12 of the Best Glycolic Acid Cleansers for a Glowing Complexion

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Basic as it may be, how and what you’re cleansing your face with sets the tone for the rest of your regime. While exfoliating is one of those steps, have you considered combining it when you cleanse? Forget walnut powder and microbeads. We’re talking about using a glycolic acid cleanser. 

Though the word “acid” is ominous, a glycolic acid face wash can be a safe and effective way for you to achieve a clear, smooth, glowing complexion. Glycolic acid, including a glycolic cleanser, is an exceptional multi-tasker. It has anti-inflammatory, keratolytic, and antioxidant effects and acts as an exfoliator and a moisturizer. 

While you’ll find everything from a glycolic body lotion to a glycolic acid moisturizer on the market, we’re honing in on why everyone should add a glycolic face wash to their repertoire of products. 

Shopping for a glycolic acid wash doesn’t have to be intimidating. Here at Deep Science, we’ve reviewed hundreds of products with a scientific lens to ensure you’re creating a skincare routine that’s safe and effective. 

Let’s take a deeper dive into the benefits this evidence-based ingredient provides while sharing our list of the 12 best glycolic acid cleansers. 

Glycolic Acid Cleanser: The List

Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser, $29

SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser, $35

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser, $44

Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser, $39

Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, $16

Glytone Mild Cream Cleanser, $33

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleanser, $12.99

Jack Black Deep Dive Glycolic Facial Cleanser, $15

RoC Multi Correxion Revive + Glow Gel Cleanser, $10

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, $42

Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser, $10

NIP + FAB Glycolic Fix Cleanser, $10.50

The Science Behind Glycolic Acid Cleansers

Glycolic acid is a member of the class of chemical compounds known as alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). These compounds consist of a carboxylic acid (-COOH) substituted with a hydroxyl group (-OH) on the adjacent carbon in the alpha position, hence the name. 

  • Other AHAs include lactic acid, mandelic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, and citric acid.
  • AHAs can be naturally derived from fruit and milk sugars or synthetically produced. For example, glycolic acid can be isolated from natural sources like sugarcane, sugar beets, pineapple, cantaloupe, and unripe grapes.
  • AHAs are frequently used in skincare products, such as a glycolic acid cleanser, because they can exfoliate the skin, stimulate the skin’s natural regeneration process, and help the skin to retain moisture. 
  • Glycolic acid is unique because it has the smallest molecular size out of all the AHAs. Molecular size matters because the smaller a molecule, the more easily it can penetrate deep into the skin. With that said, glycolic acid penetrates the skin better and faster than all of the others, which is why it’s considered the strongest AHA.
  • While there can be glycolic solutions as high as 70% for in-office treatments, the percentage in homecare products is typically between 8 and 30% — but a glycolic acid face wash falls between 3 and 10%.

Glycolic Acid Benefits

Glycolic acid is an exceptional multi-tasker. It exerts anti-inflammatory, keratolytic, and antioxidant effects and acts as an exfoliator and a moisturizer. That’s a lot to take in, so we’re going to cover each benefit of glycolic acid below so you’ll know precisely what glycolic acid does for your skin.

 

Exfoliates and Smooths

Glycolic acid exfoliates the skin by targeting corneocytes (dead skin cells that make up the top layers of skin) in a process called corneocyte desquamation. By enhancing their breakdown and increasing the separation of skin cells, the rate of cell turnover is increased, leading to smoother, brighter skin.

 

Boosts Skin Hydration

While exfoliation is typically associated with skin dryness and peeling due to removing the upper layers of dead skin cells, AHAs are known to produce the opposite effect. Remember, AHAs have a hydroxyl (-OH) group in the alpha position. This hydroxyl group enables AHAs to function as humectant moisturizers. A humectant moisturizer is an ingredient that sits on your skin and grabs onto water, slowing it from evaporating.

Additionally, glycolic acid can increase the supply of hyaluronic acid in the extracellular matrix (ECM). Hyaluronic acid is the key molecule involved in skin moisture and can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. Increasing levels of hyaluronic acid help keep the skin hydrated, so it looks more plump and firm.

 

Promotes a Youthful Complexion

AHAs, including glycolic acid, have been found to stimulate collagen production. Collagen is a structural protein naturally produced by the body responsible for keeping the skin firm. Collagen production starts to decline around age 25 and decreases with age. Collagen levels also decrease due to smoking, sugar consumption, and overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Ultimately, this decrease leads to wrinkles and sagging skin. 

Even though many skincare products include collagen as an ingredient, it is simply too large to penetrate the skin deep enough to have an anti-aging effect. 

 

Helps Prevent Acne

If you have acne-prone skin, you may want to consider using a glycolic acid cleanser. Blemishes form due to excess sebum, dead skin cells, and bacteria clogging pores, followed by inflammation and swelling. Glycolic acid sloughs away the dead skin cells that clog pores and cause acne breakouts. In addition, its moisturizing effects keep the skin hydrated and soft, allowing blemishes to heal better. Research has found that glycolic acid has antibacterial and antioxidant activity, which can also help improve your skin’s appearance when you have acne.

