Buffered Glycolic Acid vs. Unbuffered Glycolic Acid

What's the Difference?

Buffered Glycolic Acid and Unbuffered Glycolic Acid are two different forms of the same chemical compound, glycolic acid. The main difference between the two lies in their pH levels. Buffered Glycolic Acid is formulated with additional ingredients that help maintain a neutral pH level, making it less irritating and more suitable for sensitive skin types. On the other hand, Unbuffered Glycolic Acid has a lower pH level, which can be more potent and effective in exfoliating the skin. However, it may also cause more irritation and sensitivity, especially for those with delicate skin. Ultimately, the choice between the two depends on an individual's skin type and tolerance to acidity.


AttributeBuffered Glycolic AcidUnbuffered Glycolic Acid
pH LevelHigher pH level due to buffering agentsLower pH level, typically around 2-3
Skin IrritationLess likely to cause irritationMay cause more irritation, especially for sensitive skin
EffectivenessMay be less effective in exfoliating the skinMore effective in exfoliating the skin
ApplicationCan be used by individuals with sensitive skinNot recommended for individuals with sensitive skin
Usage FrequencyCan be used more frequentlyShould be used less frequently

Further Detail


Glycolic acid is a popular skincare ingredient known for its exfoliating properties and ability to improve the appearance of the skin. It is widely used in various skincare products, including cleansers, toners, serums, and peels. When it comes to glycolic acid, there are two main types available in the market: buffered and unbuffered. In this article, we will explore the attributes of both buffered and unbuffered glycolic acid and discuss their differences.

Buffered Glycolic Acid

Buffered glycolic acid refers to a formulation that has been adjusted to a specific pH level by adding a buffering agent. The buffering agent helps to neutralize the acidity of glycolic acid, making it less irritating and more tolerable for the skin. This adjustment in pH level reduces the risk of potential side effects such as redness, stinging, and burning sensations that can occur with unbuffered glycolic acid.

One of the key advantages of buffered glycolic acid is its ability to deliver the exfoliating benefits of glycolic acid without causing excessive irritation. The buffering agent helps to maintain a balanced pH level, allowing the glycolic acid to work effectively while minimizing the risk of skin sensitivity. This makes buffered glycolic acid a suitable option for individuals with sensitive skin or those who are new to using glycolic acid products.

Furthermore, the buffering process can enhance the stability of glycolic acid, preventing it from degrading or losing its potency over time. This ensures that the product remains effective throughout its shelf life, providing consistent results with each use.

It is important to note that the buffering agent used in the formulation may vary depending on the product and brand. Common buffering agents include sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide, and triethanolamine. These agents help to raise the pH level of the glycolic acid solution, making it more suitable for topical application.

Overall, buffered glycolic acid offers a gentler and more controlled approach to exfoliation, making it a preferred choice for individuals with sensitive skin or those who are new to using glycolic acid products.

Unbuffered Glycolic Acid

Unbuffered glycolic acid, as the name suggests, refers to glycolic acid in its pure form without any pH adjustment. This means that the pH level of unbuffered glycolic acid is typically lower, making it more acidic and potentially more irritating to the skin compared to its buffered counterpart.

One of the main advantages of unbuffered glycolic acid is its higher potency. The lower pH level allows the glycolic acid to penetrate the skin more deeply, resulting in a more intense exfoliating effect. This can be beneficial for individuals with resilient skin who are looking for more significant improvements in skin texture, tone, and overall appearance.

However, the higher potency of unbuffered glycolic acid also increases the risk of side effects, especially for those with sensitive or reactive skin. The acidic nature of unbuffered glycolic acid can cause redness, stinging, and burning sensations, particularly when used at higher concentrations or for prolonged periods.

It is worth mentioning that unbuffered glycolic acid is often recommended for experienced users who have already built up a tolerance to glycolic acid or for professional treatments performed by skincare professionals. These individuals are more likely to benefit from the higher potency and can better manage any potential side effects.

Overall, unbuffered glycolic acid offers a more potent exfoliating effect but comes with a higher risk of skin irritation. It is best suited for individuals with resilient skin or those seeking professional treatments.


Buffered and unbuffered glycolic acid both have their own set of attributes and benefits. Buffered glycolic acid provides a gentler and more controlled exfoliation, making it suitable for individuals with sensitive skin or those new to glycolic acid products. On the other hand, unbuffered glycolic acid offers a higher potency and deeper exfoliation, making it more suitable for experienced users or professional treatments.

When choosing between buffered and unbuffered glycolic acid, it is important to consider your skin type, tolerance, and desired results. It is also advisable to start with lower concentrations and gradually increase as tolerated to minimize the risk of irritation. Consulting with a skincare professional can also provide valuable guidance in selecting the most appropriate glycolic acid formulation for your specific needs.

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