Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: What’s the Difference?

Glycolic acid and salicylic acid are two common chemical exfoliants in skincare products. They both have benefits for your skin, but they also work differently and aren’t interchangeable. This blog post will compare the differences between glycolic acid vs salicylic acid and determine which one is best for your skincare needs.

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution and Paula's Choice 2% BHA Salicylic Acid Liquid Exfoliant

There are so many different factors like your skin type (oily or dry), acne (mild or severe), and even the weather, which can affect your choice of glycolic acid or salicylic acid.

In this post, we’ll discuss how glycolic acid and salicylic acid work on your skin, what their benefits are, and how you can use them together or separately, depending on your needs.

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What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that is derived from sugar cane. This exfoliant functions as an anti-aging treatment and when applied topically.

Glycolic acid breaks down the glue that holds skin cells together. This makes it easier for dead skin cells to be removed because they’re no longer stuck together.

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecule size of all alpha-hydroxy acids, which allows it to penetrate deeper into your pores for a better exfoliation than other AHAs. Unfortunately, glycolic acid may also irritate those with sensitive skin.

Glycolic Acid Benefits

Glycolic acid has many benefits for the skin:

  • Glycolic acid exfoliates the skin and helps to smooth the look of wrinkles , fine lines, and other signs of aging.
  • Glycolic acid stimulates collagen production and increases skin firmness and thickness when used regularly.
  • Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient for treating hyperpigmentation. It smooths out uneven skin tone by gently removing dead skin cells and revealing newer, fresher skin. It can also help to fade dark spots left behind by breakouts.
  • Glycolic acid also has exfoliating properties that can help with acne.
  • Glycolic acid has skin-brightening effects which can help fade dark spots left behind by breakouts.
  • By lifting dull dead skin cells, glycolic acid helps other skin care treatments to penetrate better.

What Skin Type Is Glycolic Acid Suitable For?

Glycolic acid is suitable for most skin types, although, as noted above, it can be irritating to those with sensitive skin. It’s especially recommended for those with aging or mature skin as it can lift away dry, flaky skin, smooth the look of wrinkles and fine lines and brighten your complexion.

Glycolic acid can also be a good choice for those with oily skin because the exfoliating action can help to remove pore-clogging dead skin cells and excess oil.

People who struggle with hyperpigmentation or dull skin tone will especially benefit from regular glycolic acid use.

Since the exfoliating action from glycolic acid and its low acidic pH can lead to redness or peeling in some people during the first few weeks of treatment, it’s important to start slowly by applying the product only every other day or three times a week.

Anyone experiencing dryness or flaking should proceed cautiously. If you notice excessive redness after using glycolic acid, stop using it immediately. Your skin might be too sensitive to this ingredient.

NOTE: Glycolic acid and all AHAs can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so it’s important to always wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher while using glycolic acid and for a week after.

Best Uses For Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid has the smallest molecular structure of all AHAs, so it penetrates deeper into your pores than other AHA types. This feature makes it such an effective exfoliant and why glycolic acid is frequently used in chemical peels.

Glycolic acid can penetrate deep into your pores to help remove dead surface cells, which helps treat acne and hyperpigmentation.

It’s also a great option for those with sun-damaged skin because it helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. (Retinol, another well-known anti-aging ingredient, works similarly to glycolic acid by encouraging cellular turnover.)

Related Post: Can You Use Glycolic Acid and Vitamin C Together?

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid (or BHA) that is derived from willow bark. This BHA is oil-soluble, which means it can penetrate through your skin’s oil to dissolve built-up impurities and dead skin cells.

Salicylic acid works similarly to glycolic acid: it reduces the bond of proteins responsible for holding together dead skin cells, which allows those cells to slough off more easily.

Salicylic acid also has properties that allow it to penetrate deep into pores, where it can help break down oils and other impurities that contribute to acne.

The effectiveness of salicylic acid as a pore cleanser makes it a great choice for those who struggle with blackheads, whiteheads, and/or painful blemishes.

