How to Use Glycolic Acid Serum: 6 Easy Steps

how to use glycolic acid serum
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If you’re tired of dull, lifeless-looking skin, I have a solution for you- glycolic acid serum!  This magical serum can give you the healthy glowing skin you’ve always wanted (or used to have). 

In a study in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, Glycolic acid has been shown to dramatically rejuvenate skin by increasing collagen production and stimulating cell turnover.  What does this mean to you and me?  A brighter, clearer complexion and fewer lines and wrinkles. 

But you need to know a few important details before diving in, to ensure you get optimum results.  In this article, I am going to walk you through exactly how to use glycolic acid serum to get your skin looking its best.

how to use glycolic acid serum

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring form of Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) that originates from sugar cane.  It is known as a chemical exfoliant, simply meaning it breaks down the glue that holds skin cells together and allows the outermost layer of dead skin cells to be shed away. 

Of all the acids in skincare, it is the simplest in structure and has the smallest molecular weight.  Glycolic Acid’s minuscule molecules make it superior to all other acids because it can better penetrate the layers of the skin. 

Better absorption makes it a highly effective treatment for many skin concerns. And because it is water-soluble, this molecule is easily washed away with water.

When Should You Use It

Glycolic Acid should always be used as part of your nighttime skincare routine.  Skin turnover peeks at night when you are sleeping, so using this before bed can assist in your skin’s natural renewal process. 

Because it is an exfoliator, glycolic acid will make your skin more photosensitive, meaning your skin will be more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays increasing your risk of sunburn.  This is another important reason to use it at night rather than in the morning. 

The morning after using glycolic acid (and EVERY morning), always apply a full spectrum sunscreen before going outside.  

Although glycolic acid products are known for their anti-aging properties and are popular among those with more “mature” skin, they can also be very helpful for people in their younger years. 

Those with acne-prone skin can benefit from its ability to quickly unblock and shrink pores.  So whether you use it when you’re young; or when you’re older- you’ll always find this serum beneficial.

How Often Should I Use Glycolic Acid Serum

If you are new to Glycolic Acid, your skin will need some time to adjust to it.  In this case use it once or twice a week, again only at night. 

As your tolerance increases, build up to every other day, and eventually nightly. 

If you are using a retinol, it is recommended to alternate GA with your retinol every other night, rather than using the two together in the same session.

Your skin type also plays a role in how often you will be able to use it.  If you have reactive skin, you may have to stick to it once a twice a week for much longer (possibly indefinity) than a normal non-reactive skin type.

You will also need to pay attention to the strength of the GA.  A higher strength will be less tolerated and induce more skin sensitivity than a lower strength.  

You might also want to add a hydrating serum to your skincare regime to help combat dryness. Find the Best Hydrating Serums 2022 here.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Serum In Your Skincare Routine

There are an overwhelming array of products available to perfect our skin.  Although we are fortunate to have such a wide variety of options, how and when to apply them can be quite confusing. 

In general, you should cleanse, and then layer products starting from the thinnest water-based first, to the thickest oil-based creams last.  Here is a step-by-step guide for simplifying your routine.

How to use glycolic acid serum

Morning Routine

Step 1: Cleanse

Wash your face before applying any other skincare products to eliminate dirt, bacteria, sweat, and pollution from the surface of the skin.  Having a clean slate to work with will make the rest of your skincare ingredients more effective.

Step 2: Toner

Use a hydrating toner.  Do not use an exfoliating toner with BHA or AHAs.   

Step 3: Serums

Use a pea-sized amount of a vitamin C serum with hyaluronic acid to help with skin brightening, hydration, and protection against harmful molecules known as free radicals, which lead to premature skin aging.  

Step 4: Oils

Applying a squalene or Rosehip oil after your serum can help with hydration. Remember that an oil does not moisturize on its own.  Your skin needs to be damp for it to be effective, so be sure to gently press your oil into your skin immediately following the application of your serum.   

Step 5: Moisturizer

  Use a non-comedogenic moisturizer with humectants to attract moisture to the skin.  

Step 6: Sunscreen

Your final step should always be to apply a full spectrum sunblock.  This becomes even more essential when you are using exfoliating products that increase your sun sensitivity.

