Navigating the world of active ingredients can be overwhelming and confusing. Lactic acid, ferulic acid, hyaluronic acid, glycolic acid—how can we know what’s right for our skin? To get started, we tapped dermatological nurse, Natalie Aguilar to give us the low down on one of these: glycolic acid. She breaks down what it is, how it works, as well as the inside scoop on the best glycolic serums.

Even if you’re a skincare junkie who’s familiar with the ingredients that fall under the AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid) and BHA (beta-hydroxy acid) categories, everyone’s skin is different so there’s always a bit of a learning curve when it comes to figuring out what yours needs. Someone who suffers from breakouts might not need the same ingredients as those who are treating melasma.

Natalie Aguilar
  • Dermatological Nurse & Esthetician
  • Instagram

Aguilar is a Los Angeles-based dermatological nurse and licensed esthetician.

Thank goodness for the experts! If there’s anyone who knows exactly what our skin needs, it’s Aguilar. She tells us that her favorite glycolic serums are the ones that absorb quickly, don’t feel tacky, and leave skin looking plump and dewy.

But first, what is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is derived from sugar and is the smallest alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA). Aguilar tells me it works by breaking the bonds between the outer layer of dead skin and the next skin cell layer. It basically dissolves the “glue” that holds on to our damaged dead skin cells. That’s why glycolic acid is an incredibly powerful exfoliant and also why it’s Aguila’s preferred AHA for sun-exposed skin.

The beauty of glycolic acid is that it’s available in different strengths, making it suitable for all skin types. Aguilar says anyone can incorporate glycolic acid into their routine. The most common strength is 10% but you can find a gentle 1% or go all the way up to 70% with a professional-strength peel.

Who shouldn’t use it?

Those with extremely dry or compromised skin should not use glycolic acid. Applying glycolic acid to dry or irritated skin can really sting, cause excessive flaking, and can worsen existing irritation. It’s also best to avoid glycolic acid for a few days prior to a wax appointment or a sunny vacation, as the skin can become more sensitive.

How often can one use glycolic acid?

How often you use glycolic acid really depends on the product. Some serums are designed to be used daily while others are recommended twice daily, alternating nights, or once a week. It’s important to also pay attention to your unique skin’s needs and tolerance to the product.

Sometimes you won’t know you’ve used too much glycolic acid until you start peeling, even if you follow the given instructions perfectly. This could be the result of using a bit too much product or a strength that is too high for your skin to tolerate. If this happens, discontinue use for a few days. Once skin feels normal again, resume use but with less product and on alternating nights.

If overused, some may experience dehydration and dull-looking skin. Glycolic acid brings water up to the surface to plump the skin, but using too much will give one the opposite effect. As always, when starting with powerful actives, go slow.

Keep scrolling for the best glycolic acid serums:

DOCTOR BABOR PRO AHA Peeling Overnight Serum

This is Aguilar’s favorite anti-aging glycolic acid serum. Leave it on overnight to stimulate the skin’s rejuvenation process. The peptides and glycolic acid stimulate a natural exfoliation process to remove dead and uneven-looking surface skin cells. With regular use, skin is smoother and more refined, with a visibly rosier complexion. 

DOCTOR BABOR PRO AHA Peeling Overnight Serum, $79

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum

This powerful blend of AHAs that includes glycolic acid, resurfaces and exfoliates congested skin. Salicylic acid evens tone, while raspberry fruit extract rehydrates and soothes skin, pumping it full of antioxidants.

Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Resurfacing Night Serum, $90

Paula’s Choice Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA

This exfoliant leaves skin smoother, more radiant, and renewed. It has a lightweight, hydrating consistency that skin loves, and the low price point can’t be beaten.

Paula’s Choice Daily Smoothing Treatment with 5% AHA, $8

IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Serum Facial Treatment

Even the most sensitive skin will love this dermatologist-formulated serum. It has 10% glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid, so it works hard to improve your skin while keeping it soft and supple.

IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Pores Serum Facial Treatment, $29

La Roche-Posay Glycolic B5 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum

The combination of concentrated 10% glycolic acid, TXA, lipo-hydroxy acid, and vitamin B5 makes it the perfect lightweight option for reducing dark spots and discoloration.

La Roche-Posay Glycolic B5 10% Pure Glycolic Acid Serum, $39.99

Murad Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum

Gold-stabilized vitamin C and glycolic acid serum leave you with dramatically brighter, healthier-looking skin.

Murad Vita-C Glycolic Brightening Serum, $80

SKINCEUTICALS Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight

This powerful glycolic serum provides effective exfoliation and natural cell turnover while also promoting skin clarity and brightness.

SKINCEUTICALS Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight, $80

Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum

If you’re looking to start slow then check out this gentle serum. Aguilar thinks this clean beauty product is great since it’s gentle enough for inflamed acne skin types but powerful enough to help minimize acne-causing bacteria. All while soothing and brightening residual acne spots.

Tata Harper Resurfacing Serum, $92

Paula’s Choice Advanced Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA

If you loved the Paula’s Choice 5% offering but are ready to kick it up a notch, then try this beauty. This super-concentrated exfoliating serum smooths away sun damage and signs of aging, revealing more radiant skin.

Paula’s Choice Advanced Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA, $37

Lancer 10% Glycolic Acid Retexturing Treatment Cream

Aguilar thinks this beauty from Dr. Lancer is pretty impressive. Along with glycolic acid, it contains Co-Q10 to help fight free radical damage, which is always a plus.

Lancer 10% Glycolic Acid Retexturing Treatment Cream, $90

Sunday Riley Good Genes Glyolic Acid Treatment

Did you know that Sunday Riley’s popular Good Genes has a twin? Instead of being packed with lactic acid, this beauty features a glycolic acid formula that deeply exfoliates the skin to restore smoothness and radiance.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Glyolic Acid Treatment, $122

Alpha H Liquid Gold with 5% Glycolic Acid

This gentle 5% glycolic acid liquid exfoliant works overnight to give you brighter, smoother, and more even skin while supporting collagen production.

Alpha H Liquid Gold with 5% Glycolic Acid, $54

NEOSTRATA Glycolic Renewal Serum

This powerful combination of 10% AHA and antioxidants is formulated to renew the look of the skin’s surface texture. Glycolic acid is precisely blended to maximize exfoliation of surface skin cells while maintaining an optimal pH.

NEOSTRATA Glycolic Renewal Serum, $78

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