Glycolic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid – What They Are and What Are the Differences

by Natalia Munoz on March 18, 2022


There’s a lot of talk about exfoliating acids lately. You can find them in lotions for dry and dull skin, rejuvenating serums, acne treatments, products meant to fade dark spots or increase the glow. They get recommended to us by dermatologists, influencers, celebrities…

Sooner or later you kind of want to see for yourself what they all are talking about. But which one to try? How do they work and which acid would work better for a specific skin problem you are trying to treat?

Though there are many different acids on the skincare market right now, glycolic and salicylic acids are still amongst the most popular ones. They both have many benefits for skin and they can both make a noticeable improvement in the skin’s texture and appearance. But they are not suitable for every skin type.

So, let’s see what these two acids can and cannot do for skin and whom they would work best for…



Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is an AHA (alpha-hydroxy acid). When applied to the skin, this acid dissolves dead skin cells and accumulated impurities. That way, it efficiently removes the dull, dry layer of the skin and reveals the soft, smooth, glowing skin underneath.

Glycolic acid evens out and brightens the complexion and helps reduce skin imperfections such as dark spots and fine lines. It also stimulates the skin to produce new, healthy skin cells faster and that way renews itself.

Because of all of this, glycolic acid is often used to treat first aging signs, soften dry skin, prevent blemishes, reduce sun damage, enhance the treatment of dehydrated skin and add a healthy, youthful glow.

However, glycolic acid is water-soluble. Because of that, it can only exfoliate the very surface of the skin. But it cannot mix with sebum or sink into the pores to unclog them.



Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a BHA (beta-hydroxy acid). It is often recommended for acne, blackheads, clogged pores, and oily skin. That is because, unlike AHAs, salicylic acid is oil-soluble.

What this practically means is that salicylic acid can penetrate deep into the pores, fight against bacteria and dissolve the keratin plugs that usually clog the pores. Salicylic acid is also anti-inflammatory, which helps to soothe redness and inflammation and make the acne go away even faster.

However, and especially if overused, salicylic acid can potentially irritate and dry out the skin. That is why people with dry or sensitive skin should avoid it, or use it in lower concentrations and not every day.


So, as you can see, it's not a matter of competition between glycolic and salicylic acid. It’s not about which one is better, but which one would be better for your skin type. 

Whichever you try, just make sure to go easy with it, especially at the beginning. Give your skin some time to get used to smaller percentages before introducing full-strength exfoliating formulas. Short-term, your skin will get less irritated, and you will still get great long-term results.