When it comes to toners, there are a ton of different varieties to choose from. There are astringent toners that absorb oil and toning essences that hydrate, but some of the most effective are those that work as chemical exfoliators. Rather than physical exfoliants that use griddy particles to scrub away dead skin, chemical exfoliants use acids to break down skin cells and reveal the smoother, brighter layer underneath. Glycolic acid toners can be particularly effective and come highly recommended by skin experts, as they tackle everything from dullness and dark spots to blemishes. Here, a breakdown of everything you need to know about this powerhouse ingredient, plus some of the best glycolic acid toners recommended by derms.

What is glycolic acid?

Chemical exfoliants fall into two main categories: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs). As Dr. Hadley King, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in NYC explains, the difference between them lies in how deep they’re able to penetrate the skin. “While AHAs are water-soluble and work on the surface of the skin, BHAs are oil-soluble so they can penetrate into pores,” she says.

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid, so it breaks down the bonds between the outer layer of skin cells, including the dead skin that can clog pores, cause dullness, and exacerbate fines lines and wrinkles. Of all the AHAs, glycolic acid is the simplest in structure and has the lowest molecular weight, allowing it to easily cut through those tough layers of dead skin and upping its efficacy.

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best glycolic acid toners

Glycolic acid benefits

When applied topically, glycolic acid essentially creates a gentle peeling effect that reveals a fresh layer of skin. It’s a favorite among dermatologists for mature skin types, as it makes the complexion appear brighter, smoother, and more even. When it comes to sun damage, Dr. King says glycolic acid is proven to be effective in reducing the appearance of dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

Glycolic acid has wrinkle-fighting benefits, too. Since rough, dull skin makes lines appear more prominent, using a glycolic acid toner will help the surface appear smoother. What’s more, the ingredient also stimulates the fibroblasts in the dermis to produce increased amounts of collagen; “studies have shown that six months of topical glycolic acid stimulated a 27 percent increase in epidermal thickness,” Dr. King notes.

As for acne-prone skin, she says BHAs like salicylic acid, which penetrates deep into the pores, dissolves oil, and has anti-inflammatory properties, are best for treating blemishes. However, glycolic acid can help prevent the formation of blackheads and whiteheads by keeping pores free of dead skin and debris. Look for a combination of the two for best results.

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The best glycolic acid toners

Alpha-H’s Liquid Gold Exfoliating Treatment with Glycolic Acid ($54; sephora.com)

This exfoliating treatment contains a clinical grade 5-percent glycolic acid, as well as licorice extract to decrease hyperpigmentation and brighten the complexion. The formula’s silk proteins help to hydrate and plump the skin, Dr. King adds.

best glycolic acid toners

L’Oreal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 5 Percent Glycolic Acid Peeling Toner ($20; lorealparis.com)

Hitting shelves in September, this derm-approved toner was designed for daily use and is suitable for all skin types, even sensitive. It combines 5-percent glycolic acid with soothing aloe to offset irritation while increasing cell turnover and revealing an instant glow.

AcneFree Witch Hazel Mattifying Toner ($10; amazon.com)

Dr. King recommends this toner for those with oily skin. Glycolic and lactic acids work to exfoliate and remove excess oil, while hydrating glycerin prevents any moisture-stripping effect. What’s more, witch hazel serves as a natural astringent, which she says “temporarily shrinks your pores and has anti-inflammatory properties.”

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The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution ($9; sephora.com)

This glycolic acid toner quickly gained a cult-following, thanks to its high concentration and affordable price. It’s potent at 7 percent, says Dr. King, but it also contains aloe vera, ginseng, and amino acids to offset the likelihood of any irritation or redness.

best glycolic acid toners

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Exfoliating Astringent Toner ($24; dermstore.com)

Combining glycolic and salycylic acid, this toner is choice for oily and acne-prone skin. It’s also formulated with lipohydroxy acid, a salicylic acid derivative that has antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-fungal properties and has been shown to prevent blemishes from forming.

best glycolic acid toners

Rose Inc. Skin Resolution Clean Exfoliating Acid Toner ($32; sephora.com)

If clean beauty is your thing, this newbie is worth trying. Certified “Clean + Planet Positive” by Sephora, it contains no worrisome ingredients and is gentle enough for all skin types. Glycolic acid is just one component of its multi-acid blend, and it also contains squalane to balance oil production and support the skin’s moisture barrier.

CosRX AHA/BHA Treatment Toner ($15; amazon.com)

“The spray formulation makes it easy to apply to difficult to reach areas like the back, with the efficacy of both AHAs and BHAs,” Dr. King says says. The clarifying formula contains glycolic and lactic acids, as well as exfoliating white willow bark extract and betaine salicylate, a gentler alternative salicylic acid.

best glycolic acid toners

Hanskin Real Complexion Hyaluron Exfoliating AHA Treatment ($27; ulta.com)

This pick is ideal for dull and dry skin. In addition to glycolic acid and lactic acid, the gentle formula has four forms of hyper-hydrating hyaluronic acid for smoother, plumpier, and glowier skin.

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