Although most of us do what we can to create the appearance of brighter skin—like blending highlighter with foundation (remember the strobing trend?), or strategically standing under soft light in photos—it's a task we wouldn't mind giving up for something easier, especially if it actually works to change our skin for the better. That's why we're particularly drawn to the powers of glycolic acid. It's widely considered a skincare MVP by dermatologists to achieve that luminous, "lit from within" look.
What is Glycolic Acid?
Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring acid found in some fruits and sugar cane. Skin experts especially love glycolic acid for its exfoliating, and thereby, skin brightening qualities. Scientifically, "Glycolic acid is a water-soluble crystalline solid that can be manufactured at various strengths and pHs," says Jennifer Herrmann, MD, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills.
Meet the Expert
Jennifer Herrmann, MD, FAAD, is a Los Angeles-based dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon. Dr. Herrmann graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and earned her medical degree from Harvard University.
"In general, it helps dissolve the oils in the outermost skin layer to make skin brighter." Over time, glycolic acid can also help minimize pigmentation, and at higher concentrations, help lessen fine lines, says Herrmann. In other words, glycolic acid can give the appearance of brighter, smoother skin without any extra strategies at all.
Glycolic Acid Works For Most Skin Types
Most skin types can benefit from low concentrations of glycolic acid in face washes, and they're especially good for those with acne-prone skin. However, Herrmann recommends that those with sensitive or rosacea-prone profiles consult their own dermatologists before beginning a daily routine, and that more powerful concentrations should only be used twice to three times per week to avoid irritating the skin. There's one last tip to keep in mind, too. "Those using other agents like retinol, retinoids, or prescription acne medications should be aware that daily glycolic acid could cause redness or irritation," Herrmann adds.
Glycolic acid's exfoliating properties allow other skincare products and treatments penetrate the skin better.
Below, we asked Herrmann to recommend 10 glycolic acid face washes to introduce into our skincare routines to help brighten our complexion over time. Read on for Herrmann's nine glycolic face wash picks, plus one similarly exfoliating body wash.
Glytone Mild Gel Cleanser
"This gentle cleanser is perfect for brightening skin and rebalancing the skin's pH," Herrmann says. "Plus, added glycerin helps leave the skin feeling bright and clean!"
SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser
"SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser helps brighten dull skin tone and uneven skin texture while delivering hydration," Herrmann notes. "Its combination of glycerin and a mild surfactant (soap) gently lift dead skin cells, improving your complexion."
Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser
"The foaming nature of this cleanser gently helps remove congestion and brighten skin," she continues. "Its added herbal extracts help soothe and hydrate without stripping skin of its natural oils, too."
Jack Black Deep Dive Glycolic Facial Cleanser
"This is a wonderful multi-function product. As a cleanser it helps brighten skin, and as a leave-on mask, its added clay helps purify the skin," she explains. "It's a great option for removing dead skin cells and congestion and making skin appear smoother. It's also fragrance-free, paraben-free, and vegan."
Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser
"This is an excellent gentle option since it has just three percent glycolic acid for clarifying skin," Herrmann notes. "It also includes panthenol to help calm, nourish, and moisturize the skin to make it glow."
Derma E Anti-Wrinkle Vitamin A Cleanser
"For those with acne, this cleanser combines glycolic acid with vitamin A and papaya extracts to help remove excess oil and impurities," she says. "This option is also 100 percent vegan, cruelty-free, paraben-free, and sulfate-free."
NeoStrata Foaming Glycolic Wash
"This is another fantastic option for those with acne-prone skin because it has higher strength glycolic acid (at 18 percent) and fruit extracts that help clogged pores and dead skin," Herrmann explains. "It's a soap-free facial cleanser with a high strength, so it's best to use this one two to three times a week at most."
DNA EGF Renewal Foaming Gel Cleanser
"This gel formula provides an innovative, non-irritating version of glycolic acid for gentle exfoliating action coupled with a naturally derived, sulfate-free cleansing agent to remove dead skin cells and reveal clean, vibrant skin," she says. "Its unique amino acid glycolic complex stimulates cell turnover and washes away surface impurities to prime skin for maximum regeneration."
Body Mary Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Cleanser
"This is a bit more moisturizing with rose-hip and tea tree oils, and its ionic acid is a bonus for those who want to lighten skin beyond what the glycolic acid can do," she continues.
Glytone Exfoliating Body Wash
"With its 8.8 percent glycolic acid, this is perfect for brightening the thicker skin of the body," Herrmann notes. "It's especially good for those tiny red scratchy bumps on the backs of the arms, for instance."