Pregnancy Health

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Is Glycolic Acid Safe During Pregnancy? A Dermatologist Explains

The percentage on the label is key.

Pregnancy asks that you ditch some of your favorite things like wine, endless coffee, sandwiches, and sushi. And as you probably know if you’re pregnant, you’ll also have to take a closer look at what skin care ingredients you’re using. Skin care ingredients absorb into your skin (that’s kind of the point of them) and some research suggests that trace amounts of skin care ingredients (like retinol) can wind up in your bloodstream, thereby making their way to your baby. If you’re wondering if glycolic acid is safe during pregnancy (it sounds kind of menacing), then you’ve come to the right place.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) which are chemical compounds often found in skin care. AHAs work as exfoliants, and glycolic acid is the smallest (molecularly speaking) of the AHAs, so it’s very easily absorbed by skin.

“AHAs are naturally occurring organic acids often referred to as fruit acids because they are found in many common fruits. However, the most widely used AHAs in skin care, glycolic acid and lactic acid, are not [fruit acids],” Dr. Rachel Maiman, board-certified dermatologist with Marmur Medical, tells Romper. Rather, glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane.

Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliant which helps to slough off dead skin cells, revealing brighter, more even skin (unlike physical exfoliant scrubs, glycolic acid and other AHAs are not abrasive). Maiman adds that AHAs reduce how well dead skin cells stick together, leaving skin smoother and more radiant. Compared to other AHAs, glycolic acid is able to penetrate the deepest due to its small size, and it can help stimulate the production of hyaluronic acid, collagen, and elastin, leaving skin firm and making wrinkles less noticeable (because the skin is plumped.)

Glycolic acid benefits

Glycolic acid has a host of benefits for your skin, whether or not you’re pregnant. Basically it removes the top, fine layer of skin revealing a radiant under layer. This can make fine lines, acne scars, blackheads or break-outs less noticeable, plus it helps to even out skin texture and add a glow.

“AHAs [like glycolic acid] reduce hyperpigmentation by dispersing pigment and accelerate cellular turnover,” Maiman says. “Aside from reducing wrinkles, glycolic acid is also effective at reducing photodamage, which makes it ideal for those with more mature skin. Because it draws moisture to the skin, helps prevent transepidermal water loss, and increases hyaluronic acid levels, glycolic acid is also an excellent choice for dry skin types.”

Is it safe to use glycolic acid during pregnancy?

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The good news is that yes, glycolic acid is safe to use during pregnancy and you can continue to use your serum, toner, or cleanser if it includes the ingredient (just pay attention to the strength of the formula, which we’ll get to in a bit).

“Glycolic acid has an excellent safety profile for use during pregnancy and while breastfeeding and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists approves the use of over-the-counter topical products with glycolic acid,” Maiman tells Romper. She adds that while this is common in most topical ingredients in pregnancy, there are no well-controlled studies in pregnant women that quantify the safety of glycolic acid. “No studies have tested the effects of using specific concentrations of glycolic acid during pregnancy, but studies have shown detrimental effects on rat fetuses when exposed to high doses of it orally.” This isn’t something to worry about as you won’t be eating your face wash.

“Topical glycolic acid during pregnancy in humans, however, is generally considered to not be of concern, as only a minimal amount is expected to be absorbed systemically. However, to be safe, I tend to advise that my pregnant patients stick to products that contain a concentration of 10% or less,” Maiman says. This means that your average over-the-counter glycolic acid product should be totally fine to use (though check in with your OB if you’re unsure) but you’ll want to skip treatments like glycolic acid peels which contain a much higher percent of the ingredient.

What happens if you use a higher percentage? “Probably nothing, if I’m being realistic,” Maiman says. “But, we really can’t answer that question definitively because there are no studies performed at higher concentrations in humans, nor can we even extrapolate from lower doses, because those studies also do not exist. The developmental toxicities seen in rats exposed to high doses of oral glycolic acid included neurologic and skeletal defects, as well as small birth weight.”

How to use glycolic acid

Because glycolic acid can make skin sensitive to sunlight, it’s best to use in the evening. Most formulas are watery like a toner or a bit more viscous like a serum, and they can be applied to the skin after cleansing.

If you’re new to acids or have sensitive skin, ease into glycolic acid. You’ll only need to use a small amount two to three times a week (this goes for everyone, even those without sensitive skin); skin doesn’t need to be exfoliated more often that that and you risk over-exfoliating and damaging the skin barrier if you use it daily.

“Dryness and irritation (redness, burning, itching) are the most commonly experienced side effects of glycolic acid products,” Maiman says, so be sure to follow with your favorite pregnancy-safe moisturizer or oil; she specifically recommends one that is ceramide or hyaluronic acid based. She also advises to do a patch test first (testing a bit of product on your inner arm, and waiting to see how your skin reacts), and starting slow by using glycolic acid just one to two times per week. And, of course, don’t forget sunscreen.

“Use a daily sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher,” Maiman says. “This is a tip for everyone, irrespective of what you’re using. However, this is especially true when using hydroxy acids. Like retinoids, studies show that AHAs, in particular, make skin more sensitive to the sun.”

Expert-recommended glycolic acid products safe for pregnancy

Below are some glycolic acid products Maiman specifically recommends

We at Romper only include products that have been independently selected by our editors. We may receive a portion of sales if you purchase a product through a link in this article.

First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads

“These daily treatment pads contain low concentration of glycolic acid and pregnancy-safe lactic acid to safely and effectively exfoliate, tone, and brighten all skin types, including sensitive. Cucumber and Indian gooseberry help tone skin while lemon peel and licorice root help further brighten and soothe,” says Maiman.

Sunday Riley Good Genes Glycolic Acid Treatment

“This product containing 7% glycolic acid can be used one to two times daily as a serum. This treatment utilizes tiny glycolic acid molecules that sink deep into the skin to break apart pore-clogging debris, revitalizing the appearance of dull, congested and sun-damaged skin and improving the appearance of hyperpigmentation, enlarged pores, fine lines and wrinkles,” says Maiman.

Tatcha Violet-C Radiance Mask

“This vitamin C mask contains a rich powerhouse of ingredients, including two types of pure vitamin C, a fast-acting vitamin C derivative that absorbs quickly to fight premature aging and support surface cell turnover, and a long-lasting vitamin C derivative which helps minimize free radical damage. It also contains a 10% blend of fruit acids, including glycolic acid, to resurface uneven, dull, and dry skin, as well as additional antioxidant boosts from green tea and polyphenols,” says Maiman.

In sum, you don’t have to be too concerned about banishing glycolic acid from your skin care routine as long as you’re using it topically and sticking to products with a glycolic acid concentration of 10% or less. As always, check with your dermatologist or medical provider if you have any concerns.

Studies referenced:

American Academy of Dermatology. Keri J. Treatment of acne in the pregnant patient.


Dr. Rachel Maiman , board-certified dermatologist Marmur Medical