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Glycolic Acid for Hair Loss: Benefits, Risks & Alternatives
Dr Peter Thomas (GMC)
Medically reviewed by
Dr Peter Thomas (GMC)
Updated on May 9, 2024

Using glycolic acid for hair loss may have crossed your mind after having seen social media trends touting its many benefits. It is presented in the media as a gentle but powerful exfoliant, a pH balancer, a treatment for common scalp conditions and a hair softener which prevents hair breakage. But is this scientifically proven? And can it also reduce hair loss?

While there are no studies to confirm that glycolic acid can directly prevent hair loss, there is indeed some evidence of hair and scalp benefits associated with its use, some of which can have a positive influence on the main causes of hair loss.

This article will tell you all you need to know about:

  • What glycolic acid is and how it can be used on your hair
  • The hair and scalp benefits glycolic acid can provide
  • The relationship between glycolic acid and hair loss
  • The potential risks of using glycolic acid on your scalp
  • Hair loss alternatives to glycolic acid
Table of Contents

What is glycolic acid?

chemical structure of glycolic acid

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), a naturally occurring fruit acid extracted from sugarcane. It has long been used in skincare products, as it ensures good skin penetration [1].

Glycolic acid has some demonstrated results in cosmetic dermatology, as it is used in peeling masks, anti-blemish creams and for face and body exfoliation [1]. It is known to smoothen out wrinkles, soften skin and treat acne [2]. Still, it has also proven itself effective (mostly alongside other medication) in the treatment of skin conditions such as mixed and epidermal-type melasma [3] keratosis pilaris [4] and ichthyosis [5].

Recently, glycolic acid has also started to be used for its hair and scalp benefits. However, there is still insufficient research regarding its full effect on treating scalp problems and curbing hair thinning.

oil being applied to hair

Can you use glycolic acid on your hair and scalp?

Yes, glycolic acid can safely be used on the hair and scalp by most people, provided that it is used in a safe concentration [6].

Glycolic acid can be found in cosmetic treatments in a variety of concentrations, ranging between 1% and 70%. Higher concentrations are often found in face peeling (30%-50%) products or acne treatments (50%-70%) which are usually administered at beauty clinics. However, much lower concentrations are required when it comes to applying this acid to your scalp and hair. Hair products containing 5-7% glycolic acid are optimal for home treatments, while concentrations above 10% should be used under the supervision of a hair specialist.  

Moreover, glycolic acid should not be applied too frequently or left on for too long. That is because prolonged exposure to any acid can be harmful, potentially causing irritation or a burning sensation on the scalp.

What are the benefits of glycolic acids for hair health?

Glycolic acid has many purported benefits for scalp and hair health, but most of them have not been sufficiently scientifically studied. That makes it difficult to tell what kind of effects can be expected after using certain concentrations of glycolic acid on the scalp for varying durations and frequencies.

However, dermatologists generally agree that glycolic acid can be helpful for your scalp and hair health.

Exfoliating properties It cleans your scalp of dead skin cells, dirt and debris, leaving it feeling fresh and keeping your hair follicles from clogging. [7].
pH-balancing properties It can balance the shampoo pH, preventing the hair shafts from swelling from the alkaline pH of the detergent [8].
Antibacterial propertiesStudies found it can efficiently treat acne on the skin (and, by extension, the scalp) by killing the bacteria causing it [9].
Potential anti-inflammatory propertiesWhile further research is needed to explain how glycolic acids soothe inflammation of the skin, some in-vitro and animal studies revealed that an anti-inflammatory effect is possible [10] [11].
Moisturising and hydrating the scalpIt helps hair products penetrate the hair shaft more easily, improving conditioning and hydration when added to moisturising and conditioning hair care products. Also reduces hair strand stiffness, making it softer and easier to detangle and preventing breakage [12]
Treating scalp psoriasisOne double-blind clinical trial conducted on 20 patients with scalp psoriasis revealed that treatment with a 10% glycolic acid lotion for 8 weeks led to improvement in all cases. The same study showed that most of the patients were fully healed in just 4 weeks when they were treated with equal parts 10% glycolic acid lotion and 0.1% betamethasone lotion [13].
Helping to treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitisDandruff and seborrheic dermatitis are yeast infections of the scalp, caused by the fungus Malassezia. But sometimes, they are brought on by other factors, such as an excessively oily scalp. While there are no studies that show glycolic acid has antifungal properties, there are some theories that it can clean the scalp thoroughly of the excess oil feeding the yeast, soothe inflammation and moisturise flakes and plaques.

