Skin Care

Salicylic Acid Vs. Glycolic Acid: Which is Better?



by Lydia


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Adding acid to your skincare routine seems terrifying, right? It's not; actually, it is one of the recommended skincare tips by dermatologists. Unlike grating physical exfoliators, acids usually depend on soft synthetic compounds to remove the accumulation of dirt and dead skin cells that clog to it. When you buy exfoliating face washes for removing acne, you find that they contain either glycolic or salicylic acid. So the question is salicylic acid vs. glycolic acid which is better at treating acne? Let's find out.

Why Do You Need Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid?

Anti-acne chemical exfoliants, especially glycolic acid and salicylic acid, are less rough on your sensitive skin than physical exfoliants. Some physical exfoliants usually contain particles that can cause a bit of tear in your skin. Every skin type can benefit from these acids, from dry to acne-prone, oily to sensitive.

Using this type of exfoliant can reduce the presence of fine lines and wrinkles, give your skin a clean look and reduce the presence of large pores. Also, it's a great way to prepare your skin for creams since the dead skin's upper layer won't obstruct it from moving on towards the layers underneath. Now that we understand why we need these acids. Let's check which is better, salicylic acid vs. glycolic acid.

What's Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). It is naturally present in wintergreen leaves and willow tree bark. Also, it can be artificially synthesized in the laboratory. Salicylic acid usually has an exfoliating effect on your skin. It can remove excess oil and reduce collagen production, suitable for unclogging pores. Moreover, this acid has mild antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. This acid is mainly used to prevent and treat acne. Plus, it can help:

  • Reduce the appearance of the blackheads
  • Reduce hyperpigmentation
  • Control oily skin

Salicylic acid is best for oily skin, hyperpigmentation-prone skin and acne-prone skin. Though you will find this ingredient in most OTC products, it is not for everyone. It can cause irritation or dryness. Besides, this ingredient can trigger a severe allergic response in rare scenarios.

What's Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). It is present in sugarcane, though it can also be made in a laboratory. This acid is usually a small molecule so that it can pass through your skin barrier. When applied topically, this ingredient exfoliates your skin while maintaining moisture. It usually works by sloughing dead cells from your skin top layer. This encourages the growth of new skin.

This acid reduces inflammation and protects your skin against UV B radiation. Also, it works against bacteria that cause acne breakouts. Additionally, glycolic acid is most used to reduce the signs of skin aging and to even out skin tone. Plus, it can help:

  • Improve skin firmness
  • Reduce the appearance of pores
  • Manage acne breakouts
  • Brighten your complexion
  • Minimize the appearance of fine lines and surface wrinkles
  • Reduce hyperpigmentation or darkened skin spots from acne marks and sun damage

Glycolic acid is best for skin with signs of aging, hyperpigmentation-prone skin and acne-prone skin. You can use this acid alone or with other alpha hydroxy acids to improve the general condition of your complexion. Besides, the benefits of glycolic acid exfoliant are many and proven, making it an excellent option for virtually any skincare routine.

Though this acid is considered safe, it might irritate some people. This tends to happen if the skin care product has a high concentration of glycolic acid, about 10% or more. Also, glycolic acid can increase sun sensitivity. It's therefore essential to wear sunscreen after applying this acid to avoid sun damage.

Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid-Which One is Better for Sun Damage?

Glycolic acid gives excellent results when you exfoliate and eliminate wrinkles, fine lines and melasma, all problems that usually show up with aging and excessive sun exposure. In particular research, twenty Indian patients with melasma were successfully treated with glycolic acid peel when their results were compared with twenty other patients who didn't receive the peel treatment.

You can use virtually any of the alpha hydroxy acids to reverse the effects of aging and sun damage. However, ensure you wear sunscreen during AHA application and for about seven days after, or else you risk damaging the skin further instead of reversing previous damage.

Which is Better for Acne treatments- Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is suitable for acne. However, you can use both (glycolic and salicylic acid) together.

