Whether you’re a fan of in-office chemical peels or at-home skincare, you’ve likely heard of glycolic acid. But did you know that its skin-smoothing benefits extend far beyond the face? From body acne and razor burn to rough patches and dullness, the ingredient can address an array of skin concerns below the neck and, in many cases, is even gentle enough for daily use. Intrigued? Here, a top dermatologist explains the ins and outs of glycolic acid for the body, and we’re breaking down the best ways to add the powerhouse active to your body care routine.
What Is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is part of the alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) family. Many AHAs are derived from fruits (think: malic, tartaric, citric, etc.), which is why they sometimes are referred to as ‘fruit acids,’ but glycolic acid is an AHA derived from sugarcane.
From a molecular perspective, glycolic acid is among the smallest of the AHAs, meaning that it can penetrate the skin most deeply. It should come as no surprise then that it is available in both professional and at-home skincare. Glycolic acid works to loosen the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, revealing the fresh, radiant skin underneath. At certain concentrations, it has even been shown to stimulate collagen production.
In-office glycolic acid peels tend to be superficial or medium-depth and are used to improve skin tone and texture. Because the glycolic is present at a higher dose (think: 30 to 40 percent), the peels can address dullness, hyperpigmentation, mild scarring, and fine lines.
At-home products with glycolic acid have similar brightening effects — albeit slightly less dramatic. “Glycolic acid used at five to seven percent is well tolerated by most,” explains Alicia Zalka, MD, board certified dermatologist and founder of Surface Deep. “Higher concentrations of 10 to 20 percent are stronger and may not be suitable for all users.” Her advice? “Start gently and increase as tolerated.”
So, How Does Glycolic Acid Work on the Body?
One of the best things about glycolic acid? It works just as well on the body as it does on the face. When it comes to the skin below the neck, the AHA can be used to gently exfoliate and remove dead skin cells. “Think of it as raking the fallen leaves from your lawn in the autumn and allowing the ground beneath to ‘breathe,’” Dr. Zalka says of the effect glycolic acid has on the skin. But that turnover doesn’t mean you are sacrificing strength. “One might think that if the glycolic removes surface cells that it would thin the skin, yet glycolic can actually help fortify skin and make it plumper and more resilient,” she explains.
While it may seem counterintuitive, products with glycolic acid can actually be an important part of a treatment plan for ichthyosis (the medical term for dry, scaly, or thickened skin). Chemical exfoliants help to loosen and remove those built-up dead skin cells so that more traditional moisturizers have an easier time penetrating the skin.
And that’s not all. Glycolic acid works to restore and preserve the skin's acid mantle (i.e. the thin, acidic film that sits on the surface and acts as a barrier to protect against bacteria and viruses). “Many products we use, such as soaps, are alkaline and may banish the preferred pH of the skin in its optimal state,” Dr. Zalka says. Since the optimal pH of skin on most of the face and body is somewhere between 4.7 and 5.7, using an acidic product can help counteract the alkalinity of other skincare and personal care.
How to Use Glycolic Acid on the Body
At this point, you’ve probably gleaned that glycolic acid has an array of uses from head to toe. As it relates to the skin of the body, it is often used to:
- Improve skin tone & texture
- Unclog pores
- Prevent body acne, bumps, & razor burn
- Smooth dry skin
One of the best ways to prevent and treat body acne at home — especially during hot and humid (read: sweaty) summer months — is with glycolic acid. “To prevent acne or razor bumps on the body, use a glycolic acid cleanser in the shower,” Dr. Zalka notes. As we mentioned above, the AHA can also help smooth and brighten dry, dull skin. “Use it as a daily moisturizer after showering or bathing and apply while the skin is still moist,” she explains. To smooth rough and tough skin on the elbows, heels, or other thicker areas, apply an exfoliating lotion (à la the products below) and follow it up with a richer cream or balm. You will notice that the skin will soften and hydrate with consistent use.
We’d be remiss not to mention that while the acidic nature of these products benefit the skin in many ways, it can also cause acute irritation. The “acidic aspect of these products may cause minor stinging sensation if used directly after shaving or on skin that has breaks or cuts,” Dr. Zalka cautions.
