Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: Know the Difference

The two most common hydroxy acids are glycolic and salicylic. What do we know about them? I bet the first thing that comes to your mind is that they can remove dead cells. What else? Well, they both help with breakouts and boost collagen production. However, they are not identically the same and have specific differences. In this article, we discuss glycolic acid vs salicylic acid and how to distinguish them.

Salicylic Acid: Benefits, Uses, Side Effects

Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) naturally found in several plants like meadowsweet and white willow. For commercial uses, it can also be synthetically produced.

Salicylic acid consists of big molecules that mostly act on top of the skin and can penetrate inside the pores. This ingredient exfoliates, increases collagen production, reduces oiliness, controls breakouts, prevents inflammation, speeds up the process of regeneration, treats warts, manages psoriasis, and unclogs pores.

The over-the-counter (OTC) salicylic acid is available in strengths of up to 5%. You can use it in the form of cleansers, gels, serums, lotions, and skin patches. Start with a rinse-off product to check how your skin reacts. If there is no irritation, keep using the product or try the leave-on formula. Use any product as directed on the label or as your dermatologist prescribes.

Higher concentrations of salicylic acid (10 to 50%) are used in the form of prescribed treatment or chemical peels. It is beneficial for exfoliation and is mainly suitable for oily and acneic skin. Having just one session at a dermatologist’s office will give your skin a healthy glow and leave it feeling soft. To treat acne, psoriasis, or uneven skin tone, you’ll need a course of peels done.

Common side effects of using OTC salicylic acid include local irritation, dryness, itching, burning at the application site, and rare allergic reactions. Besides that, you have to expect unpleasant reactions after a deep salicylic acid peel, such as flaking, crusting, and stinging. It is a normal rejuvenation process, where your skin heals within one to two weeks.

Glycolic Acid: Benefits, Uses, Side Effects

Glycolic acid is a water-soluble alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) obtained from sugarcane, beets, canteloupe, pineapple, and unripe grapes. For skin care products, manufacturers can use both natural and synthetically-obtained acids.

Glycolic acid is the most absorbable AHA. It consists of tiny molecules that can penetrate the skin and work in the deeper dermis. This ingredient enhances collagen production, speeds up cell turnover (preventing ingrown hairs), hydrates, minimizes pore size, refines texture, fades hyperpigmentation, boosts radiance, and brightens the skin.

The OTC glycolic acid comes in strengths of up to 10%. It can be used regularly, but you must adapt it to your skin first. Start with three times a week for a week. Then use it every other day for the next week. If you don’t experience any irritation, switch to daily use.

Those who expect fast and superior effects may try chemical peeling with glycolic acid. It comes in 20%–70% concentrations and can only be performed in a professional setting. You should start with light-duty peels of up to 30% at the salon or skin spa and then make an appointment at the dermatology office to get stronger formulas of up to 70%.

Common side effects of glycolic acid include irritation, dryness, itching, rash, and redness. Besides, this ingredient can make you sensetive to the sun. So, you should always apply broad-spectrum sunscreen and wear a nice hat before going outdoors.

Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid

  Glycolic Acid Salicylic Acid
Solubility Water-soluble Oil-soluble
Molecular Size Small Big
Area of Action Deep layers of the skin Top layer of the skin
Decreases Sebum No Yes
Reduces Inflammation No Yes
Antimicrobial Effects No Yes
Brightens the Skin Yes No
Smooths Fine Lines Yes Yes (but less effective)

Take-Home Points

Glycolic acid suits all skin types. Compared to salicylic acid, it helps your skin retain moisture and is less likely causes dryness. The best candidates for using the products with this ingredient are people with hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and dull, tired-looking skin. Most often, these are people 25+.

Those with oily skin should use salicylic acid because it actively reduces sebum production. Unlike glycolic acid, this ingredient is known for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Thus, people with a shiny face look and frequent breakouts will love it. Usually, using salicylic acid starts in the teenage years to combat annoying acne and clear out clogged pores.

Glycolic Acid is Best For Dark Spots and Fine Lines

Although both of these hydroxy acids can treat hyperpigmentation and reduces the appearance of wrinkles, glycolic acid is considered to be more effective. It consists of small molecules which can easily penetrate deeper layers of the skin, promoting collagen production.

Salicylic Acid is Best For Acne Treatment

Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient that provides comedolytic and keratolytic effects. When applied to the skin, it dissolves the debris, unclogs the pores, and reduces sebum production. Besides, it inhibits bacterial growth due to antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Thus, salicylic acid is mainly used to treat acne, reduce the appearance of blackheads, and control shiness.

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