Glycolic Acid Vs. Salicylic Acid: Which Is Better For Your Skin

Written by Reevan Vishwas Rego, Certified Skin Care Coach

Ingredients used in skincare products play a significant role in improving your skin’s health. Glycolic acid and salicylic acid are the two ingredients in particular that are commonly found in many skincare products such as toners and cleansers. In this matchup of glycolic acid vs. salicylic acid, which one should you choose for your skin type and why? While both of these are good for your skin, which one of these will benefit your skin the most? Keep reading this article to find out.

What Is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an organic compound that belongs to the group of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). This compound is commonly found in sugary and acidic fruits such as sugarcane, lemons, and melons. These acids are water-soluble and are used as exfoliants.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is also an organic compound found in willow bark and vegetables like broccoli, cucumber, and mushrooms. This belongs to the beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) group. BHAs are oil-soluble acids and can also be used as exfoliants.

Now that you’ve got an idea of what these ingredients are, let us understand which one is better for your skin according to your skin condition.

Glycolic Acid Vs. Salicylic Acid- Use Case For Skin Conditions

Given that glycolic acid is water-soluble and salicylic acid is oil soluble, certain skin conditions may favor one ingredient over the other.

  • Acne Treatment

Glycolic acids possess anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe the inflammation caused by acne and alleviate its symptoms (1). Salicylic acid also helps in treating acne as it unclogs your pores by removing the excess dirt (2). While both seem to do the job, studies suggest that salicylic acid is better in treating acne if you have oily and acne-prone skin (3). In a study, participants with acne were treated with glycolic acid and salicylic acid. The group which was treated with salicylic acid saw a 74% reduction in acne in comparison to a 70% reduction with those treated with glycolic acid (3). You can use a salicylic acid-based exfoliant to help with your acne.

Glycolic acid can be used to treat acne if you have dry skin. Using skincare products such as glycolic acid cream and glycolic acid cleanser might prove to be beneficial in treating acne (1).

  • As A Chemical Peel

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid-based peels are beneficial for exfoliation. However, glycolic acid-based chemical peels have an edge over their counterparts as they can be used on all skin types, while salicylic acid peels are suitable mainly for oily skin types. In addition, glycolic acid-based peels also help in maintaining the moisture of your skin by regulating its pH level (4).

  • Keratosis Pilaris Treatment

Salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent (prevents excess keratin formation) that permeates deep into the pores and unclogs the dirt. Keratosis pilaris is a skin condition that causes excess production of keratin that blocks the hair follicles and pores. Studies suggest that salicylic acid exfoliants and peels can help break down keratin and can be used to treat this condition (2). In this case, salicylic acid is better suited to treat this condition.

  • Treatment Of Sun Damaged Skin

Sun-damaged skin can be treated by using skincare products that contain either glycolic acid or salicylic acid. Both these ingredients are used in a majority of sunscreens and are known to help reduce UV photodamage (2),(4). However, salicylic acid-based products are a better choice as glycolic acid-based products can increase the sensitivity of your skin to sunlight and may cause you discomfort (5).

These are some of the skin conditions that can be treated using glycolic acid and salicylic acid. Let us look at some of the other benefits of these ingredients.

Benefits Of Glycolic Acid And Salicylic Acid

Hydroxy acids such as glycolic and salicylic acid have been used in skincare treatment for nearly a few centuries. Present-day cosmetics and skincare products use these as active ingredients. That being said, here are a few shared benefits of these ingredients.

  • May Help In Anti-aging

Studies suggest that anti-aging skincare products that have glycolic acid or salicylic acid as active ingredients may help reduce wrinkles and fine lines. The exact science behind this is not known, however, there is a working theory that has been popularly accepted. According to this theory, these ingredients help in removing calcium ions that are deposited in the skin due to aging. Removal of this excess calcium helps promote cell growth. This helps in making the skin appear younger and wrinkle-free (6). Salicylic acid helps in reducing fine lines and wrinkles on your skin and thereby makes it look younger (2).

