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Glycolic Acid Vs Salicylic Acid for Acne – Which one is Better?

Are you trying to decide between glycolic acid vs salicylic acid for treating acne? Both are popular ingredients in skincare products as they help to exfoliate the skin and leave it looking clearer and brighter.

There are some key differences however between these two acids, and the one which is right for you will depend on your skin type. In this post I look in detail at the benefits of glycolic acid and salicylic acid to find out which one would be better for acne prone skin.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid for Acne

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid for Acne


Glycolic acid is a AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) whereas Salicylic acid is a BHA (beta hydroxy acid).

AHAs and BHAs are both chemical exfoliants for the skin but have different chemical structures, origins, and properties. AHAs are water-soluble and derived from plant sources like sugar cane or grapes, whereas BHAs are oil-soluble and usually derived from willow bark. Salicylic acid is the most well known BHA.

Since BHAs are oil soluble and have smaller molecules than AHAs, they are able to penetrate much deeper into the skin. This means that while they are more effective at clearing out blocked pores, they also have a greater ability to irritate the skin.

AHAs on the other hand are are water soluble and have larger molecules. They work well at breaking down and exfoliating the top layers of dead skin cells to expose brighter, fresher skin underneath. AHAs can’t penetrate past the skin’s outer layer and won’t unclog blockages in the same way that BHAs will.

Glycolic Acid Benefits

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid which is derived from sugar cane. It is the smallest AHA molecule and works well at exfoliating dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. It promotes cell turnover and leaves you with bright, healthy new skin which is clear and smooth.

Glycolic acid is a popular ingredient in anti ageing skincare products since it’s good at reducing fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps to decrease inflammation, reduce the bacteria that causes acne breakouts, and make the skin tone more even.

This acid is good for reducing hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and dark spots from the sun. It can also help to minimise acne scars and prevent new blemishes or blackheads from forming.

Salicylic Acid Benefits

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid which comes from willow bark. It has anti-inflammatory properties which can help to reduce the redness and swelling associated with acne breakouts.

Salicylic acid helps to remove dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, as well as exfoliate the skin at deeper level. For this reason it is more effective than glycolic acid at removing impurities from the skin.

Salicylic acid is suitable for people with oily or acne prone skin because it can break down sebum and unclog pores. It also helps to prevent further breakouts from occurring, as it has both anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid are effective for treating acne, largely because they help to exfoliate the skin and remove the blockages that lead to acne in the first place.

Glycolic is a milder acid that leaves the skin brighter and smoother, while salicylic acid can penetrate deeper into pores to clear away blackheads and acne causing bacteria.

When choosing between glycolic or salicylic acid you should consider your skin type.

Glycolic acid is better suited to dry acne prone skin, or for skin that has fine lines or wrinkles. This is because glycolic acid draws moisture and hydration to the skin and helps to prevent new lines from developing. It also increases the absorption of your other skin care products. Since glycolic acid only works on the surface layer of the skin it may also be better suited to sensitive skin types.

If you have raised acne scars or dark marks, glycolic acid is the best choice for smoothing the surface of the skin and leaving a more even skin tone.

Salicylic acid is best for oily acne prone skin. Since this acid is oil soluble it penetrates deep into the pores to clean out dead skin cells, excess oils and the bacteria that causes acne breakouts. Salicylic is also better at reducing inflammation, which can help to reduce the redness and swelling associated with acne.

If you have active acne lesions, salicylic acid can help to clear these quicker than glycolic since it is able to unblock the pores at a deeper level. If you have a mixture of both active blemishes and old scars you may benefit from incorporating both glycolic and salicylic acid into your skin care routine and using them at different times.

Using Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid Together

Some people choose to use both glycolic and salicylic acid in their skincare routine. For example, you could use a leave on glycolic exfoliant every other night while using a salicylic cleanser or gel wash daily. You can also combine your moisturizer with one of the acids in a serum underneath.

Since both acids are effective at removing dead skin cells, using them both too often may over strip the skin leaving it feeling dry, tight or irritated. To avoid this, you may wish to start with using glycolic acid once a week and then gradually add in a salicylic wash or mask.

Combining both these acids in your skincare routine can be an effective way to achieve clearer skin but you should be careful not to use either too frequently to avoid irritation.

It’s also important to note that both these acids will make your skin more sensitive to the sun. For this reason it’s essential to wear a good broadspectrum SPF every day with at least a protection factor of 30 or higher.

Recommended Products

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution is made up of 30% alpha hydroxy acids including glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid and citric acid, and 2% salicylic acid. The formula also includes hyaluronic acid, vitamin B5, black carrot and Tasmanian pepperberry to deeply hydrate the skin.