Since salicylic acid exfoliant penetrates from the topmost skin layers and deeper down into your pores than glycolic acid exfoliant can, it can better target acne from the source. Glycolic acid usually doesn't do as much for the deeper layer, though it's very potent for skin exfoliator for your topmost skin layers.

To target a more excellent skin layers range, from the skin surface to pore level, you can use a combination of glycolic acid and salicylic acid to treat your skin thoroughly. In particular research, a solution of 10 percent glycolic acid, 1% salicylic acid, and botanical ingredients was used on 25 female and male volunteers with acne. The research showed significant improvements in non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne lesions.

Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid: Which One is Better for Keratosis Pilaris?

Keratosis pilaris (KP) is a skin problem that usually sets in refuses to go away. Though it's a harmless skin issue, it can affect your self-confidence since it's visible and hard to hide by wearing makeup. Nonetheless, alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid can entirely reduce or remove keratosis pilaris.

Keratosis pilaris (KP) usually results when your body overproduces a protein referred to as keratin. The protein accumulates in your follicles and creates rigid raised bumps visible on your skin's surface. However, it's not contagious and not painful. As mentioned, both AHAs like glycolic acids and HBAs like salicylic acids help exfoliate your skin layers. And since Keratosis Pilaris accumulates keratin in your skin follicles, both glycolic and salicylic acids can help treat KP. Glycolic acid helps exfoliate your skin's top layer and helps unclog the hair follicles, causing KP, while salicylic acids treat the accumulation of keratin in the follicles.

Therefore, using a 5-10 percent glycolic acid and a low concentration of salicylic acids in combination can help treat KP. However, ensure you add a moisturizer with these acids to help reduce dry patches and accelerate your skin repair. Also, ensure you alternate days with acid and start gradually by skipping a day until the skin gets accustomed to acid use. Otherwise, you risk over-exfoliating on top of KP.

Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid- Which One is Better for Skin Inflammation? 

When talking about anti-acne chemical exfoliators, one name will always come up; salicylic acid giving you the general thought that the acid treats acne best. And that's the truth is acid is a more potent exfoliant and is more compelling in separating blackheads and dead skin layers and uncovering new, unclogged skin layers.

However, glycolic acids don't penetrate deeper. Also, these acids don't relax sebum and stop it out the way salicylic acids do, making it not enough to eliminate clogged pores.

Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid: Which One is Better for a Chemical Peel?

Chemical peels are cosmetic treatments that usually help remove dead skin cells, even out skin tone and boost your skin's appearance. If you are looking forward to this, look for a product with glycolic acid. If this is what you're looking forward to, go for a peeling solution with glycolic acids.

The molecular size of glycolic acids usually makes it effective at penetrating and exfoliating the skin. Also, it helps your skin maintain moisture. But, conversely, salicylic acid can have a drying effect. Moreover, if you don't have oily skin, you might end up removing too much sebum by applying salicylic acids.


Glycolic acid and salicylic acid should be your go-to ingredients to fight acne, sun damage, skin inflammation, Keratosis Pilaris, and clogged pores. However, don't forget that they're acids at the end of the day, meaning they can disturb your skin a bit, especially if it's dry or sensitive. They can cause stripping, redness and dryness for those with these skin types, so we recommend consulting a dermatologist before applying it. Though "The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists" recommend the acids are safe to use both topical salicylic and glycolic acid when pregnant, it's recommended to consult a dermatologist before using.

A report also states that using salicylic acid during breastfeeding is dangerous as the acid is prone to be absorbed in breast milk. Besides, you shouldn't apply to the areas that your child can come in contact with.

Don't use lots of salicylic or glycolic acid-containing items if you have sensitive skin. Reliable use of one item with occasional spot treatment is more than enough to keep your skin clear. Although your dermatologist might suggest a more potent concentration, this is not always the case. So, which is better, salicylic acid vs. glycolic acid?


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