Is Glycolic Acid Your Ticket To Baby Soft Feet?

Derms break down how to use the chemical exfoliant below your ankles.

How using glycolic acid on your feet can help with rough calluses.
Getty Images/David De Lossy
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Sandal season may be over, but don’t underestimate the power of having silky smooth feet year-round. It is time to cuff, after all, which means you’ll be rubbing your feet on your partner’s legs to keep warm — or, at the very least, rubbing your own feet together under layers of blankets... which isn’t so pleasant when you’re dealing with rough calluses. Of course, the key to supple feet is doing away with that particularly tough buildup of dry, dead skin. A foot file is a shower caddy staple, but there’s one particular skin care ingredient that could also do the trick: glycolic acid.

According to dermatologists, the chemical exfoliant can be a godsend for rough trotters. Read on for expert intel on using glycolic acid on your feet, which just might save your pedicurist the extra work.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

If you’re not familiar, glycolic acid is a powerhouse alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) made up of super small molecules that penetrate your skin and go to work exfoliating. “It works by dissolving the glue that holds dead skin cells together and increasing cell turnover, which, in turn, removes the outermost layer of skin,” says Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist.

The ingredient is a mainstay in skin care products and a favorite among derms for its ability to improve the skin’s tone and texture, stimulate collagen production over time, and improve dark spots and even acne since the exfoliation helps to keep pores clear.

Can Glycolic Acid Benefit Rough, Cracked Feet?

In short: Glycolic acid can absolutely be used to improve the texture of the skin on your feet, much like it can elsewhere on your body. “Rough and cracked feet happen because of severely dehydrated skin that essentially leads to dead skin buildup,” says Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist. “When skin is super thickened —aka hyperkeratosis — it is less pliable and therefore cracks more easily.” Liu likens it to rigid plastic that breaks instead of bends. That’s where the AHA comes in. “Glycolic acid works by first reducing the hyperkeratosis,” she notes. The chemical is also a humectant, Liu adds, meaning it draws moisture from the air helping to hydrate the dry skin on your feet.

Zubritsky agrees that dry, rough feet can be helped by routine exfoliation. “Due to repetitive trauma throughout the day, the skin on the feet tends to get thick with dead skin buildup. Glycolic acid works to effectively and gently exfoliate the dead skin on the soles of the feet, in turn leading to softer, smoother skin,” she explains.

How To Use Glycolic Acid On Your Feet

Obviously, the skin on your feet is thicker than that on your face, so the derms say you shouldn’t be afraid to reach for higher concentrations of glycolic acid. Both Liu and Zubritsky point to moisturizers that contain 15% to 20% glycolic acid for a heavy-handed approach. “Typically, the best type of glycolic acid to use is the one formulated with other effective ingredients, like moisturizers or other gentle exfoliants,” Zubritsky says. For example, formulas that also contain hyaluronic acid or ceramides can help ensure your skin stays hydrated.

Liu recommends what she calls the “soak and smear” method for exfoliating your feet. Soak your feet in lukewarm water for 5 to 10 minutes (or hop in the shower). Pat dry, and then apply a glycolic acid-formulated moisturizer (or a glycolic acid-based exfoliating pad or serum followed by a traditional moisturizer) and seal that with a layer of petrolatum (i.e. slugging). Stick your feet into a pair of cotton socks and leave them overnight. “Repeat nightly and your skin texture should improve in a few weeks,” Liu notes. If you’re dealing with a stronger concentration of glycolic acid, Zubritsky says you may want to start out using the product once or twice a week and work your way up, if needed.

Both derms agree that glycolic acid is generally safe. Still, Liu says the ingredient can burn if your skin is severely cracked, so avoid it if that’s the case. And Zubritsky suggests chatting with your dermatologist or podiatrist if you think some other issue could be contributing to foot dryness (like athlete’s foot, psoriasis, or eczema). “I would also caution those with medical conditions like diabetes or neuropathy to check with their physician prior to initiating any treatments,” Zubritsky says.

But, if all checks out, grab your fave cozy socks because you’ve got some feet-softening self-care to do.

Studies referenced:

Kaminaka, C. (2014). Clinical evaluation of glycolic acid chemical peeling in patients with acne vulgaris: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, split-face comparative study. Dermatol Surg. 2014 Mar;40(3):314-22. doi: 10.1111/dsu.12417.

Narda, M. (2021). Glycolic acid adjusted to pH 4 stimulates collagen production and epidermal renewal without affecting levels of proinflammatory TNF‐alpha in human skin explants. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 20(2), 513-521.

Tang, C. (2018). Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on the Skin. Molecules : A Journal of Synthetic Chemistry and Natural Product Chemistry, 23(4).


Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D., board-certified dermatologist

Dr. Jenny Liu, M.D., board-certified dermatologist