Glycolic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid: What’s Better for Me?

There's only one way to find out.

If you’ve ever had to deal with fine lines, irritating pimples, and acne scars, then you must’ve come across glycolic acid and salicylic acid. Even though they have a lot of things in common, they are so different, with distinctive benefits and uses. Not sure what these acids are?

Well, you’ve come to the right place. By the time you’re through with this article, you’ll be able to tell the difference between glycolic and salicylic acid. You’ll also know when to use each one, depending on what you’re trying to achieve with your complexion. Let’s get started.

Difference between glycolic acid and salicylic acid

For sure glycolic acid and salicylic acid could be considered skincare powerhouses, and despite their harsh nature, they bring a lot of benefits to the skin. Now, the first step to reaping these benefits is learning more about them. Not all acids are the same. In fact, they fall into two groups: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid. Now, the likeness between salicylic acid and glycolic acid stops at their skin exfoliating and renewing powers.

While both boost cell turnover and reveal a radiant and smooth complexion, salicylic acid and glycolic acids work differently. By the same token, the difference between glycolic acid and salicylic acid is their structure and what they can do for the skin. Let’s explore them.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a BHA derived from natural sources like willow bark and sweet birch or produced synthetically, possessing properties that can exfoliate the skin and prevent clogged pores. Compared to glycolic acid, salicylic acid is oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate the fat layers where it can reach the pores and unclog them. Besides its ability to give pores a deep cleanse, salicylic acid can rid the skin of excess oil and dead skin cells. It’s easy to see why salicylic acid is ideal for oily and acne-prone skin. Additionally, salicylic acid is your go-to ingredient if you’re trying to prevent or treat breakouts and blackheads since it’s also antibacterial. 

You can use salicylic acid without causing further flare-ups. However, it can be drying, so you should follow up with a rich moisturizer. Also, note that if you’re pregnant or have certain medical conditions, you should avoid using products with salicylic acid, so do your research beforehand.

What is glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble AHA derived from sugarcane that does its magic on the topmost layers of the skin. Since glycolic acid has a small molecular size compared to salicylic acid, it’s more effective at exfoliating the skin but also more irritating. Glycolic acid serums are often used for dull, rough skin to enhance radiance as well as fade visible wrinkles and fine lines, and reduce hyperpigmentation, small bumps, and acne scars. When shopping for formulations that contain glycolic acid, you’ll find concentrations from 5% to 30%. Generally, the higher the concentration, the more potent the product. 

Both glycolic and salicylic acids can cause a stinging or burning sensation. Hence, if you have sensitive skin and haven’t used these acids in the past, do a patch test or consult a dermatologist before applying it liberally.

When to use glycolic acid

  1. For on-the-surface exfoliation: Use glycolic acid as a gentle exfoliator to scrub off dead skin cells from the skin’s surface.
  2. Fade hyperpigmentation: Aging and exposure to the sun can cause dark marks. Using glycolic acid (with sunscreen) reduces these dark patches by treating the surface of the skin and eliminating the pigmented cells. 
  3. Minimize the appearance of wrinkles: Glycolic acid has the smallest molecules among AHAs. This helps it penetrate the skin easily while removing dead skin cells and minimizing wrinkles.

When to use salicylic acid

  1. Treat acne: Salicylic acid contains anti-inflammatory and anesthetic properties. It actively reduces the size of the pimples, exfoliates, and unclogs pores without causing flare-ups. 
  2. Balance oily skin: Salicylic acid decreases sebum production, so it can help oily skin become less greasy.
  3. Treat blackheads: Thanks to its ability to unclog pores, salicylic acid removes dirt and debris from the skin’s surface, reducing blackheads.

Can you use glycolic acid and salicylic acid together?

It all depends on the formulation. If a product contains small amounts of glycolic and salicylic acid, using them together won’t necessarily be a skincare disaster. However, it’s best to avoid mixing the two since these ingredients are quite strong and you risk over-exfoliating your complexion. Glycolic acid and salicylic acid together are a potent combination that can cause skin issues like redness, burning, and other signs of irritation.

The takeaway

Now that you know the difference between salicylic acid and glycolic acid, you can include them in your skincare regimen with confidence.

Just remember: If you have sensitive skin or haven’t used glycolic or salicylic acid before, do a patch test or ask your dermatologist about using them first. You wouldn’t want to exacerbate any existing skin issues. By following this guide and practicing the right amount of caution, you’ll be so much closer to the brighter and clearer skin you’ve been dreaming of.

Finally, our skincare dictionary and ingredients cheat list are great places to keep an eye on all skincare ingredients and learn how you can mix them for dramatic results.

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Women's Concepts relies on the latest scientific research to provide accurate, complete, and fact-based information in skincare, on which we're willing to stake our reputation. Our team includes skincare experts who are highly regarded in their fields and committed to upholding the best standards of research. We spend quality time vetting every single product we recommend and double-checking all the facts shared on Women's Concepts. We always stand on the side of inclusivity, and our mission is to help everyone fix their skin issues as they arise and leverage the products they buy to achieve their goals. You can view our expert review board and everything about our editorial guidelines here.
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