What to Look for in the Best Glycolic Acid Face Wash

 

The Concentration of Glycolic Acid

For a glycolic acid face wash, look for a concentration ranging from 4-10%. If the percentage is not clear on the packaging, look at glycolic acid’s order on the ingredient label — the closer to the top, the stronger the percentage. If your skin is on the sensitive side, opt for a lower percentage.

According to research, the depth to which glycolic acid causes peeling often depends upon the concentration. For example, a 1 percent glycolic acid solution affects the pH level of three layers of skin, while a 10 percent solution can penetrate 10 to 20 layers.

 

pH Level

The term “pH” refers to the “potential of hydrogen.” It concerns the activity of hydrogen ions (ions are molecules that carry a positive or negative charge) in a water-based solution. Hydrogen makes up two-thirds of water, water being two hydrogen molecules plus an oxygen molecule, H²o.

  • The pH of a solution is indicated by a numeric scale that runs from 0-14. Anything below 7 (which is pH neutral) is considered acidic, while anything with a pH greater than 7 is alkaline.
  • Ideally, you want a glycolic acid cleanser with a pH of 4 or less — but since that’s acidic and can be drying, look for hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe, or glycerin if you have a drier skin type. 
  • Not all skincare products, such as a glycolic acid cleanser, clearly state the pH level on the ingredient label — but you can purchase pH strips to test the product on your own. 

Other Acids

Providing you don’t have extremely sensitive skin, consider trying a face wash formulated with other acids such as citric or lactic — beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid, which work wonders on oily, acneic skin. 

How to Use a Glycolic Face Wash

If you’re new to using a glycolic renewal cleanser — or are changing to a formula with a higher concentration — conduct a patch test first. 

  • Whether you use a glycolic acid face wash at 3% or 10%, remember, never use it around your eyes and lips. Use a separate makeup remover to prevent burning, stinging, and dryness for these delicate areas. 
  • As mentioned, a glycolic acid cleanser provides anywhere between 3 and 10% GA, meaning it provides gentle exfoliation. With that in mind, only use it once a day — ideally, at night, because glycolic acid makes the skin more sensitive to the sun. 
  • Always use sun protection during the day — ideally, a minimum sun protection factor of 30. 
  • While there are typically few adverse side effects with at-home glycolic products (especially cleansers), if your skin feels irritated or shows signs of sensitivity (think bumps, increased redness, dry patches), decrease how often you’re using your glycolic face wash. Discontinue it altogether if you aren’t seeing any improvement or your skin continues to get worse. 
  • Be mindful of the other products you’re using with active ingredients in your routine, especially if you’re using a glycolic cleanser every day. You may need to adjust the frequency.

Glycolic Acid Cleanser: The List

Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser, $29
The best glycolic acid cleanser is Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser. Formulated to gently cleanse and exfoliate the skin while removing dirt and makeup, Formulyst’s AHA Foaming Cleanser helps refine pores, control excess oil and smooth away any surface-level roughness.

Enriched with Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) for an intense clean and complex blend of soothing citrus and botanical extracts, this deeply purifying formulation actively dissolves dead surface cells, draws out pore-clogging impurities, and removes excess oil. So skin feels clean, clear, and beautifully refreshed.

SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser, $35
SkinCeuticals Purifying Cleanser is a foaming gel cleanser with glycolic acid to exfoliate and smooth skin texture while simultaneously conditioning and softening skin. This cleanser contains a mild surfactant system and an optimized 3% concentration of key ingredients combining glycolic acid and glycerin.

Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Cleanser, $44
This popular daily foaming cleanser from Kate Somerville combines glycolic acid and lactic acid to gently cleanse away oil, makeup, and surface impurities to reveal softer, smoother skin. It’s gentle enough to use day and night to effectively cleanse the skin while visibly improving texture and clogged pores. 

Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser, $39
Peter Thomas Roth 3% Glycolic Solutions Cleanser is an oil-free, anti-aging, and exfoliating cleansing gel that helps to remove impurities, makeup, and excess oil. It provides a gentle dose of glycolic acid (only 3%), which helps improve the look of pores, smoothness, brightness, and clarity while helping reduce the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone.

Mario Badescu Glycolic Foaming Cleanser, $16
This brightening glycolic cleanser from Mario Badescu addresses dullness, congestion, and discoloration. It’s formulated with around 4% glycolic acid to deeply clean and exfoliate to help refine pores and retexturize the skin. Fine lines, acne marks, and age spots are diminished with regular use. A soothing blend of chamomile, marshmallow, sage, st. John’s wort and yarrow extracts provide additional rejuvenating benefits to help rebalance the skin resulting in a radiant complexion. This glycolic wash is not recommended for sensitive or acne-erupted skin and those using a topical prescription product. 

