The Best Glycolic Acid Cleansers Can Transform a Dull Complexion

My skin has never looked brighter.

best glycolic acid cleansers on a blue background with a model washing her face
(Image credit: Future)

I’m usually a gentle cleanser girl. But my skin has been looking a little dull, my pores have been clogged (I spend too much time in front of a magnifying mirror), and I’ve had a couple of breakouts around my chin, so I decided to try out the best glycolic acid cleansers to give my skin a brightening boost. “Through exfoliation, glycolic acid can lessen the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, diminish hyperpigmentation, and reduce acne,” says Dr. Anne Chapas, board-certified dermatologist and medical director at Union Square Dermatology.

Typically, glycolic acid is found in leave-on treatments like serums or peel pads. But there are a handful of wash-off cleansers—both cult classics and new launches—that are not only ideal for gentle exfoliation, but also sideswipe irritation. Many dermatologist-loved formulas are combined with salicylic acid or lactic acid, as well as hydrating ingredients like peptides and glycerin to combat irritation.

woman washing her face with a foaming glycolic acid cleanser

Glycolic acid cleansers come in a range of concentrations, but finding one between one to 10 percent will prevent irritation.

(Image credit: Glow Recipe)

I’ve tried my fair share of glycolic acid-based cleansers in search of smoother, more radiant skin—and tapped top doctors for their recommendations. Here, you’ll find everything you need to know about using the active ingredient and which glycolic acid cleansers to keep in your bathroom.

The Best Glycolic Acid Cleansers

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What Are the Benefits of a Glycolic Acid Cleanser?

Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant, specifically an alpha-hydroxy acid, so it will gently remove dead skin cells to reveal brighter, new skin underneath. “Through exfoliation, glycolic acid cleansers can help improve dullness, texture, and uneven skin tone, as well as acne,” says Dr. Toregano. “In addition to exfoliating the skin superficially, it can work deeper on the collagen level to help promote collagen production, reducing fine lines and wrinkles.”

While glycolic acid-packed serums, masks, peels, or treatments are markedly gentle compared to other acids, a cleanser is remarkably well tolerated because of its short-contact nature.

Do I Need a Glycolic Acid Cleanser?

Most adults can benefit from a glycolic acid cleanser, especially “if they are looking to achieve a refreshed and revitalized look,” says Dr. Turegano. Along with a personalized routine, a glycolic acid cleanser can target fine lines, breakouts, or uneven tone. “The exfoliating and hydrating properties of glycolic acid make it a savior for sun-damaged skin,” adds Dr. Chapas.

woman washing her face with a foaming glycolic acid cleanser

Glycolic acid cleansers come in a variety of textures: Some foam, other are cream, and a handful are gel-based.

(Image credit: SkinCeauticals)

That said, depending on your skin concerns, a different active ingredient might be better suited for you. Salicylic acid cleansers are great for targeting blackheads and whiteheads, as well as regulating oil production, whereas azelaic acid cleansers can be ideal for those with rosacea or inflammation-prone skin.

What Concentration of Glycolic Acid Should I Look For?

Search for a glycolic acid concentration between five to 10 percent, depending on your skin type. “I typically recommend using a cleanser that is less than five percent on normal skin or if you want to use something daily,” says Dr. Turegano. “For strengths closer to 10 percent, only use the cleanser one to two times a week.” If you have sensitive or rosacea-prone skin, you can even look for it in concentrations under one percent—you’ll get exfoliating benefits without irritation or dryness.

When Should I Use a Glycolic Acid Cleanser?

You don’t need to use a glycolic acid cleanser every time you wash your face. “Using it twice a day may be excessive and potentially over-exfoliating,” says Dr. Turegano. Instead, use a glycolic acid cleanser only at night. “It can potentially make your skin more sensitive to the sun if you use it in the morning.”

Meet the Dermatologists

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Dr. Mamina Turegano

Dr. Mamina Turegano, a triple board-certified dermatologist, internist, and dermatopathologist who is on a mission to revolutionize traditional approaches to dermatology while empowering her patients and audience to own their own wellness from the inside out.

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Dr. Anne Chapas

Anne Chapas, M.D. is a Manhattan-based dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon who specializes in laser surgery, Mohs micrographic surgery for the treatment of skin cancers, and cosmetic procedures.

Dr. Chapas is the Founder and Medical Director of UnionDerm, a state-of-the-art center for medical and cosmetic skin treatments. Dr. Chapas is certified by the American Board of Dermatology and she is a Fellow of the American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery, the American Academy of Dermatology, the American College of Mohs Surgery and the American Society of Dermatologic Surgery. She is also a Clinical Instructor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Dr. Chapas graduated magna cum laude in Biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania and earned an M.D. with honors from Harvard Medical School. She completed a residency in Dermatology and prestigious fellowships in Mohs surgery and in procedural, cosmetic and laser dermatology.

Beauty Editor

Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and shares the breakdown on the latest and greatest trends in the beauty space. She's studied up on every ingredient you'll find on INCI list and is constantly in search of the world's glowiest makeup products. Prior to joining the team, she worked as Us Weekly’s Beauty and Style Editor, where she stayed on the pulse of pop culture and broke down celebrity beauty routines, hair transformations, and red carpet looks. Her words have also appeared on Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, Delish.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Samantha also serves as a board member for the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). She first joined the organization in 2018, when she worked as an editorial intern at Food Network Magazine and Pioneer Woman Magazine. Samantha has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. While at GWU, she was a founding member of the school’s HerCampus chapter and served as its President for four years. When she’s not deep in the beauty closet or swatching eyeshadows, you can find her obsessing over Real Housewives and all things Bravo. Keep up with her on Instagram @samholender.