The Best Glycolic Acid Products for Body
Now that you know the benefits of glycolic acid, it’s time to add it to your body care routine. Below are a few editor-approved body sprays, creams, lotions, treatments, and more.
For Luminous Limbs: Glytone Exfoliating Body Wash
Remove excess oil, dirt, and dead skin cells with 8.8 percent glycolic acid wash that is specifically formulated to cleanse and soften skin while it exfoliates. The result? Smoother and more luminous skin from your décolleté to your digits. $33, dermstore.com
For Your Pits: Surface Deep Anti-Odorant Pads
Dr. Zalka designed these biodegradable cleansing pads to replace deodorant. At the core of the vegan formula is a patent-pending blend of glycolic acid, which combines with plant-derived enzymes and aloe leaf juice to neutralize odors while soothing skin. $20 for 30 pads, surfacedeep.com
For Razor Burn: Anthony Ingrown Hair Treatment
Whether you are looking to treat ingrown hairs and razor burn or prevent them, this exfoliating gel features glycolic, salicylic, and phytic acids to unclog pores and free trapped hairs, while willowherb and lavender calm the skin for a closer shave. $42, spacenk.com
For Banishing Breakouts: Urban Skin Rx Clear Skin Clarifying Back and Body Spray
We get it, the idea of applying a potentially greasy lotion to blemish-prone skin is not appealing. Enter this quick-drying clarifying spray that is ideal for use on the back, buttocks, chest, and shoulders. A 10 percent glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and willow bark extract blend sloughs away dead skin cells to treat and prevent the causes of breakouts. $36, dermstore.com
For Bumpy Skin: DermaDoctor KP Duty Body Scrub Exfoliant with 10% AHAs + PHAs
If you want the benefits of a chemical exfoliator without sacrificing the satisfaction of a physical one, this dual-action scrub is for you. Alpha hydroxy acids (glycolic and lactic) join forces with poly hydroxy acids (PHAs), beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), and hydrated silica to improve the appearance of dry, rough, and bumpy skin concerns. $50, dermadoctor.com
For Rough Patches: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Exfoliating Body Treatment
Dealing with specific patches that could use a little extra TLC? These targeted pads are just what the doctor ordered. Powered by alpha and beta hydroxy acids (glycolic, lactic, and salicylic), the exfoliating towelettes reduce creepiness, rough spots, bumps, and blemishes for brighter, smoother, and younger-looking skin. $58 for 8 treatments, dermstore.com
For All-Over Smoothing: Paula’s Choice Skin Revealing Body Lotion 10% AHA
Think of this lightweight, 10 percent glycolic acid lotion as a leave-on exfoliating treatment. The non-abrasive formula loosens and sheds built-up layers of dead skin cells to reveal softer and smoother skin. Gentle enough for daily use, it improves skin tone and texture, eliminates hard, clogged, and red bumps on the arms and legs, and can even help those prone to keratosis pilaris. $28, paulaschoice.com
For Body Acne: Murad Acne Body Wash
Body acne can be just as stubborn as the breakouts on your face. Whether you are looking to speed up the healing process of active acne or prevent future pimples, this body wash pairs 1 percent salicylic acid with glycolic acid, date seed powder, green tea, and licorice root extract to clear and calm the skin. $44, sephora.com
For Healthier Heels: Dermelect Runway Ready Luxury Foot Treatment
When you think of dull, thickened, and rough skin, you probably think of the oft-forgotten feet. This multipurpose treatment softens (thanks to argan oil, shea butter, and hyaluronic acid), while alpha and beta hydroxy acids work to clear calluses and dead skin. The best part? It leaves behind no greasy residue — seriously. $25, dermstore.com
For Keratosis Pilaris: Skinfix Resurface+ AHA Renewing Body Cream
Tackling keratosis pilaris (KP) and just about any other body bump, this exfoliating cream is clinically proven to improve bumps, KP, scaliness, and roughness in just two weeks. The science? It combines a 6 percent AHA blend with clarifying willow bark extract, soothing bisabolol, moisturizing shea butter, and nourishing coconut and jojoba oils. $45, sephora.com
All products featured are independently selected by our editors, however, AEDIT may receive a commission on items purchased through our links.
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