Written by Morgan Fargo
According to the experts, they’re onto something.
Parsing your way through TikTok can feel a lot like standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway, trying to direct traffic in a way that feels orderly and controlled. There’s everything from cooking rituals to minimalist fashion diaries, aesthetic home decorating, tangible self-help tips and ways to transform your beauty routines – there’s something for everyone. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Over on the hair-side of TikTok, users have moved on from heated roller tutorials and curtain bangs obsessions to tackle a common complaint: dry, flaking skin caused by dandruff and dehydration. The surprising cure: glycolic acid.
TikTok users have been using glycolic acid (specifically, The Ordinary’s Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution) as a transformative cure for the appearance of dandruff. Applied before a normal shampoo and conditioning routine and the acid is reported to reduce flaking skin and mitigate its reappearance.
Scientifically, it makes sense. Glycolic acid works by loosening the water-based bonds that keep dead skin cells attached to the skin. It’s a common exfoliant used in skin and body care, celebrated for revealing brighter, more even and radiant skin. In clinics, it’s a popular base for facial peels. A versatile, affordable acid, it’s suitable for almost all skin types but can be too powerful for dry and sensitive skin.
To understand more about the link between dry, flaking scalps and glycolic acid we asked an expert to break it down. Here’s everything you need to know.
What type of acid is glycolic acid?
“Glycolic acid is one of the smallest alpha-hydroxy acids – commonly referred to as AHAs.It has a two-carbon chain molecule with one hydroxy acid and one carboxylic acid at the other end. It is very acidic with a pKa (the unit of measuring acids) of 3.83.
“These types of acids are small molecules that can pass easily through the skin barrier and into the body. They are also very reactive acids and can react with other products being used,” explains Dr Cuross Bakhtiar, director of Harley Street Cosmetics.
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“Historically, the main use of glycolic acid by medical cosmetic doctors has been in facial peels. The acid-concentration of these substances in the UK is between 30–60%. In the USA, this level can go up to 60-80%. High levels such as these mean that any contact with the skin has to be very short – only for the duration of a few minutes. Afterwards, the skin has to be kept out of the sun and SPF 50 must be used for at least a week. Glycolic acids are also used to reduce the appearance of scarring caused by acne or previous surgeries. It works by eating away the scar tissue and making it less noticeable.”
Can glycolic acid really improve dandruff and the appearance of a flaking scalp?
“Glycolic acid reacts with the upper layer of the epidermis, weakening the binding properties of the lipids that hold the dead skin cells together. This allows the outer skin to ‘dissolve’, revealing the underlying fresher and younger skin. This is why it’s possible to remove any dried skin flakes causing a dandruff-like appearance using glycolic acid. The hydroxy acid in glycolic acid also acts as an anti-microbial agent, stopping the return of dandruff.”
Why you should employ caution with TikTok’s glycolic acid dandruff hack
“Long-term use of glycolic acid can weaken the hair and cause hair loss,” says Dr Bakhtiar. “In my opinion, the use of it should be limited to once or twice a week and, after that, intermittently. However, this will depend on the amount of glycolic acid in the product or formulation you’re using.”
The Ordinary Glycolic Acid, which seems to be the most popular one making the rounds on TikTok, clocks in at 7% concentration. However, there are other budget-friendly scalp-specific glycolic acids designed for use on flaking and dry scalps. The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Scrub also contains 7% acid concentration, is suitable for all hair types and sloughs away build-up and dead skin cells.
Main image: courtesy of the brand
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