Salicylic Acid vs. Glycolic Acid: Which Is Better for Your Skin?

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In humanity’s never-ending quest for health and beauty, two of the most popular weapons we wield are glycolic acid and salicylic acid.

Both exfoliants, these skincare ingredients are found in many serums, toners, and facial cleansers. 

Top view of two bottles with skin serums on stones at beige background

And we know that they’re effective at what they do, hence their constant inclusion in the list of ingredients in these products.

But when you compare salicylic acid vs glycolic acid, which is the clear winner?

Can you use glycolic acid and salicylic acid together?

Can you choose just one, and if so, which of the two is better?

If you need answers, we got you.

In this article, we’ll discuss their similarities and differences, pros and cons, best use cases, and how to decide whether one or the other is ideal for you.

Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid At a Glance

 Glycolic AcidSalicylic Acid
Type of Hydroxy AcidAHABHA
SizeSmallBig
Best Suited ForAll skin types (including acne-prone skin)Oily, combination, and acne-prone skin
Purpose
  • Brightens complexion
  • Prevents acne
  • Corrects skin tone
  • Treats mild hyperpigmentation
  • Minimizes the appearance of fine lines and pores
  • Controls oil production
  • Eliminates blackheads and whiteheads
  • Eases signs of sun damage and skin conditions like rosacea
  • Treats and prevents acne
Recommended Frequency of UseEvery other dayDaily
Needs SunscreenYesYes

Can salicylic acid and glycolic acid be used together?

Before we get to the answer, first, let’s delve into how the two are similar.

Glycolic acid and salicylic acid are both hydroxy acids, which are organic acids used to treat skin disorders. Studies show that they are particularly effective at doing the following: 

  • Unclogging pores
  • Sloughing off dead skin
  • Minimizing the appearance of pores and wrinkles
  • Improving skin elasticity, texture, and tone
  • Reducing inflammation from many skin concerns like various types of acne

They’re also naturally occurring acids. In fact, hydroxy acids are called fruit acids because they are sourced from the sugars of various plants. 

Glycolic acid comes from sugar cane, beets, and unripe grapes, while salicylic acid is sourced from wintergreen leaves and willow bark. 

But as ingredients in skincare products, both of them are synthesized in laboratories. 

And since they target either the outer or inner layers of the skin and strip away dead skin or excess oil, using both of them necessitates also using sunscreen.

However, there are also key differences between glycolic acid and salicylic acid. These make one more suitable than the other, depending on certain skin needs and use cases.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Our first contender in this glycolic acid versus salicylic acid battle is glycolic acid.

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) used in many skincare products to address a wide range of skin concerns. These include acne, aging, and melasma. 

As the smallest of the AHAs, it’s efficient at breaking down the skin barriers to penetrate deeply into the skin and work its magic. 

This specific mechanism allows it to have many beneficial properties: it’s an exfoliant, a humectant, as well as an anti-aging and anti-bacterial agent.

Benefits of Glycolic Acid for the Skin

Because of its molecular size and specific properties, glycolic acid delivers multiple benefits for the skin. Some of the most noteworthy of them are as follows:

Reducing Fine Lines and Wrinkles

Glycolic acid works by stripping off the bonds that hold the outer layers of the skin together, which enables faster cell turnover. In this process, dead cells are sloughed off so that new and healthy cells can take their place.

How does that look like, in the real world?

You can expect the following:

  • Brighter and better skin complexion from boosted collagen production
  • Hydrated skin because of increased levels of hyaluronic acid
  • More skin elasticity, as elastin quality improves
  • Faster skin repair and regeneration owing to enhanced fibroblast and keratinocyte proliferation

Improving Signs of Sun Damage

Glycolic acid also offers protection against common signs of UV exposure, such as hyperpigmentation (melasma, sun spots, age spots, etc) and wrinkles.

Treating Acne

Glycolic acid used in chemical peels has been found to treat various forms of acne, especially comedonal acne.

Young woman with closed eyes touching face with acne isolated on beige

Some studies even say that glycolic acid may help in wart removal.

And the best part? It’s perfect for all skin types, particularly for people who suffer from hyperpigmentation, sun damage, aging, or acne. 

Possible Side Effects of Using Glycolic Acid

That’s not to say, though, that glycolic acid is perfect. Sure, it’s nowhere near as bad as these toxic skincare ingredients

But as a chemical exfoliant, it still carries certain risks for side effects, especially if it has been misused. 

First off, it may lead to irritation. While it is advisable for all skin types, how skin reacts varies from person to person. 