  • May Help Lighten Skin Tone

Glycolic acid may help in reducing the size of the pores on your skin, thereby improving its texture and leaving it brighter and lighter. Studies suggest the use of creams that contain glycolic acid and glycolic acid peels may also help reduce the risk of hyperpigmentation that causes dark spots (1). Studies also suggest that using chemical peels that contain salicylic acid can also help reduce hyperpigmentation and can have a whitening effect on the skin (7).

While using skincare products with these ingredients are great for your skin’s health and are a good addition to your skincare routine, which is the right one for your skin type? Let us find out in the next section.

What Skin Type Is It Suitable For

With any skincare product, it is vital to take your skin type into consideration as different products will produce varied results based on your skin type.

Glycolic acid-based products are ideal for use if you:

  • have non-oily skin or dry skin.
  • have uneven skin tone or want to reduce hyperpigmentation.
  • want to reduce the signs of aging skin.
  • want to alleviate symptoms of acne.

On the other hand, salicylic acid-based products are ideal for use if you:

  • have oily skin.
  • have clogged pores.
  • want to reduce the signs of aging skin.

Hopefully, with this knowledge, you may be able to choose the right skincare products with any of these two active ingredients based on your skin type. Let us look at how and when you need to use these products.

Glycolic Acid Vs. Salicylic Acid – When And How To Use

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid-based skincare products can be used in the form of creams, serums, toners, cleansers, face masks, and peels. They can be used during the night and day as well. Some products may be formulated to be used as overnight creams, peels, or masks. Products like serums and cleansers can be used at any time to remove dead skin cells and clean clogged pores. Certain salicylic acid-based products may not be recommended for daytime use as they can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight (5).

In conclusion, both these hydroxy acids are widely used in beauty and skincare products. Glycolic acid may be more effective in treating skin conditions like acne, while salicylic acid is better for keratosis pilaris. Both are available in a wide variety of cosmetics in the form of toners, masks, creams, and peels. In this closely contested match of glycolic acid vs. salicylic acid, your skin type would act as the tie-breaker. Salicylic acid is a better choice for oily skin whereas glycolic acid is better for dry and non-oily skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is best, glycolic acid or salicylic acid?

Both are beneficial in their own ways; glycolic acid is good for normal-dry skin, whereas salicylic acid is good for oily and acne-prone skin.

Is glycolic acid stronger than salicylic acid?

No, salicylic acid is stronger than glycolic acid as it is a better exfoliant and can reach deeper into your pores and unclog them.

Can I use glycolic acid and salicylic acid together?

Yes, you can. Just wait for one to dry off before using the other.

Should I use salicylic acid or glycolic acid first?

It depends on your skin type. If you have oily skin, use a salicylic acid-based product to exfoliate and follow it up with a glycolic acid-based toner.

Key Takeaways

  • Glycolic acid is a water-soluble organic compound that belongs to the group of AHAs whereas salicylic acid is an oil-soluble organic compound belonging to the BHAs group.
  • Both can treat acne, but salicylic acid is better for treating acne on oily and acne-prone skin.
  • Glycolic acid-based chemical peels can be used on all skin types, while salicylic acid peels are suitable mainly for oily skin.
  • Glycolic acid based products are more suited for dry skin whereas salicyclic based products are better suited for oily skin.


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  1. Glycolic Acid Peel Therapy – A Current Review
  2. Salicylic Acid as a Peeling Agent: A Comprehensive Review
  3. Comparative Study of 35% Glycolic Acid 20% Salicylic-10% Mandelic Acid and Phytic Acid Combination Peels in the Treatment of Active Acne and Postacne Pigmentation
  4. Dual Effects of Alpha-Hydroxy Acids on The Skin
  5. The Effects of Topically Applied Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid on Ultraviolet Radiation-Induced Erythema DNA Damage and Sunburn Cell Formation in Human Skin
  6. An Antiaging Skin Care System Containing Alpha Hydroxy Acids And Vitamins Improves The Biomechanical Parameters Of Facial Skin
  7. Whitening Effect of Salicylic Acid Peels in Asian Patients
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