Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid derived from sugarcane. An all-natural, water-soluble chemical exfoliant, it is commonly found in topical cosmetic products for aging, sun damaged and acne-prone skin. Glycolic acid is generally considered safe for dark skin and is often used to diminish the signs of hyperpigmentation, a harmless condition characterized by dark, discolored patches of skin.


Hyperpigmentation occurs when over-stimulated or damaged cells make too much melanin, the chemical that determines skin color. A number of factors trigger this condition, including hormones, sun exposure and injury to the skin caused by burns, scratches and acne. Though hyperpigmentation can affect men and women of all races, people of color are most susceptible.

Glycolic Acid Benefits

Glycolic acid is available in several cosmetic preparations, from over-the-counter lotions to medical-grade superficial facial peels 4. The chemical works to rejuvenate skin by penetrating the uppermost layer of the epidermis. There, it helps break apart the dead, damaged cells for easier removal and exposes the healthier layer of skin beneath. Glycolic acid can help fade the effects of hyperpigmentation by gradually peeling away dark marks and scars.

Over-the-Counter Preparations

Over-the-counter glycolic acid products are available in 5 to 20 percent concentrations. Products include face washes, lotions and serums, which are formulated for frequent self-application. People usually see results within a few months, according to Dr. Susan Taylor, author of “Brown Skin. 3

Chemical Peels

Glycolic acid peels for hyperpigmentation are given as a series of four to six treatments, each one spaced about a month apart 14. Peels range in strength from 20 to 70 percent. Due to the higher concentration of acid, chemical peels have the potential to further damage skin. Only a doctor or qualified aesthetician should perform chemical peels.


Glycolic acid is tolerated well by darker pigmented skins, especially when the treatment strength is gradually increased over time, according to “Glycolic Acid Peels,” by Ronald L. Moy 4. However, glycolic acid is not for everyone. While common side effects include temporary stinging, redness and mild irritation, more severe reactions can result in scarring and even worse hyperpigmentation. As with all medicines, consult a professional before use.