Signs of irritation from glycolic acid include the following:

  • Burning 
  • Itching
  • Inflammation
  • Swelling

Another possible side effect is hyperpigmentation. 

It’s true that this ingredient can lessen the severity of dark spots, especially from sun damage. But it might also cause hyperpigmentation if you have sensitive skin.

How to Use Glycolic Acid Safely

To make sure that you’re getting the most out of using glycolic acid, remember these tips:

  • Do a patch test before using it on your skin.
  • Always wear sunscreen.
  • Start slowly, and build up the frequency of use only if you notice no adverse effects.
  • Stick to one glycolic acid-containing product at a time.
  • Check concentration levels; a 1% glycolic acid solution affects three skin layers, while 10% glycolic acid can penetrate up to 20 layers.

Finally, make sure that you’re not overdoing it. It’s best to skip this ingredient if you’re using other chemical exfoliants like topical retinoids.

Glycolic Acid: Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Boosts the cell renewal process
  • Leads to brighter, clearer, more hydrated skin
  • Can treat hyperpigmentation
  • Can ease signs of aging and sun damage
  • Ideal for all skin types
Cons
  • Might cause irritation, hyperpigmentation, or sun damage
  • Not ideal for daily use
  • Not ideal for use alongside other rapid exfoliators

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Up next in this salicylic acid vs glycolic acid debate is salicylic acid.

Like glycolic acid, salicylic acid is naturally occurring. But like the former, salicylic acid used in cosmetic applications is also synthesized in laboratories.  

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which means that it also acts a lot like glycolic acid and other AHAs. Both loosen adhesives in the layers of the skin to eliminate dead skin cells and enable healthier and better skin.

The first main difference between glycolic and salicylic acid is that the latter is oil-soluble and has a larger molecule size. These two things change the way that it works to deliver skincare benefits.

If glycolic acid boosts cell renewal, salicylic acid dissolves lipids and gets behind the skin’s oils. It then exfoliates your pores and removes the buildup of dead skin and sebum while also controlling oil production.

It’s also gentler than glycolic acid. This is why it’s used as a treatment for certain skin conditions that are mainly characterized by inflammation, such as acne and psoriasis.

Benefits of Salicylic Acid for the Skin

Salicylic acid offers multiple rewards to the skin, which are as follows.

Treating and Preventing Acne

One of the best things about salicylic acid is its ability to not only treat acne but also prevent it from recurring.

It does this by unclogging the pores that may be trapping acne-causing bacteria, as well as controlling excess oil.

The American Academy of Dermatology specifically recommends products that contain salicylic acid to deal with various forms of acne, including the following:

  • Papules (hard bumps that lead to textured skin)
  • Pustules (pimples that contain pus)

Curbing Excess Oil Production

Related to salicylic acid’s ability to correct acne and prevent it in the future is its oil-controlling mechanism. It inhibits sebocytes, which are the cells that trigger natural oil production in the skin. 

Removing Blackheads and Whiteheads

Salicylic acid is also an excellent exfoliator, which ensures that your pores are not storing anything that may lead to blackheads and whiteheads.

Improving Skin Texture

When you have clean pores without excess oil, your skin looks clearer and smoother. At the same time, pores look smaller, which further enhances your skin’s texture.

Soothing Inflammation

Finally, it has better anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, it has long been used as a treatment for psoriasis

Because of its bigger molecule size, salicylic acid offers a gentler way to address the inflammation that results from various skin disorders. It also requires lower concentrations to work.

Possible Side Effects of Using Salicylic Acid

Selective focus of attractive young woman touching face and looking at mirror

In some cases, salicylic acid might give rise to possible irritation, which is characterized by these symptoms:

  • Dryness
  • Burning
  • Peeling
  • Stinging

How to Use Salicylic Acid Safely

To lessen the potential for developing side effects from using salicylic acid, follow these safety precautions:

  • Test the ingredient on your skin before incorporating it into your routine.
  • Don’t use more than the recommended amount or go beyond the recommended frequency of use.
  • Wear sunscreen.

If you’re using petroleum-based ointments, it’s best that you talk to a doctor before using salicylic acid. Additionally, don’t use this ingredient alongside air-tight or water-tight dressings.

Salicylic Acid: Pros and Cons

Pros
  • Gentler compared to other exfoliators
  • Treats and prevents acne
  • Provides deep cleansing for pores
  • Eliminates blackheads and whiteheads
  • Controls excess oil
  • Reduces the appearance of pores
  • Improves skin texture and clarity
  • Eases inflammation from conditions like psoriasis
  • Can be used daily
  • Does not carry as serious risks for side effects as other acids
Cons
  • Might cause irritation in some cases
  • Not ideal for use alongside petroleum-based ointments or with air-tight or water-tight dressings

How to Choose Between Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid

When it comes down to it, which ingredient between glycolic acid and salicylic acid is better? 

