For many, having clear, vibrant skin is a dream. Whether it is dark spots or hyperpigmentation, getting the right product can be a daunting task, which is why glycolic vs salicylic acids have become highly competitive in the beauty industry.

Glycolic acid can help remove the top layers of dead skin cells, helping to reverse sun damage to the skin. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, can help the skin shed dead cells from the top layer. This further helps to decrease redness and inflammation. Depending on your skin necessities, lets determine which of these acids is the right fit for you.

Meet the Expert: Dr. Diana Rangaves writes for 21Ninety’s as a health and wellness expert. She is a pharmacist, philanthropist, and ethics professor turned writer, holding a Doctorate in Pharmacy from the University of California. She also serves as the Executive Editor and Chief Content Officer for Healthcare Worldwide Central and has published several works in medical and pharmaceutical publications, academic books, as well as, scholarly articles.

What is Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) commonly derived from sugarcane. It can help individuals with frequent breakouts or other skin issues. It’s important, however, not to just use glycolic acid; you must discern how much to use in the off chance that it’s irritating for your skin.

Applying glycolic acid to your skin will work by breaking down the bonds between the outer layers of the skin cells. This includes the dead skin cells and the next skin cell layer. You will feel a peeling effect that can make your skin appear smoother.

Glycolic acid is available in several forms, either from the over-the-counter or as a prescription treatment. Glycolic acid is available in the following forms:

  • Face washes
  • Lotions
  • Peels
  • Serums
  • Skincare pads

What is Salicylic Acid?

Unlike glycolic acid, salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). It’s commonly appreciated for reducing acne by exfoliating the skin and keeping pores clear, removing dead skin cells from the outer layer of the skin. Salicylic acid works best for mild acne, such as blackheads and whiteheads, and can also help prevent future breakouts.

So, how does salicylic acid work? Blackheads, whiteheads, and sometimes pimples show up when dead skin cells and oil get stuck in your hair follicles. By applying salicylic acid, it penetrates your skin and works to get rid of the dead skin cells that are blocking your pores. It’s important to note that it can take several weeks for the acid’s full effect.

You should check with your dermatologist if you are not seeing any changes after 6 weeks. Before taking salicylic acid, always consult with your healthcare provider or dermatologist. They will recommend a form and dosage, particularly for your skin type and your skin’s current condition.

Glycolic vs. Salicylic Acid on Melanated Skin

Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid are common ingredients in skincare products; however, they work differently and may have different effects on melanated skin, or skin with higher levels of melanin pigment.

Glycolic acid can help with issues such as uneven skin tone, hyperpigmentation and fine lines by encouraging cellular turnover. However, this skincare ingredient can sometimes be harsh on your skin. If the concentration is high, it might cause irritation or increased sensitivity.

Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties. This can help calm redness and irritation associated with acne. Unlike glycolic acid, salicylic acid is milder and has little chance of causing irritation. This makes it a potentially better option, especially if you have melanated skin.

Importantly, when it comes to melanated skin, you must approach skincare cautiously because certain ingredients and treatments can potentially increase pigmentation issues or cause irritation. Consulting with a dermatologist or skincare professional with experience working with melanated skin can provide personalized recommendations and guidance tailored to your specific needs and concerns.

Glycolic Acid vs. Salicylic Acid: Side Effects

While both glycolic and salicylic acids are considered to be generally safe, they may cause skin irritation when used for the first time. Glycolic acid may cause the following side effects:

  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Burning sensations

If you have a dry or sensitive skin type, you may find glycolic acid to be too irritating for your skin. Also, if you are sensitive to sun, using a sunscreen can reduce the risks associated with sun exposure.

Salicylic acid may have the following side effects:

  • Skin stinging
  • Itching
  • Peeling skin
  • Hives

Even though both glycolic and salicylic acids are available over the counter you should check with your healthcare provider before using them. If you have allergic reactions, let your healthcare provider know. This can help prevent allergic side effects when using salicylic or glycolic acid. These products should not be used for children as they expose children to more risks of skin irritation.

Which Should You Choose?

Choosing either glycolic acid or salicylic acid will depend on your skin type and other factors, such as allergic reactions. Your healthcare provider can recommend either for your benefit. To ensure you are on the safe side, consult your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will be able to understand your medical history and determine how many times you use either glycolic acid or salicylic acid on your skin to address either acne or other skin problems like pimples.