Does glycolic acid cause cancer


Glycolic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid used in medical and cosmetic products, such as exfoliants and skin moisturizers. It is often derived from fruit acids and is used to reduce the appearance of wrinkles, lines, acne, and other skin issues. It has also been used to treat various types of warts.

While glycolic acid can be beneficial when applied topically to the skin, it does have some potential risks as well that should be considered before use. In particular, there has been some concern about whether or not glycolic acid can cause cancer due to its ability to penetrate deeply into the skin.

In this article, we will discuss:

  1. What researches say about the safety of topical applications of glycolic acid.
  2. The potential risks associated with its use on a long-term basis.
  3. How best to manage any potential risks when using this product.

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. AHAs are naturally occurring compounds used to exfoliate the upper layers of the skin, which allows for cell regeneration and promotes a more youthful looking complexion. Glycolic acid is praised for its ability to reduce facial wrinkles and improve the texture and appearance of the skin. It can also aid in treating sun damage, age spots, acne scars, hyperpigmentation, enlarged pores, and minor scarring.

Glycolic acid is available in many forms from cleansers and moisturizers to peels and toners. Generally used as an over-the-counter (OTC) product you’ll find it labeled as an ingredient on product labels; it’s usually listed as its chemical name “glycolic acid” or by its trade name “alpha hydroxy acids” (AHAs). It’s also possible to receive glycolic treatments at salons or spas that involve higher concentrations of this exfoliating agent applied under supervision in order to provide more dramatic results than OTC products alone may offer.

What are the Potential Side Effects of Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient found in many skin care products, as it’s known to improve the appearance of skin. However, many people are concerned about the potential side effects of using glycolic acid, including the possibility of cancer.

In this article, we’ll break down the potential side effects of glycolic acid, and answer the question of whether or not it increases cancer risk.

Skin Irritation

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) used to exfoliate the skin. It’s derived from fruits, and it can be used in a variety of products, from skin creams and washing agents to body lotions. When used as part of a skin care regimen, glycolic acid can help improve the appearance of acne scars, wrinkles, and discoloration. However, like any other cosmetic product or medication, it can cause side effects if not used properly.

The most common side effect associated with using glycolic acid is skin irritation. Skin irritation with glycolic acid use can range from mild redness or itching to burning or sensitivity. This may be more likely if you have sensitive or dry skin than if you have normal or oily skin. People who use glycolic acid should start out slowly with lower concentrations and increase their use gradually to allow their skin time to adjust to the new product.

People who experience strong redness, stinging, burning sensations or an allergic reaction should stop using the product immediately and consult with their doctor for further guidance.

Skin Sensitivity

The most common side effects of glycolic or other alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) products are a temporary stinging, redness and/or irritation of the skin. This can differ among individuals; some might not experience any discomfort whereas others’ skin can become more sensitive to the sun following use. If you do experience an adverse reaction such as burning, itching and rash on your skin then immediately stop using the product and seek medical advice.

In general, products containing glycolic acid should always be used with caution – and only when necessary – to minimize potential risks. Before first use, do a patch test to check for allergic reactions or sensitivity by applying a very small amount of product on your hand or arm for up to 24 hours. If you have an adverse reaction then this is an indication that your skin does not agree with particular active ingredient(s).

Generally speaking, it’s recommended that you give your skin at least one day off between applications. This is especially important if your combination oily/sensitive skin tans easily or is prone to burning in the sun; once again it’s best advised to consult a doctor if you are experiencing severe discomfort after using these types of products.

Eye Irritation

Eye irritation is one of the most common side effects of glycolic acid. It can occur when glycolic acid comes into contact with the eye area or when you accidentally get the product in your eyes. Signs that you may be experiencing eye irritation from glycolic acid may include redness, watery eyes, burning, itching or stinging.

To reduce your risk of this side effect and ensure proper safety precautions are taken, be sure to:

  • avoid touching your eyes with the product
  • wash hands thoroughly after handling it
  • wear protective eyewear when applying the product
  • avoid spraying it directly in your eyes

If you do experience symptoms of eye irritation after using glycolic acid products, rinse your eyes with cold water for up to 15 minutes and contact a medical professional if symptoms persist.

Does Glycolic Acid Cause Cancer?

The use of glycolic acid, an alpha-hydroxy acid, is popular in skin care products and professional spa treatments to improve skin health, reduce wrinkles and blemishes, and address other skin issues. Glycolic acid is a naturally occurring chemical found in some fruits and plants, as well as other food sources such as sugar cane. It can also be manufactured synthetically from petroleum products.

Despite its natural occurrence and long history of use in the cosmetics industry, there has been some concern raised about glycolic acid’s potential for causing cancer. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a health alert related to certain topical skincare products containing certain types of alpha hydroxy acids that were associated with serious burns due to overuse and improper application techniques. Although the FDA’s alert did not specifically refer to glycolic acid causing cancer or mutations at that time, regulatory agencies around the world began closely examining the safety of selection cosmetic constituents including those used in glycolic-acid containing skincare products.

In 2018 a comprehensive evaluation made by Cosmetics Europe – an organization representing more than 2000 European companies involved in research into various types of cosmetics ingredient safety testing – found no evidence that glycolic acid poses cancer risks when it is used externally on healthy skin following recommended manufacturer guidelines or when it is consumed orally at common dietary levels (up to amounts found in foods such as fruits).

Overall safety reviews have determined that when used within established guidelines for treatment dosages by experienced professionals and cosmetic consumers alike, well tolerated topical cosmetics containing up to 10 percent concentrations of glycolic acid are accepted as safe under normal circumstances; however benefits claims may not be applicable for all individuals or circumstances (e.g., pregnant women). As with any topical skincare product including those containing synthetic components derived from petroleum sources like petroleum jelly or mineral oil ingredients including therapeutic doses from medical treatments are generally viewed as safe provided professionally informed recommendations are followed compliances with necessary facility regulations at every step throughout its manufacture/distribution/usage cycle are properly maintained.


Many studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of glycolic acid on cancer cells, with conflicting results. Large-scale, long-term studies are needed to provide an evidence base for definitive recommendations. Until such studies can be conducted, it is reasonable for people to assume that exposure to glycolic acid may pose a risk of cancer and limit their exposure levels as much as possible.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not currently consider glycolic acid a carcinogen or tumour initiator. However, it still advises using caution when using products containing this chemical due to its potential side effects and potential association with increased risk of skin tumors.

People should be aware of the potential dangers associated with this product and should always read the label carefully before applying any skin care product containing glycolic acid. Before beginning any new beauty routine, it is advised that people consult with a healthcare professional to avoid undue risk of harm from any ingredients they may be sensitive or allergic to.