Glytone Mild Cream Cleanser, $33
Glytone’s best-selling face cleanser is formulated with 3.4% PFAV glycolic acid and glycerin to exfoliate while keeping the skin hydrated and nourished. The addition of orange oil energizes while serving as a skin conditioning agent. Regular use helps fade fine lines, wrinkles, and damage caused by environmental factors or oxidative stress. This glycolic acid cleanser is recommended for normal to dry skin. 

L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleanser, $12.99
Just because a glycolic acid face wash comes from a drug store doesn’t mean it can’t be effective. This effective formula from L’Oréal glycolic acid cleanser combines 3.5% pre glycolic acid with salicylic acid to resurface the skin while removing excess oils to help keep the pores free from debris. The addition of aloe extract prevents dryness. It’s also fragrance-free and allergy-tested.

Jack Black Deep Dive Glycolic Facial Cleanser, $15
Jack Black is known for creating results-driven formulations that cater to the needs of the discerning gentleman. This multifunctional, clay-based glycolic cleanser removes dead skin cells and excess oil, revealing a smoother, fresher complexion. Along with resurfacing the skin and refining pores, glycolic acid is an asset to men who tend to get ingrown hairs from shaving. The product can also be used as a purifying mask when left on the skin to dry. 

RoC Multi Correxion Revive + Glow Gel Cleanser, $10
Along with glycolic acid, this resurfacing cleanser contains skin-brightening RoC vitamin C to dissolve dirt and oils and leave the skin smooth and glowing after just one use. The refreshing citrus scent makes this an excellent glycolic acid cleanser for morning use. It effectively cleanses without stripping the skin of its natural moisture. After two weeks, 8 out of 10 consumers said the product delivered better results than expected.

Murad AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser, $42
This creamy multi-tasking glycolic cleanser harnesses the power of chemical and physical exfoliation to help remove dry, dull skin from the surface and improve penetration of treatment ingredients that follow. Sodium PCA optimizes the skin’s ability to attract and hold moisture which helps prevent dryness from the glycolic acid. Murad suggests only using this glycolic face wash three times per week. 

Glow Recipe Blueberry Bounce Gentle Cleanser, $10
This is an excellent glycolic acid cleanser for newbies because it’s milder and is buffered by hydrating hyaluronic acid and antioxidant-rich blueberry extract to protect your skin against environmental assault. It follows Glow Recipe’s philosophy of being a fruit-forward, clean formula for glowing skin. This three-in-one product works as a cleanser, makeup remover, and five-minute mask treatment that you can fit into your shower time. 

NIP + FAB Glycolic Fix Cleanser, $10.50
This deep cleansing and purifying vegan formula is made with 2% glycolic acid to exfoliate and retexturize the skin. Apple amino acids cleanse and purify while olive oil hydrates and smoothes. NIP+FAB is a cruelty-free brand; they do not test their products on animals.

Glycolic Face Wash: The Bottom Line

The best glycolic acid cleanser is Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser. 

Though the word “acid” is ominous, a glycolic acid face wash can be a safe and effective way for you to achieve a clear, smooth, glowing complexion. Glycolic acid, including a glycolic cleanser, is an exceptional multi-tasker. It has anti-inflammatory, keratolytic, and antioxidant effects and acts as an exfoliator and a moisturizer. 

For a glycolic acid face wash, look for a concentration ranging from 4-10%. If the percentage is not clear on the packaging, look at glycolic acid’s order on the ingredient label — the closer to the top, the stronger the percentage. If your skin is on the sensitive side, opt for a lower percentage.

Providing you don’t have extremely sensitive skin, consider trying a face wash formulated with other acids such as citric or lactic — beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid, which work wonders on oily, acneic skin. 

What’s the best glycolic face wash, in your opinion? Let us know in the comments below!

 

FAQs

Using an acid on your face can seem pretty intimidating, but rest assured that glycolic acid is proven to be both safe and effective. It is available in various skincare products, with the most popular being a glycolic acid cleanser.

Ideally, a glycolic acid cleanser – or any glycolic acid product for that matter — should be used in the evening because it’s an ingredient that makes your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Using it at night allows it to work without putting your skin at risk of sun damage. As a preventative measure, always apply sun protection during the day.

You’ll find there are several dermatologist-recommended glycolic acid products on the market, and while most derms would say that glycolic acid is safe for all skin types, it is best for those with oily or acne-prone skin. Execute vigilance if you have dry, sensitive skin — gradually introduce glycolic acid into your routine.

You can have too much of a good thing. Overusing exfoliating acids like glycolic acid can strip your skin of the good cells that help new cells grow. Along with becoming red and irritated, your skin’s natural barrier will become compromised.

While glycolic effectively refines pores and improves the skin’s texture, retinol stimulates cell regeneration and the production of collagen and elastin, which lessens the appearance of wrinkles.

While it depends on the concentration you use, you can use glycolic acid every day unless the specific product you’re using states otherwise — or your dermatologist advises against it. If you’re new to chemical exfoliants, slowly work up a tolerance by gradually introducing it into your skincare routine.

References:
Acids in Skin Care: The Difference Between Glycolic, Lactic and Salicylic Acids,” Formulyst.com.
Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin,” U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.





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