Nighttime Routine

Your nighttime routine should be similar to daytime with a few exceptions.  Here are the steps to follow. 

Step 1: Cleanser

Step 2: Toner

Step 3: Serums

Use a hydrating serum such as hyaluronic acid first, then follow with your Glycolic Acid Serum (again, a pea-sized amount- more can cause irritation).   If using retinol, alternate this with your hyaluronic acid every other day. 

Step 4: Oil 

Step 5: Moisturizer

What Strength is Best?

To understand how to use Glycolic Acid Serum, you’ll first need to know which concentration to use. Glycolic Acids come in a wide range of strengths, from 5% all the way up to 50%.  Over-the-counter serums for at-home use typically won’t be any stronger than 20%  GAs above 20% are typically used for chemical peels by estheticians and medical providers. 

When initially trying a glycolic acid serum it is best to start low and slow.  AHAs cause sensitivity and dryness so a lower concentration will keep these side effects at bay until your skin builds up a tolerance to it. 

Use a serum with 5-8% glycolic acid to start out, then increase as your skin adjusts.  If you have sensitive or dry skin, you may need to stick with this lower concentration for a while. 

But studies have determined that even at a reduced concentration of 8%, cell turnover and collagen production is “moderately increased”.  So you will still see benefits even at this lower strength. 

If your skin is used to AHAs and can handle a higher concentration, you will have more rapid and profound results with a strength of 15-20%.  In the same studies mentioned earlier, there were significant increases in cell turnover and collagen production at these higher concentrations.

So in this case, more is better…only if your skin can tolerate it.  If you try to jump into very high concentrations of glycolic acid before your skin has had the time to adjust, you will just create a peeling, red, inflamed face. This is probably not the look you are going for.  

What Are the Benefits of Glycolic Acid

Glycolic Acid serum can be a game-changer for your skin.  The advantages of this highly effective treatment are wide-ranging.  Here is a list of the top 11 Glycolic Acid serum benefits. 

  1. Reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  2. Accelerates skin renewal
  3. Increases collagen production
  4. Promotes skin hydration
  5. Fades hyperpigmentation (dark spots)
  6. Fades acne scars
  7. Increases absorption and efficacy of other active ingredients in your skincare regime
  8. Brightens complexion
  9. Smooths and improves skin texture
  10. Minimizes pores
  11. Prevents clogged pores
  12. Mitigates oily skin

What Are the Side Effects of Glycolic Acid Serum

AHAs can be drying to the skin.  If you have sensitive or dry skin, you’ll want to use a lower concentration of 5%-8% and apply it once or twice a week, to begin with.  

GAs also increase skin sensitivity, so avoid direct sunlight and always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen liberally before going outside.


Can You Use Too Much Glycolic Acid?

Yes! If you go above 20% on a daily basis you could end up with overly exfoliated skin.  This can lead to flaky, scaly, dull-looking skin. Concentrations above 25% are typically used for chemical peels and should be administered by a professional. 

How Long Does It Take For Glycolic Acid To Work?

The length of time varies depending on the person. Some people notice immediate improvements after using a GA product

Can I Use Glycolic Acid In the Morning?

It’s best to use glycolic acids at night when your natural skin cell turnover is at its peak.  It is also better to avoid GA in the morning to minimize the risks of sun damage.

Is Glycolic Acid Safe For My Skin Type?

If you have normal skin, you can use a GA product without fear.  For sensitive skin types, GA is safe but you will need to use a lower strength less frequently.  

Can You Mix Glycolic Acid With Retinol?

Using GA and Retinols at the same time is not recommended.  But alternating the two every other night will give you great results.  

Does Glycolic Acid Thin Skin?

No. Glycolic acid works by dissolving dead cells which allows new healthy ones to come to the surface.  If anything, your skin may thicken due to increased collagen production

Is Glycolic Acid Effective for Acne?

Yes. Studies show that Glycolic acid mitigates acne by exfoliating the dead skin cells that can clog pores and result in breakouts.  If you suffer from mild to moderate acne, you should consider adding GA to your regimen.

More On Facial Serums

Serum Vs. Moisturizer: What’s the Difference

What Does Serum Do For Your Face

Best Hydrating Serums 2022

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