,org Regimen, once stating that he had decided to make a glycolic acid product because, according to his personal experience, he found salicylic acid was ineffective in treating acne. In hindsight I wonder if it’s simply because the salicylic acid products he used were poorly formulated (at the incorrect pH or in a cleanser, for example). When I eventually learnt that there was a proper way to formulate salicylic acid, I switched to that.
Something to note: I’m always a bit confused when people say that AHA products should only be used at night. Technically, the side effect of increased photosensitivity will last as long as a week after a single use of an AHA, so if you use it at night your skin will practically be just as photosensitive the next morning as if you had used it that morning. Therefore it seems to me to make little difference what time of day you use it. And of course, adequate sun protection is essential in all cases.
Thanks for this great info. I’m using glycolic acid to treat striae rubrea – red stretch marks. Mine are from hypercortisolism / Cushings’s syndrome, which causes extensive and extremely large stretch marks (web search “cushings striae” to see examples). Would you consider writing a post on products and treatments for striae? There’s no standard of care, and there are different approaches depending on whether they’re new, old, red or white, so it’s very complicated. They’re terribly stinging and itchy when they develop, and they spread and grow quickly when you have Cushing’s – they’re so uncomfortable. I’d love to learn about more options to nip this painful issue in the bud!
I’m doing the following for new, red striae:
– Claire-ity 25% Vitamin C Serum every morning
– Alpha Skin Care – Intensive Renewal Serum, 14% Glycolic AHA every evening
– Renova every evening after applying the glycolic acid
– Microneedling pen every 3-4 weeks using hyaluronic acid as the gliding product
These are the readings I’ve found helpful:
The treatment of striae – Where is the evidence?
Topical management of striae distensae (stretch marks): prevention and therapy of striae rubrae and albae
American Osteopathic College of Dermatology: Striae
Microneedling system alone versus microneedling system with trichloroacetic acid in the management of abdominal striae rubra
Treatment of Striae Distensae Using Needling Therapy: A Pilot Study
Thank you for considering!
It did seem weird to me when I started using an AHA in the morning too, almost as if it were a taboo or something, ha. But it’s good to know that it’s fine to do so, since it affords people more flexibility when they’re setting up their routine.
Great to hear that Differin has been working well for you so far. Funnily enough, the reason I decided to try out Differin in the first place was because I had lost almost all of my Paula’s Choice BHA due to spillage in my suitcase, heh. Since it’s available OTC in Europe (I believe that’s also the case in the US as of recently) it was quick and easy for me to get, whereas looking for a proper BHA would have been a fool’s errand. And since I use it so little of it, a small tube can last me a year, not to mention it comes with the more potent anti-ageing perks that retinoids are famous for.
Hello! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading so many of your posts. I’ve begun to take inspiration from the information I’ve acquired, and I feel it’s really paid off. My mom even commented on how my skin was less red!
Anywho, this is a bit off topic from the subject, so please forgive me. I was wondering with the skin care routine you’ve put on multiple pages, where would you fit a mask in? I am currently using the Herbivore AHA/BHA Blue Tansy mask, but I usually do this after cleansing and before toning. Any thoughts on if this seems right, and maybe on the product itself? Thank you again for all of the hard work you put into your posts! ^_^
When considering AHA effectiveness, is % the most important factor? I’ve been using the Acne.org 10% and I like it. I moved up to it after using the PC 5% Resist. I’m curious about the COSRX AHA but wondering if the decrease to 7% will automatically result in less exfoliation or if there are other factors – for instance, the streamlined ingredient list.
I’m really enjoying all your reviews and definitely feel like I’m learning something. 🙂
Hi there! I am very impressed with the quality of your posts! I came across your post by trying to do a self-research on Glycolic Acid. I have noticed that you have mentioned Drunk Elephant Framboos is one of the most effective ones for anti-aging. The anti-aging part is why I started looking into Glycolic Acid. I am only 23 years old, but I want to start taking care of my skin as earliest as possible, so I can keep it young. Hence – my question: apart from this glycolic acid, what other products (or skin treatments) would you recommend in order to keep my skin as young as possible?
P.S. Not sure if this is relevant (I assume it is), but regarding my skin type – I have never really had any serious skin issues, apart from a few pimples just before getting my period. People often think I am younger than I am, because of my clear skin – and I so desperately want to keep it that way!
Thank you for your response and keep up the good work!
I took a lot of notes, thank you. Could you also recommend us best AHA cleansers and masks? I totally trust you!
Smart. Informative. Hilarious. I love your site!