The answer depends on exactly what you need.

Exfoliation

In terms of exfoliation, glycolic acid and salicylic acid are on a somewhat even playing field. In fact, they’re both featured in lists about the best exfoliating toners.

The former deeply penetrates beneath the layers of the skin to promote faster cell turnover, while the latter unclogs pores and controls oils.

However, salicylic acid is gentler on the skin. Hence, it’s more ideal for those who have sensitive skin. It’s also safe for daily use, unlike glycolic acid.

Acne

Salicylic acid is the runaway choice for acne treatment and prevention. 

Acne-causing bacteria thrive in oxygen-deficient pores; salicylic acid’s ability to thoroughly clean pores ensures your skin gets a fair amount of oxygen.

On the other hand, glycolic acid used to treat acne is mostly found in chemical peels, not over-the-counter products.

Chemical Peels

Speaking of chemical peels, you’ll want to go for glycolic acid rather than salicylic acid. 

Since glycolic acid is smaller, it’s more effective at working through the various layers of the skin. This makes it better at reaching and renewing skin cells, as well as improving skin tone and appearance.

Salicylic acid, for its part, can be rather drying, which is going to be an issue if you don’t have oily skin.

Your Skin Type

Finally, choosing between salicylic acid and glycolic acid should depend on your specific skin type.

If you have dry skin, glycolic acid is a better choice. It’s a humectant, which means that it can draw in moisture and make sure your skin is hydrated.

At the same time, it helps boost hyaluronic acid levels in your skin to top up its moisture content.

For oily and acne-prone skin, salicylic acid is recommended. It strips away excess oil while also inhibiting its production.

If you have sensitive skin, both of these acids are good choices. But if you have other conditions like psoriasis, opt for the gentler salicylic acid.

Salicylic Acid vs Glycolic Acid: The Final Verdict

Glycolic acid is ideal for you if you want to

  • boost hydration for your dry skin;
  • improve hyperpigmentation and ease signs of sun damage; and
  • enhance skin appearance and tone.

Salicylic acid is recommended if you want to

  • control excess oil;
  • treat and prevent acne, blackheads, and whiteheads; and
  • ease inflammation from psoriasis.

FAQs

Can I use glycolic acid and salicylic acid together?

Yes, you can use glycolic acid with salicylic acid, but don’t mix them together. Instead, alternate them in your skincare routine. 

Using salicylic acid and glycolic acid together in one product may be damaging to your skin’s barriers.

Let’s say you’re starting with a cleanser that has glycolic acid, for example. Wait for at least 10 minutes, then follow it up with a salicylic acid-containing toner.

Is it OK to use salicylic acid or glycolic acid every day?

Glycolic acid is best used every other day, while salicylic acid can be used every day.

However, remember to do a skin patch test first before applying either of these ingredients to your skin. Only continue if you don’t see any signs of irritation.

Are glycolic acid and salicylic acid safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women?

Glycolic acid is considered safe for use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. However, salicylic acid carries certain risks for salicylism, which is a toxic syndrome that may harm both the mother and the baby.

Every pregnancy is different, though. To be completely sure, consult your doctor.

The Way to Clearer, Brighter, Better Skin

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid provide various benefits for the skin. One is not inherently better than the other, as finding the best ingredient for you depends on your specific needs.

Beautiful smiling young woman touching skin and looking at mirror in bathroom

Just remember that in order to make sure that positive results last, it’s also important to invest in good habits that promote clearer, brighter, and better skin. 

So while using these products, don’t forget to also get enough sleep, hydrate, eat healthily, and practice self-care.

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Authors

  • Kat

    Kat brings a seasoned voice to our beauty blog with 13 years of dedicated writing experience. Her deep-seated passion isn't just limited to words; she's always on the pulse of emerging makeup trends. Beyond her articles, Kat crafts hand-made crochet swimwear and sundresses, and effortlessly steps in as a muse for beauty photoshoots. Kat holds a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology.

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  • Amanda Meehan

    Amanda Meehan, a licensed esthetician and massage therapist, brings holistic beauty to the forefront. Trained at the Aveda Institute Denver and the Center for Natural Wellness School of Massage Therapy, her accolades include the High Honors and Beauty Is As Beauty Does awards. Beyond skincare, she's a certified Reiki Master and yoga instructor.

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