Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Akruti Khandkar (Journalist)  on 15th Dec 2020

Which is better for acne: Glycolic acid or Salicylic acid?

Which is better for acne

Adding acid to your skincare routine may appear to be terrifying. However, it's one of the recommended beauty tips by dermatologists. Dissimilar to grating physical exfoliators, acids depend on gentler synthetic compounds to wipe away the development of dead skin cells and the dirt that clogs to it. Eliminating these pollutions clears pores and permits different products in your daily practice to enter all the more profoundly so they can give the best outcomes. There are two highly prominent acids -glycolic acid (alpha-hydroxy acid) and salicylic acid (beta-hydroxy acid); that work wonders on your skin. Here is the catch, though. Acids can be finicky, so it's important to revise the incorporation in your skincare routine. 

What Are Chemical Exfoliating Acids?

Chemical exfoliators are gentler than physical exfoliators because they are made without abrasive surfaces to do away with dead skin. Instead of those little, rough pieces, they rely upon low rates of delicate acids to give results.

Chemical exfoliators are typically assembled into beta hydroxy acids (salicylic acid) and alpha hydroxy acids (like lactic and glycolic acid.) other than these two, polyhydroxy acids (a sensitive cousin that pulls in and ties water like a humectant) break down the bonds that carry clogged dirt and pollutants on a superficial level. When the chemical exfoliators do their job, the dead cells shed, uncovering a smoother, more brilliant, more clear composition underneath.  

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It is important to know that while AHAs are water solvent and work on the outside of the skin, BHAs are oil-soluble, so they can infiltrate into pores to work at a more profound level. 

Why do you need glycolic acid and salicylic acid?

Chemical exfoliants, especially glycolic acid and salicylic acid, can be less rough on your skin than physical exfoliants. Some physical exfoliants contain particles that can cause little tears in your skin. Each skin type, from sensitive to oily, dry to acne-prone, can profit from these acids.

Utilizing this kind of exfoliant can give your skin a clean look, decrease the presence of wrinkles and fine lines, and limit the presence of large pores. It's additionally an excellent method to prepare your skin for creams as the upper layer of dead skin won't obstruct the item from advancing toward the layers underneath.  

What is better, serums or face wash?  

In the case of acids like glycolic acid and salicylic acid, face wash and serums both work wonders on your skin. But if you are new to these acids, it's always advised to use a smaller concentration to see if your skin gets adjusted. You can start small by using it in a face wash unless your dermatologist directs otherwise. You may wish to attempt a glycolic acid face wash to check whether your skin can endure glycolic acid. The same is the case for salicylic acid. Serums form higher concentrations with one or more actives and can require a stable skin palette to work on. It is also wise for a novice not to use a leave-on product (serum) as your skin can be vulnerable to the active. In case your skin is comfortable with glycolic or salicylic acid, you can surely go for serums as the formula will directly focus on the issue you want to resolve.  

Do glycolic acid and salicylic acid work similarly?  

On a chemical level, glycolic acid and salicylic acid are very comparable. The two can shed dead skin leaving your skin smooth and delicate, and help treat and forestall clogged pores. The two make your skin composition more brilliant and firm, even out the skin tone, and limit the fine lines. Nonetheless, there are some key contrasts. Since salicylic acid is oil-solvent, it can enter pores and disintegrate the oil and grime there. Then, glycolic acid isn't oil-solvent, so it works just on the skin's top layer. Glycolic acid can be powerful at treating pigmentation. However, it can likewise be disturbing and make you more vulnerable to sun rays.  

Salicylic acid is the best option to treat skin inflammation. Why?  

If anyone talks about anti-acne chemical exfoliants, one name always pops up, which is salicylic acid, giving you the overall thought that this is the thing that treats acne best. Don't worry. This is a fact, as salicylic acid is a more potent exfoliant that is more compelling in separating dead skin layers and blackheads and uncovering new, unclogged layers of skin.

Glycolic acid essentially doesn't dive that deep. Glycolic acid also doesn't relax sebum and haul it out the way salicylic acid does, making it insufficient to remove clogged pores.  

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So why is glycolic acid recommended for acne-prone skin at all?  

Flakiness, roughness, and surface damage are common side effects of acne and acne treatments, making the skin of those with acne look dull. Glycolic acid helps add that clean sheen by polishing out all the patches and giving the skin a more uniform look on a superficial level. Thus, it's generally intended to treat little bumps, not stubborn acne. However, since it is a more common and less expensive ingredient, it is utilized in many anti-acne products. Glycolic acid and different AHAs like lactic acid are known to battle roughness, flakiness, fine lines, as they make skin smooth and provide a photoprotective effect.

Research has discovered that glycolic acid has antioxidant and antibacterial activity, which can likewise improve your skin's appearance when you have skin inflammation. Glycolic acid can also thicken skin by encouraging collagen development. 

Can they be used together to treat acne and bumps? 

If a face wash contains both salicylic and glycolic acid, almost certainly, it has been packaged in a skin-safe way.

However, suppose you're hoping to join a salicylic acid exfoliant, a BHA toner or serum, with a glycolic acid exfoliant, for example, a peeling solution or a gel/serum. In that case, that is not a smart thought. These ingredients are too solid to be mixed and utilized in one meeting possibly, so it's ideal to substitute their utilization, if possible, leaving a couple of days' gaps between uses.

Salicylic acid is undoubtedly the better acid for skin inflammation. Nonetheless, AHAs are useful for other skin issues that individuals with skin break-outs have, making them gainful for general skin benefits, though not acne specifically.  

What is an ideal approach to fusing exfoliating skincare acids into your daily schedule?  

Acids should be incorporated into your skincare routine gradually as a face wash. In case you're keen on trying a concentrated serum that contains active acid ingredients, it is recommended to apply it continuously and utilizing the item just a single time or two times per week until your skin develops resilience. As your skin develops this resistance, an acid might be incorporated all the more frequently.

For AHAs like glycolic and lactic acid, move slowly and utilize a lower rate acid a couple of times each week to perceive how your skin handles it.

The concentration typically used for salicylic acid is from 0.5 to 2 percent in items, especially for individuals with sensitive and acne-prone skin. It is essential to start slow with sensitive skin types, while those with oilier skin can better endure acids. If confused, don't hesitate to ask a specialist. Skin can respond differently depending on your skin type, so it is recommended to pick a face acid with a skincare specialist's assistance.


To fight clogged pores, acne, and whiteheads, glycolic and salicylic acid should be your go-to ingredients. Friendly note- It is still an acid at the end of the day, which means it can bother your skin a bit, especially if it is sensitive or dry. It can cause redness, stripping, and dryness for individuals with these skin types, so consult a dermatologist before using it. Although The American College Of Obstetrician and Gynecologists suggest it's safe to use both glycolic and topical salicylic acid when pregnant, it is advised to consult your doctor before using.

A report also specifies that the use of salicylic acid during breastfeeding can be dangerous as the acid is unlikely to be absorbed in the breast milk. It should not be applied to the areas that might come in contact with your child.

In any case, if your skin can deal with the ingredients, there's no better method to rapidly and effectively receive the rewards of these ground-breaking acne-warriors than by utilizing a salicylic or glycolic acid face wash.

Talking about sensitive skin, you additionally don't have to utilize numerous glycolic or salicylic acid-containing items. Reliable utilization of one item with occasional spot treatment is enough to keep your skin clear. Here and there, your dermatologist may suggest a stronger concentration, but this isn't generally the situation.