Glycolic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid – Important Differences You Need to Know

Both chemical exfoliators cleanse your skin thoroughly to make your complexion look clearer. But where one does the job of smoothing out wrinkles, fine lines, and overall skin texture, the other unclogs pores by dissolving excess oil. So which of the two does your skin need at the moment – glycolic acid vs. salicylic acid?

If you’re out to find a solution for a more specific skin concern, then it’s only natural to choose a more explicit skincare product. Hence, choosing between salicylic acid and glycolic acid.

So now let’s find out what these two very commonly used skincare ingredients are capable of doing!

Salicylic Acid – What Is It?

Glycolic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid

Just another BHA (beta hydroxy acid), salicylic acid is naturally derived from willow bark or wintergreen leaves. Then there’s the artificially synthesized version of it too.

What salicylic acid does is exfoliate your skin by removing excess sebum from both the surface of your skin and congested pores. On top of that, it’s packed with mild antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.

This is how salicylic acid prevents the formation of new acne and treats existing breakouts. Apart from, you know, minimizing hyperpigmentation, excess oil production, and the visibility of blackheads.

Those with oily and/or acne-prone skin make sure to incorporate facial cleansers formulated with salicylic acid. Even those with hyperpigmentation use face washes infused with this gentle yet effective deep-cleansing exfoliant.

As for what’s bad about salicylic acid, this particular ingredient may not suit those with extremely dry or sensitive/irritated skin. But it’s only very, very rare for a mild beta hydroxy acid to cause severe, out-of-control allergic reactions.

Moving On to Glycolic Acid – What Is It?

Glycolic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid

Now glycolic acid comes from the family of alpha hydroxy acids (AHA). And this too is derived naturally from sugarcane as well as artificially concocted in a laboratory.

Glycolic acid works its charm by passing through the outer barrier of your skin (it is a very small molecule after all). The topical application of glycolic acid is sure to exfoliate the skin while also retaining moisture. Glycolic acid gets rid of dead skin cells that often accumulate on the uppermost layer of the skin. So, in a way, this AHA encourages new skin cell growth.

Anti-inflammatory properties are a part of glycolic acid too, and it eliminates acne-causing bacteria. Plus, it provides UVB protection. So with glycolic acid, you can expect to reduce visible signs of aging (wrinkles and fine lines), acne scars, hyperpigmentation, sun damage, and even the appearance and size of pores.

So if your skin is more susceptible to acne breakouts, hyperpigmentation, or aging spots and signs, then it’s safe to rely on glycolic acid as an effective solution.

The use of this alpha hydroxy acid is generally a safe experience. Although skin irritation can come up when a higher concentration is applied (10% or higher).

And one other thing, glycolic acid increases your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Now, this just means that you should never skip sunscreen when using glycolic acid, otherwise sun damage becomes nearly impossible to avoid.

Differences Between Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid

When to Use Salicylic Acid – Benefits of Salicylic Acid

Its function is to exfoliate your skin’s surface and cleanse your pores from within. So here are situations where salicylic acid seems like a savior in disguise!


The antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory properties of salicylic acid combat acne breakouts, including blackheads. The BHA exfoliates your skin from deep within, this also means unclogging pores and controlling excess oil production. Hence, acne breakouts are minimized to a large extent, even in the case of persistent acne or body acne.

Salicylic acid also helps in getting rid of acne scars and blemishes.


Beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid have an oil-soluble nature. Thus, they can cut through oil present on the surface of your skin to get deep into your pores to thoroughly cleanse them (wash away any impurities, dead skin cells, sebum, etc. that are clogging the pores).

Salicylic acid is also very gentle and lightweight, which also contributes to managing the natural production of oil in your skin. And since it’s mild and light, it does this without congesting pores. Therefore, fewer clogged pores, blemishes, bumps, and even the appearance of enlarged pores are significantly reduced.


The soothing properties of gentle salicylic acid exfoliant are highly suitable for irritated or sensitive skin. Minimizing redness on the face (caused by skin conditions like rosacea even) is what salicylic acid knows how to do in the most effective manner.

And a regular application does indeed tone down all your magnified redness and also any prominent skin irritation.

When to Use Glycolic Acid – Benefits of Glycolic Acid

Also a very active yet gentle exfoliator, glycolic acid is the most commonly used to treat the following skin problems…


Gently exfoliating the skin with facial cleansers formulated for hyperpigmentation is a must if you want your skin complexion to look more balanced. And some of these cleansers, even body washes for hyperpigmentation, contain glycolic acid for a reason – it evens out your skin tone!