Salicylic Acid Benefits

Salicylic acid has many benefits for the skin:

  • Salicylic acid is most effective when used to treat skin that is oily, acne-prone, or has enlarged pores.
  • Salicylic acid can work wonders for blemish-prone skin because of its ability to penetrate deep into the pores where it helps break down oil and reduces inflammation.
  • Salicylic acid exfoliates the skin which helps to even out skin tone and improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots.
  • The exfoliating action also helps smooth away rough, flaky skin for an overall smoother appearance helping to reduce the look of wrinkles and fine lines over time.
  • Salicylic acid is also widely used in products designed to treat keratosis pilaris, which is characterized by small, hard bumps on the skin that are often red or pink in color. This discoloration is caused by a buildup of keratin around hair follicles. Salicylic acid acts as an exfoliant that can help unclog pores and improve the appearance of this condition.
  • People who struggle with ingrown hairs will especially benefit from using salicylic acid after shaving to prevent inflammation and/or infection.

What Skin Type is Salicylic Acid Suitable For?

Salicylic acid is suitable for most skin types. Those with oily or acne-prone skin are especially likely to benefit from regular use of this ingredient as it can penetrate the pores to reduce sebum (oil) build-up that contributes to acne. It can also reduce sebum production of those with acne to prevent future breakouts.

Those with combination skin can benefit from using products containing salicylic acid to help treat breakouts without causing other areas of the face to become excessively dry or irritated.

If you deal with dullness or uneven texture on your face, you might want to try using a product that contains salicylic acid. It helps to clear out dirt and debris from your pores and can help improve the appearance of dull, uneven skin tone.

Salicylic acid effectively treats acne, melasma, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation in darker skin types without side effects.

Best Uses For Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is best used to treat oily and acne-prone skin since it clears pore-clogging sebum (oil), dirt, and impurities. It also helps to reduce sebum production with continued use.

Related Post: Can You Use Salicylic Acid with Niacinamide?

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: Similarities

  • Glycolic Acid and salicylic acid both are excellent actives for effective pore exfoliation.
  • They exfoliate skin layers to diminish the appearance of acne-related scars, sun damage, and other signs of aging.
  • They also help to smooth skin texture and brighten the complexion.
  • Both can help reduce the look of hyperpigmentation, dark spots, and age spots.

It is important to remember that every skin type has unique needs, so you might need a mixture of one or the other, both glycolic acid and salicylic acid products, or neither in your skincare routine, depending on your personal skincare concerns and needs.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: Differences

So, what’s the difference between these two acids? Glycolic acid is more suitable for aging and mature skin types as it exfoliates the skin’s surface to smooth the look of wrinkles, fine lines, and dullness.

Salicylic acid has exfoliating properties similar to glycolic acid, but salicylic acid is more suitable for oily and acne-prone skin because it controls sebum production and reduces the number of pore-clogging impurities.

Other differences between salicylic acid and glycolic acid include:

  • Glycolic acid is water-soluble to work on the surface of the pores, whereas salicylic acid is oil-soluble to work on the surface of the pores and in the pores to help fight acne.
  • Glycolic acid makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, while salicylic acid does not.
  • Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties that can soothe redness, whereas glycolic acid can cause irritation in more sensitive skin types.

Salicylic Acid vs Glycolic Acid: Which is Better?

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid are beneficial ingredients that help fight acne and remove dead skin cells.

To determine which one is best for you, it’s important to consider your skin type.

  • Salicylic acid is better suited for those who struggle with acne or oily skin because it penetrates deep inside pores, removing excess oil.
  • Glycolic acid is better for those with aging, normal or mature skin because it has the ability to remove dead skin cells, which improves the tone and texture of your complexion. Glycolic acid targets age-related skin issues, such as fine lines and wrinkles.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid For Acne: Which Is Better?

Salicylic acid penetrates the pores to exfoliate them, remove excess oil to reduce acne and breakouts, while glycolic acid is better for anti-aging and breaks down the glue that holds skin cells together, so they appear smoother, brighter, and fresher.

So while both acids can help with acne due to their exfoliating properties, salicylic acid is the better choice for acne since it can penetrate the pores and remove acne-causing dirt, oil, and impurities and regulate sebum production.

