Effects of glycolic acid on light-induced skin pigmentation in Asian and caucasian subjects

J Am Acad Dermatol. 2000 Aug;43(2 Pt 1):238-43. doi: 10.1067/mjd.2000.104894.


Background: Topical use of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) may increase skin photosensitivity, as demonstrated by increased numbers of sunburst cells. However, effects of AHA on tanning have not been studied.

Objective: Our purpose was to study whether short-term use of glycolic acid hastens resolution of pre-existing light-induced pigmentation and whether the skin becomes tan more easily in Asian and Caucasian subjects after such treatment.

Methods: Six Asian and six Caucasian volunteers received separate irradiations of UVB and UVA to both sides of the lower back. In a double-blind fashion, patients then applied a 10% glycolic acid gel, pH 3.52, to one side of the back, including the irradiated area, and the contralateral extensor forearms once daily for 7 days and then twice daily for 2 weeks. A placebo gel, pH 5.75, was applied to the opposite sides. The subjects returned for measurement of residual tanning with a colorimeter and received additional irradiation to forearms and a second site on the back. Resulting pigmentation was measured immediately after irradiation, at 2 hours, and at 1 week.

Results: Increased UVB-induced skin tanning occurred on the forearm and the lower back in both races in areas pretreated with glycolic acid. UVA also caused increased tanning, but only on the extensor forearms in Asian subjects. Treatment with glycolic acid for 3 weeks had no effect on pre-existing light-induced pigmentation.

Conclusion: Short-term topical treatment of glycolic acid caused an increase in UVB tanning as well as in UVA tanning in some subjects, even in the absence of overt irritation. The inclusion of UVB, and even UVA, sunscreen in AHA products may be warranted.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arm
  • Asian People
  • Back
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Glycolates / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Keratolytic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Skin Pigmentation / drug effects*
  • Ultraviolet Rays*
  • White People


  • Glycolates
  • Keratolytic Agents
  • glycolic acid