This is a fantastic all in one solution to exfoliate the skin and clear pore congestion. It is more gentle than most chemical peels and improves the appearance of skin tone and texture. The Tasmanian Pepperberry in the formula works to reduce any irritation that could be caused by acid use.

This is a good choice if you have dark spots from either acne or sun damage as it smooths the skin surface and fades hyperpigmentation. The high concentration of AHAs helps to leave the top layer of skin looking clearer and healthier.

Related: The Ordinary for Acne Scars: 9 Best Products and How to Use Them

CeraVe SA Renewal Salicylic Acid Cleanser

CeraVe SA Cleanser

The CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser is perfect for oily skin. It deeply exfoliates and removes excess sebum, oil and dirt whilst smoothing and softening the skin. Like all CeraVe products it’s extremely gentle compared with most other chemical exfoliators. It gently removes dead cells whilst improving cell turnover.

This is a great body wash if you have acne on your back or chest. It contains salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide and vitamin D to both deeply cleanse and nourish the skin. All of CeraVe’s products help to protect the skin barrier and prevent the skin become dry or irritated.

Related: 5 Best Cerave Products for Acne that will Clear Your Skin!

Alpha-H Liquid Gold

Alpha-H Liquid Gold

Alpha H Liquid Gold was the first glycolic acid toner I ever tried after it was recommended by Ruth Crilly of A Model Recommends. Although it’s described as a serum, I’ve always used it as a toner by applying it with a cotton pad. It’s a clear liquid that you apply to your skin and leave overnight. You can apply a moisturiser over the top but the results are better when you use the toner alone.

This product dramatically revitalises dull skin and reduces lines, blackheads, blemishes or acne scars. You can use this product every other night but I find once a week is perfect for me. It’s much more gentle than the glycolic acid peels you can use at home, and, if used properly, won’t cause redness or irritation.

The INKEY List 2% Salicylic Acid Cleanser

The INKEY List 2% Salicylic Acid Cleanser

The INKEY List 2% Salicylic Acid Cleanser is one of the best face washes I’ve found that removes excess oil without causing dry skin. It contains both salicylic acid and zinc which together help to control oil production, and reduce blackheads and breakouts.

If you have acne-prone skin this face wash helps to control sebum production and leave you with a brighter complexion and healthier skin. It can be used both in the morning and evening on the face, chest and back.

Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Extreme Night Pads

Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Extreme Night Pads

The Nip+Fab Glycolic Fix Extreme Night Pads are extremely effective, but also extremely strong so be careful of this product if you have sensitive skin. The pads which contain both alpha-hydroxy acid and beta hydroxy acid work wonders at fading discolouration, acne scarring and pigmentation while you sleep.

The formula includes glycolic acid, salicylic acid, mandelic acid and lactic acid. These active ingredients leave you with improved skin texture and smoother skin. They are a great choice for clearing acne and scarring but can cause skin irritation if used too frequently.

Murad Resurgence Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel

Murad Resurgence Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel

The Murad Resurgence Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel contains a blend of glycolic, salicylic, lactic, tranexamic, and malic acid. It effectively removes any dead skin cells and improves the texture of the skin. In time the skin appears brighter and clearer.

Using this peel every other day for seven days should give you a significant improvement in your acne. The beneficial effect is more noticeable over time as the product promotes new cell renewal with consistent use. It also helps to reduce surface wrinkles and pore size.

Dermaceutic Mask 15

Dermaceutic Mask 15

The Dermaceutic Oil Reducing Mask was designed for oily and acne prone skin. It is a clay mask which contains both glycolic and salicylic acid to deeply purify the skin and reduce blemishes. The combination effectively tightens the skin pores and reduces excess sebum.

This is a better choice if you have very congested skin as the clay can help to draw out impurities and improve the appearance of pores. It works well on both oily and combination skin and helps to combat a range of skin issues including blackheads, blocked pores, acne, blemishes and oily skin.

Ingredients to Avoid When Using Glycolic and Salicylic Acid

You should avoid using Vitamin C products at the same time as any AHA or BHA. If you mix an AHA or BHA with Vitamin C it can alter its pH and reduce the effectiveness of the product. Since AHAs and BHAs make your skin more sensitive to the sun I recommend using them at night time and then using your Vitamin C products during the day.

Another ingredient that doesn’t work well with glycolic or salicylic acid is benzoyl peroxide. Although you can use it in your skincare routine, you should not use these ingredients at the same time. This is because the ingredients together can cause excessive dryness, peeling, redness and skin irritation.

This post was all about glycolic acid vs salicylic acid for acne

Thank you for reading my post about glycolic acid vs salicylic acid for acne. If you have tried any of the products in this post please leave me a comment below and let me know how you got on.