The Best Glycolic Acid Products: At-Home Treatments

The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution


The Ordinary Glycolic Acid 7% Toning Solution is an alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) treatment formulated with 7% glycolic acid for a mild exfoliation. It also contains hydrating and moisturizing amino acids and soothing aloe vera.

Gingseng extract offers protective antioxidant benefits. The toner also contains Tasmanian pepperberry to reduce signs of inflammation and sensitivity that often come with exfoliation.

This glycolic acid toner helps eliminate dead skin cells, reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, brightens dark spots, restores an even tone to the complexion, and improves skin texture and clarity.

Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant


Paula’s Choice 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant is formulated with 8% glycolic acid to reduce the look of wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and texture.

Chamomile extract and aloe vera soothe inflammation. Sodium hyaluronate (hyaluronic acid), panthenol (pro-vitamin B5), and sodium PCA hydrate and moisturize the skin. Camellia oleifera leaf extract from green tea offers antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

This lightweight gel exfoliant improves the look of sun damage, fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots and helps brighten skin tone while providing lasting hydration.

Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner


Mario Badescu Glycolic Acid Toner contains 5% glycolic acid to provide a gentle resurfacing treatment for combination or dry skin. Grapefruit and aloe work with glycolic acid to reduce the look of wrinkles and fine lines, uneven skin tone, and enlarged pores.

If you are new to exfoliating acids, this lower concentration at 5% glycolic acid is a great place to start. Please note that there is an added fragrance to this glycolic acid toner.

The Best Salicylic Acid Products: At-Home Treatments

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Face Wash


La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Face Wash is formulated with 2% salicylic acid to reduce excess sebum (oil) and blackheads and reduce breakouts. It has been shown to reduce excess oil on the skin’s surface by up to 47%.

This foaming salicylic acid cleanser works to slough away dead skin cells, dirt, makeup, oil, and other impurities without scrubbing particles that can irritate the skin.

This face wash is oil-free, fragrance-free, paraben-free. While it’s perfect for oily and acne-prone skin, it is even suitable for sensitive skin.

Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant


Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is Paula’s Choice’s best-selling product. It contains 2% salicylic acid to unclog pores, even out skin tone, and improve the look of wrinkles, dullness, blemishes, and blackheads.

This liquid salicylic acid exfoliant also contains Camellia oleifera leaf extract from the green tea plant with antioxidant properties and anti-inflammatory benefits for redness and inflamed skin.

It absorbs quickly and can be used daily by all skin types. It really helps to reduce the look of pores, especially on the nose and t-zone.

Mario Badescu Drying Lotion


Mario Badescu Drying Lotion is the ideal spot treatment for problem skin. This best-selling cult-favorite spot solution contains salicylic acid, sulfur, calamine, and zinc oxide to dry up pimples overnight. It draws out impurities while you sleep and works, literally overnight.

This drying lotion salicylic acid treatment can also target surface blemishes on the chest, neck, and back.

Can You Use Glycolic Acid And Salicylic Acid Together?

When you consider combining two separate glycolic acid and salicylic acid products, please take caution because depending on the concentration of both actives in their individual formulas, you may experience redness, irritation, burning, or have a skin reaction.

If you want to use both glycolic acid and salicylic acid, your best bet is to use a single product that incorporates both actives. These products should be formulated so that the concentrations are designed for maximum effectiveness with minimal irritation.

2-in-1 Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid Products

CeraVe Acne Control Gel


CeraVe Acne Control Gel contains 2% salicylic acid plus glycolic acid, lactic acid in this multi-acid cocktail to treat acne. It gently exfoliates to clear acne, reduce to appearance of pores and prevent new breakouts. It uses CeraVe’s MVE Technology to continually release hydrating actives for long-lasting hydration.

The acne treatment gel also contains niacinamide (vitamin B3) to soothe the skin and strengthen the skin barrier. Sodium hyaluronate, the salt form of hyaluronic acid, hydrates the skin. CeraVe’s proprietary blend of 3 essential ceramides (lipids) hydrates the skin and strengthens the skin barrier.

This AHA & BHA acne treatment is alcohol-free, oil-free, paraben-free, and non-comedogenic, which means it won’t clog pores.