This particular water-soluble AHA, as mentioned once before, is a very small molecule. And this tiny size allows it to penetrate your skin quite easily where it helps with the shedding of dead, dull, and aging skin cells trapped within your pores to make your natural complexion look more youthful.

And along the way, glycolic acid also minimizes the visibility of these enlarged, congested pores.


We know all about the effective yet gentle exfoliating properties of glycolic acid, but do we also know that this AHA hydrates your skin as well? Combine these properties and the skin is sure to feel softer and firmer with your wrinkles and fine lines looking less visible.

Salicylic Acid vs. Glycolic Acid – Which Is Better for Chemical Peels?

The cosmetic treatment that takes the form of chemical peels removes dead and dull layers of your skin to reveal more youthful, rejuvenated skin underneath with a well-balanced skin tone. For this particular purpose, a chemical peel with glycolic acid gets the desired results.

Glycolic acid’s molecular-level size is just perfect for penetrating the skin in order to exfoliate from deep within. And, at the same time, your skin’s natural moisture barrier is also retained.

On the flipside, salicylic acid in chemical peels might dry out your skin if your skin type is not oily. Using salicylic acid on very dry skin will surely strip off too much oil and moisture.

Is It Safe to Use Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid At the Same Time?

Let’s assume you’re using a salicylic acid body wash and you also happen to use some other formula that contains glycolic acid. Then is this safe for your skin? I think you’ll be surprised to know that many skin-cleansing products are made using both salicylic acid (BHA) and glycolic acid (AHA).

With both ingredients, you can target ALL of your skin concerns together. And using both also means not having to choose just one, incorporating both does simplify your daily skincare routine.

How About Using Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid?

How to use these effective, strong chemical exfoliants?

#1 Always Begin Slowly

Both are ‘active’ ingredients, so please remember to start slow (use less frequently). Once your skin’s tolerance level increases with this kind of sporadic application, then you can increase the frequency to 1-2 times per week.

#2 Apply In the Night

Why though? Because salicylic acid as well as glycolic acid make your skin more sensitive to sun exposure. So incorporating either or both into your nighttime skincare routine seems like a more skin-friendly decision.

#3 Cleanse Your Skin First

Every skincare product application, even tanning your skin, begins with cleansing/exfoliating the skin first. So before you apply, for example, a glycolic acid peel formula on your face, cleanse it first so the small molecules of this alpha hydroxy acid are able to penetrate deeper for a more thorough exfoliating/cleansing action.

#4 Apply the Right Way

Swiping it on (especially if the formula is watery) using a cotton pad is the best way to go about applying a toner formulated with either or both acids for exfoliation.

#5 Don’t Forget to Moisturize and Protect Your Skin

Post-exfoliation (using salicylic acid and/or glycolic acid), it’s in the best interest of your skin to also hydrate it (with a replenishing cream or serum) and protect it (with high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen). This safeguards your fresh, more radiant-looking skin against potential damage, irritation, or other sensitivities.

When to NOT Use These Active Ingredients?

  • When your skin is naturally or highly prone to dryness, redness, or irritation.
  • When using any other skin-drying ingredient, such as a retinol cream.
  • Keep in mind that layering active ingredients like glycolic acid and salicylic acid aren’t going to accelerate desirable results. On the contrary, this kind of multi-layered, excessive application might just worsen the condition and appearance of your skin.

What’s the Final Opinion – Which One Is the Right Choice?

It all depends on your skin type and skin concerns.

For instance, salicylic acid works best when…

  • you have oily or acne-prone skin.
  • your pores are clogged and/or enlarged.
  • your acne breakouts are more frequent/persistent.

As for glycolic acid…

  • Use it if you want to minimize the visibility of your wrinkles and fine lines.
  • Or when dealing with skin conditions like hyperpigmentation (uneven skin complexion)

Then there are products formulated with both BHA and AHA, which are great when it comes to tackling both acne and hyperpigmentation.

Exfoliating with these kinds of active ingredients (gentle chemical exfoliants) is the most effective approach to eliminating dead skin cells building up on the surface of your skin and excess sebum production congesting your pores. When left untreated, all this can lead to acne breakouts, premature aging, uneven skin texture/tone, and dark spots.

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