First, what is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic Acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid made from sugarcane that’s commonly used and applied as a dermatology office chemical peel treatment (process of putting acid on the skin to exfoliate). The term “chemical” can sound intimidating, but all it means is that it doesn’t rely on scrubbing or scraping your skin to exfoliate and clean. It gives better results than harsh scrubbing beads or brushes simply through application to the skin. Non-neutralized glycolic acid is a natural way to remove dead skin, debris, and pore-clogging substances while activating natural cellular rejuvenation. The end result? Fresher, brighter skin, without all the harsh scraping and scratching.
Glycolic is a time-tested ingredient. Since when?
As recalled in a publication from the Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology The Cosmetic Dermatology European Expert, the earliest use of acid peeling procedures - or chemical peels, as they’re known today - was noted in Egyptian medicine as early as 1550 BC. Meaning, chemical peels have been effective since before the time of Cleopatra! She used acids like lactic acid (found in sour milk), tartaric acid (found in wine), and citric acid (found in lemon). Ancient Greek and Romans were also fans of acid peels. In the 19th century, acid treatments began to resemble their modern form when glycolic acid was first formulated. The first recorded use of medical strength acid being used for treatment was in 1874 in Vienna, when the dermatologist Ferdinand von Hebra used specially-designed peels to treat melasma and freckles. Today in the 21st century, dermatologists use acid chemical peels, most commonly glycolic acid, to treat acne, skin pigmentation, anti-aging, and more.
Is it safe?
Yes, dermatologists even use glycolic to treat acne during pregnancy. Contrary to some reports, glycolic acid can’t burn or scar the skin - any stinging sensation is only temporary, and it means the glycolic is working!. Glycolic is naturally derived from sugarcane plant and can be used to reverse sun damage, even in the summer months when sun exposure to the skin is at its peak.
Now, why is non-neutralized glycolic acid more effective than other store-bought skin products?
The secret to glycolic acid’s effectiveness lies in its molecular structure. Specifically, the size of the molecule is small enough to allow it to penetrate deeper into the pores than most other acids. This means it can reach the deepest layers of skin to truly transform and rejuvenate from the inside out. When the acid is neutralized, it loses its effectiveness and can’t penetrate the skin. Non-neutralized glycolic, on the other hand, retains its strength as a powerful agent of brighter, firmer, cleaner skin.
Let's explore what neutralizing an acid actually means.
A neutralization reaction is when an acid and a base react to form a neutral solution - e.g., pure water. Without being too scientific, a neutralized acid - in this case, neutralized glycolic acid - loses its strength and has not much more effect on the skin than water. Most products on the market that advertise high glycolic content are NOT non-neutralized. Meaning, they’ll be gentle on the skin but give the same results as soap and water.
What does the pH have to do with it?
Everything. One way to tell whether your skincare product has non-neutralized glycolic acid is by the pH. Products at the store typically don’t provide the pH, so try it on your skin. If the formulation includes a non-neutralized glycolic acid, the skin will tingle or sting when it is applied. Another way is to check the glycolic percentage. Over-the-counter beauty products that include non-neutralized glycolic acid will not be more than 15% acid concentration. If the label advertises 30%, 45%, or even 70%, it’s safe to assume the glycolic is neutralized. As a consumer, be aware of products advertising glycolic concentrations higher than 15%. Neutralized formulations have diminished benefits the pH ends up being similar to that of water. What this all means is you are not receiving the pure, non-neutralized glycolic acid benefits.
In a dermatologist office, concentrations of glycolic acid are usually between 15% and 70% and at a pH between 1 and 3. In some cases, it can even be applied at 100% concentration. After an adjustment period, most skin types can tolerate these percentages without any problems. The higher the concentration and the lower the pH, the more intense the exfoliation will be.
So how often can non-neutralized glycolic be used?
The short answer is, as often as you want! For oily and resistant skin, it can be used up to twice a day. For sensitive skin, most dermatologists recommend one to three times per week. With regular use, skin will build a tolerance, and the amount and frequency of application can be increased. Like any new thing, the body needs time to adjust - this is no different from stepping into a cold shower. At first it can be alarming, but after a brief period of time the skin will adapt and acclimate, and more frequent applications can be used.
Usually, you’ll experience a simple sensation of tingling or heat after using non-neutralized glycolic acid. However, rest easy - it cannot burn, hurt, or scar the skin. A couple days after using non-neutralized glycolic acid, skin may peel or flake off as a result of the activation of the cell turnover process, which is ignited when the glycolic enters the pores. This is a normal biological process that’s simply sped up when non-neutralized glycolic acid is applied. If the tingling or heat is uncomfortable, apply lotion to soothe and/or rinse skin with water. Acne flare or dry patches are possible but shouldn’t be discouraging. This is usually a sign of the skin tolerance of the non-neutralized glycolic acid and will likely go away. Just continue applying the product, and skin will grow accustomed; this is especially true if it’s the first time applying non-neutralized glycolic acid to the skin. Complications are rare and usually not severe. A common reaction for first-time users is redness of the skin. Mild peeling may also be noticed but should not be alarming, as this is a common effect of using high concentrations of non-neutralized glycolic acid.
So now that we’ve talked about the “what” of non-neutralized glycolic, it’s time for the “why”. WHY is non-neutralized glycolic acid the best choice for your skincare?
If you’re interested in the scientific process behind glycolic’s skin rejuvenation, you can check out this awesome article.
If instead you’re thinking “science is cool and all, but not my favorite subject in school… tell me what I can expect from using it”, then here we go!
Glycolic acid will:
- Reduce fine lines and wrinkles and prevent them from returning over an extended period of time than any other acid.
- Even out discoloration caused by sun spots
- Minimize pores for a smoother appearance of the skin.
- Give you a noticeably “fresh face” where people start to say, “you look so...bright!”
Non-neutralized glycolic acid really is the go-to choice for dermatologists to provide their patients with a consistent, maintained appearance and texture of skin - aka, “the glow”!
So what’s the point?
Non-neutralized glycolic is the most effective form of the acid and will provide the best results. Using products containing higher percentages of glycolic (50% and higher) will probably not give the results you want - after all, the percentage is high but so is the neutralization! Instead, using a lower percentage of non-neutralized glycolic can and will give you fewer wrinkles, firmer skin, and an all-around healthier, brighter look!
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