Related Post: Best CeraVe Products for Oily, Acne-Prone Skin

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel


Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel is an at-home multi-acid peel, a classic best-seller. It’s the only peel available that combines 5 alpha and beta hydroxy acids plus retinol, ubiquinone, and resveratrol in quick and easy-to-use 2-step peel pads.

Step-1 contains the gentle exfoliating acids, and step-2 controls the AHA activity to reveal brighter, smoother, more radiant skin. The peel pads come in Gentle, Universal, and Extra Strength options.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid vs Lactic Acid

Are you wondering what the difference is between glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and lactic acid? While they are all acids that can exfoliate your skin to fight acne, brighten the complexion and reduce signs of aging, each one functions differently to help your skin.

Glycolic and lactic acid are two different types of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). Salicylic is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA).

Glycolic acid is the smallest of the AHAs, which means it penetrates further into your skin than other types. These tiny molecules can easily pass through your uppermost layer of cells to slough off dead cells from below.

Lactic acid is also an effective exfoliant that can help smooth wrinkles and fine lines and brighten the skin, and it also acts as a humectant to pull moisture into your skin. It stimulates cellular turnover and regenerates new, healthy cells.

Glycolic acid’s small molecular structure allows it to penetrate deeper than lactic acid does. Yet, glycolic acid may cause more irritation and redness than lactic acid, which can often be used in low concentrations by sensitive skin.

Glycolic acid and lactic acid are water-soluble, exfoliating the surface layers of the skin. In contrast, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and can exfoliate both the skin’s surface and inside pores, to remove acne-causing sebum, dirt, and debris.

Glycolic acid and lactic acid make your skin more sensitive to the sun’s UV rays, while salicylic acid does not.

Glycolic acid and lactic acid are better suited for dry, aging, and mature skin, while salicylic acid is best suited for oily and acne-prone skin.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid vs Hyaluronic Acid

Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and hyaluronic acid are all ingredients that have the power to renew skin cells. They’re also effective moisturizers and can increase cellular turnover.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between these three ingredients, here it is: glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), and hyaluronic acid is a hydrating substance that’s found naturally in the skin.

Glycolic acid and salicylic acid are exfoliating acids, and hyaluronic acid (HA) is not. HA is a humectant and moisturizer that binds water to the skin and temporarily plumps the skin.

Related Post: Is Hyaluronic Acid Good For Acne?

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: As a Chemical Peel

A chemical peel uses alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) or beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) to improve your skin’s texture, reduce fine lines and help fade dark spots. They’re great for treating acne, dullness, pigmentation issues, and sun damage.

As a chemical peel, which is better: glycolic acid or salicylic acid? Once again, it comes back to skin type.

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid can treat sun damage and reduce fine lines and wrinkles. But if you have aging and mature skin, you may want to choose glycolic acid because it helps stimulate collagen production and exfoliate the skin.

If your skin is combination, oily or acne-prone, salicylic acid is a great choice because it can kill acne-causing bacteria and unclog pores. Salicylic acid is the preferred chemical peel for acne-prone skin because it penetrates oil to clean pores.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, consider using lactic acid as a chemical peel, as it is more gentle and hydrating than glycolic acid or salicylic acid.

Related Post: Drmtlgy Needle-Less Serum Review

Final Thoughts on Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid are beneficial acids that can remove dead skin cells, fight the signs of aging and treat acne. Glycolic acid excels when fighting the signs of aging, and salicylic acid excels when it comes to fighting acne.

If you’re new to using AHAs and BHAs in your skincare routine, consider starting slow and incorporate the ingredient into your regimen gradually so that you can give yourself time to adjust if you experience irritation or redness.


If you are interested in both glycolic acid and salicylic acid and want to give them both a try, consider these smaller versions of Paula’s Choice best-selling products: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 8% AHA Gel Exfoliant & 2% BHA Liquid Travel Duo. This gives you a chance to try these best-selling products without having to pay full price.

Most importantly, whether you use glycolic acid or salicylic acid, or both, be sure to wear a broad-spectrum SPF 30 or higher sunscreen every day to protect your skin from the sun!

Thanks for reading, and until next time…here’s to your good skin health!