Glycolic vs. Salicylic Acid: How to Choose

By Alison, Licensed Esthetician & Cosmetologist

You may have seen or heard of both glycolic and salicylic acid before, but what do they really do for your skin? Is there one you should use over the other based on your skin type? Can you use both? Today, I’m going to break down the difference between the two so that all of your questions are answered.

Glycolic and salicylic acid are both considered “hydroxy acids”; they lightly exfoliate and penetrate the skin. They also contain active ingredients that are vital to any skin care routine.

What is Glycolic acid?

Glycolic acid is an AHA or “alpha hydroxy acid.” These are water-soluble and naturally occur in sugar cane, beets, and pineapples. Glycolic acid exfoliates the skin by encouraging cell turnover. In addition, it can help with acne scars, hyperpigmentation, and wrinkles.

Glycolic acid can be found in concentrations from 5% to 30%. The higher the concentration, the more potent it is. Glycolic acid and all other AHAs will increase your skin’s photosensitivity, so wearing sunscreen is a must to protect against any sun damage.

Glycolic Acid is not the only AHA.  Other AHAs include: lactic acid, mandelic acid, or malic acid. These are made from milk, almonds, and apples. 

What is Salicylic acid? 

Salicylic acid is a BHA or “beta hydroxy acid.” It is naturally derived or bio-synthesized from the bark of a willow tree. Unlike AHAs, BHAs are actually oil-soluble. This allows them to penetrate deeper into your skin, specifically your pores

By targeting pores, salicylic acid and other BHAs are great for clearing up acne by decongesting the skin. In addition, they also contain an anti-inflammatory properties to help prevent future acne breakouts.

Something to note with salicylic acid: if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding, salicylic should be discontinued.   

Which should you use?

If you’re still not sure which one is best for you and your skin type, use the guide below as a starting point: 

Salicylic Acid (BHAs)

  • Oily or acne-prone skin
  • Sensitive skin or cannot handle AHAs
  • Inflammatory acne with redness

Glycolic Acid (AHAs)

  • Acne scars
  • Uneven texture and wrinkles
  • Dry skin
  • Sun damaged, hyper-pigmented skin

Hopefully now you better understand the difference between glycolic and salicylic acid. Skincare products and treatments often use a combination of hydroxy acids since no two are alike. 

If there is still some hesitation, schedule a free skincare consultation with us. We’ll sit down to figure out which acid is best for your skin type, along with products or treatments that might compliment your current regimen. Call us at (513)-791-9474 to schedule yours today!

Check out some of our other blogs on skincare acids and ingredients:

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