How do I apply glycolic acid to my hair and scalp?

You can apply a low-concentration glycolic acid serum or toner directly on your hair and scalp and massage gently, then wait for 20-30 minutes and wash it off with your regular shampoo (be careful to follow the instructions on the container, as some products should only be left on for 5-10 minutes).

It is best to apply this treatment in the evening, or to cover your head if you go out in the sun after using it, as glycolic acid can leave your scalp sensitive to sunburn [6].

Before using glycolic acid, make sure to test it on a small patch of skin, to avoid contact dermatitis (allergic reactions).

How often can I use glycolic acid on my hair? 

Since prolonged exposure to acids can damage your hair and scalp, you should not use glycolic acid more than once or twice a week. 

When should you avoid using glycolic acid on your scalp?

There are some circumstances in which glycolic acid should not be used on your scalp without the recommendation and supervision of a dermatologist:

  • If you have any sores or lesions on your scalp
  • If you have sensitive skin and/or are experiencing dermatitis
  • If you have a very dry scalp
  • If you plan to expose your scalp to direct sunlight soon after using it
  • If your hair is damaged from harsh chemicals such as bleach or dye 
  • If you have recently undergone scalp treatments like rebonding, perming or straightening
  • If you are planning to use glycolic acid with a higher concentration than 10% (only a 5-7% concentration is advisable to use without specialist supervision) 
  • If you are allergic to AHAs
hair shedding in hand

Does glycolic acid prevent hair loss?

While there are no studies that show a direct hair loss prevention effect, glycolic acid may prevent hair loss indirectly to some extent. That is because thoroughly cleaning and exfoliating the scalp, keeps the hair follicles from getting clogged and inflamed and no longer producing hair. 

It also protects the hair shafts from being damaged and becoming fragile by balancing the shampoo’s pH. Finally, by making the hair strands softer and less rigid, protects them from breaking off easily. 

If you have a progressive hair loss condition, such as male or female pattern baldness, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest glycolic acid can stop your hair loss.

Keep in mind that overusing glycolic acid can actually lead to hair loss through scalp irritation and chemical burns. 

What are the risks of using glycolic acid on your hair?

Despite what comes to mind when we think of acids, glycolic acid is generally safe for your scalp and hair if you use a formula with a concentration of under 10% and a pH of 3.5 or above [6] [5]. However, it can cause certain side effects in some users, especially if the right concentration or application duration and frequency are exceeded:

  • Scalp irritation, redness and itchiness
  • Overdrying of the scalp and hair
  • Increased risk of sunburns, due to significantly increased UV sensitivity with prolonged use [6 ] 
  • Chemical burns (rarely)
  • Contact dermatitis 

What are the best hair loss alternatives to glycolic acid?

There are many scientifically proven hair loss treatments and therapies. Here are some of the most common:

Or, if you are more interested in home remedies, you can try the best essential oils for hair growth

But the efficiency of any of these treatments is highly dependent on the condition which causes your hair loss. So book a consultation now with one of our top trichologists and get to the root of your hair and scalp problems. 

Why am I experiencing hair loss?

There are multiple reasons why your hair may be falling out. The most common of these are:

If you are experiencing hair loss, it is very important to be diagnosed as soon as possible, because many of the conditions causing your hair shedding can get worse unless they are treated in a timely fashion.

While most of them are reversible with treatment when caught from the first signs of hair thinning and balding, left unaddressed, they may become too advanced to resolve with medication alone. If that happens, you are likely to require a hair transplant in order to regain your luxurious locks.

However, should you require hair restoration surgery, you will be happy to know that it is safe and easy to get a natural-looking hair transplant, regardless of whether you opt for a FUE or FUT type procedure. The best hair transplant clinics in the UK have a very high success rate (97-100%) and unlike hair loss medication which you have to keep taking, a hair transplant is permanent, as you can see in our before and after hair transplant gallery.

Glycolic Acid for Hair Loss: Benefits, Risks & Alternatives, Wimpole Clinic

Dr Peter Thomas (GMC)
Medically reviewed by Dr Peter Thomas (GMC)Updated on May 9, 2024
The Wimpole Clinic offers FUE Hair, Beard & Eyebrow Transplants & Trichology.
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