Lactic Acid or Salicylic Acid? That’s The Hard Question

Lactic acid or salicylic acid? Or both?

Despite the intimidating name, acids are our skin BFF that fight all of our concerns, from wrinkles to hyperpigmentation, breakouts, scarring, and dull look. Just that to get the best from acids use, you should be using the most suitable one for you. And it’s not easy, I know. We’ve got alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), then beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), each category encompassing a bunch of acids, making the pick even harder.

Today’s focus stays on lactic acid vs. salicylic acid, two of the main pillars of acids that tackle a range of skin issues, but not knowing which suits you best, makes the choice rather an overwhelming chore. Now keep scrolling to find out which one suits you best. 

What lactic acid is

Lactic acid is the mildest AHA that works by exfoliating the outermost skin layer, leaving skin smooth and polished. The goodness of lactic acid occurs mostly on the skin’s surface as its large molecule doesn’t allow it to penetrate as deep as its counterparts. This makes it act gentler, being the fav of reactive skins. That’s not it. In addition to its exfoliating benefits, lactic acid is a humectant, too, so it draws moisture from the environment and binds it to the skin. Due to its mild profile, lactic acid can be found in concentrations of up to 30% in OTC peels.

What salicylic acid is

Salicylic acid is a BHA that loosens dead cells buildup on the skin’s surface, removing debris, excess sebum, and junk. It’s found in a concentration of up to 2% in OTC products. Compared to lactic acid, salicylic acid is oil-soluble, meaning it penetrates beneath the skin’s surface, where it works hard to unclog congested pores and minimize the chances of breakouts.

Besides, salicylic acid has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, making it a go-to for acne sufferers. However, the downside of salicylic acid is that since it acts deeper into the skin, it may lead to dryness and even irritation in some cases — this entirely depends on the concentration of the product and how often it’s used. 

Lactic acid vs. salicylic acid

The main difference between lactic acid and salicylic acid is that lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid that works on the skin’s surface, while salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that works on a deeper level. So, you may now wonder, in the battle of lactic acid vs. salicylic acid, which is better? Since the use of acids is not one-size-fits-all, it’s hard to say what is your best bet because it entirely depends on your skin type and concern. 

As such, lactic acid is ideal for all skin types that want a gentle surface exfoliation and struggle with fine lines, dark spots, and uneven texture. Lactic acid may be more suitable for those with dry, sensitive skin due to its gentle and hydrating nature. On the other hand, salicylic acid is the go-to for peeps struggling with excess oil and breakouts as it works deep in the skin to dissolve bacteria, dirt, and excess sebum that clogs pores. 

Can you use lactic acid and salicylic acid together?

“Can I use lactic acid and salicylic acid together?” is what most people want to know. Welp, it depends on the product at hand and the concentration. For instance, a salicylic acid toner can be used together with a lactic acid serum without messing up your skin, while a lactic acid peel can’t be used with a salicylic acid peel on the same day, as both are harsh.

While everybody can use both of these acids, this duo may benefit some more than others. To be on the safe side, you should use them together if they’re packed in the same products. By using salicylic acid and lactic acid together in different products, one right after the other, you risk over-exfoliating your skin badly, leading to a broken barrier, dryness, and redness. Another way to use lactic acid and salicylic acid together is using the products containing them on alternate days.

The takeaway

Hopefully, this post has answered all of your lactic acid vs. salicylic acid questions. In the end, everyone can use lactic acid, whilst salicylic acid should be on the radar of those with excess sebum and breakouts since it works a bit more aggressively. When adding both to your routine, you might experience great outcomes, but that might not be the best call if your skin is on the sensitive side. 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.

Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder and editor-in-chief of Women's Concepts. She has over 5 years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and dermatological research and was an acne sufferer for over a decade. Ana is now an IAO and CPD-accredited skincare consultant keen to teach others about the importance of a consistent routine. She covers a wide range of topics in skincare—from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences from the National School of Political and Administrative Studies. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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