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Glycolic acid and salicylic acid are two popular skin care ingredients. They’re available in many over-the-counter (OTC) products, including facial cleansers, serums, and toners.

Both ingredients can exfoliate your skin and fight acne, but they’re different from each other and have unique properties and benefits.

This article will help you figure out whether glycolic acid or salicylic acid is better suited to your skin issue or skin type. It’ll also look at the benefits and drawbacks of each ingredient, along with product recommendations.

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). It’s found naturally in sugarcane, but it can also be made in a lab. Glycolic acid is a small molecule, so it can easily pass through your skin barrier.

When applied topically, glycolic acid exfoliates your skin while retaining moisture. It works by sloughing dead skin cells from the top layer of your skin. This helps promotes the growth of new skin.

Additionally, glycolic acid decreases inflammation and protects against ultraviolet B radiation. It also works against bacteria that cause acne breakouts.

Glycolic acid is mainly used to even out skin tone and to reduce the signs of skin aging. It can also help:

  • reduce hyperpigmentation or darkened skin spots, including sun damage and acne marks
  • brighten your complexion
  • decrease the appearance of pores
  • reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • enhance skin firmness
  • manage acne breakouts
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Due to these benefits, glycolic acid is often recommended for the following skin types:

  • skin that’s prone to hyperpigmentation
  • skin with signs of aging
  • acne-prone skin

Although glycolic acid is generally considered safe, it can cause irritation in some people. This is more likely to happen if a product has a high concentration of glycolic acid, about 10 percent or more.

Glycolic acid can also increase sun sensitivity. It’s important to wear sunscreen while using glycolic acid to avoid sun damage.

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). It’s naturally found in willow bark and wintergreen leaves. It can also be artificially synthesized in a lab.

Like glycolic acid, salicylic acid has an exfoliating effect on the skin. It can also remove excess sebum (oil) and reduce sebum production, making it an excellent ingredient for unclogging pores. Plus, salicylic acid has mild anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties.

Salicylic acid is mainly used to prevent and treat acne. It can also help:

  • control oily skin
  • reduce the appearance of blackheads
  • reduce hyperpigmentation

This ingredient is best for the following skin types:

You can find salicylic acid in many OTC products, but it’s not for everyone. It can cause dryness or irritation.

In rare cases, salicylic acid can trigger a severe allergic reaction

If you have acne, both ingredients can have a beneficial effect on your skin. But in general, salicylic acid is the better choice.

Unlike glycolic acid, salicylic acid decreases sebum in the skin. This is important because sebum can clog pores, which increases your risk of an acne breakout. Excess sebum also promotes the growth of bacteria that can cause acne.

The exfoliating, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial effects of salicylic acid are also beneficial for acne-prone skin.

If you’d like to try a product that contains salicylic acid, you may want to consider the following, which can all be found online:

Chemical peels are cosmetic treatments that can help remove dead skin cells, boost your skin’s appearance, and even out skin tone. If this is your main goal, choose a product with glycolic acid.

The small molecular size of glycolic acid makes it highly effective at entering and exfoliating the skin. It also helps your skin retain moisture.

Salicylic acid, on the other hand, can have a drying effect. Plus, if you don’t have oily skin, you might accidentally remove too much sebum by using salicylic acid.

If you’d like to try a chemical peel product that contains glycolic acid, you may want to consider the following, which can all be found online:

As with any skin care ingredient, the acid that’s best for you depends on various factors.

Glycolic acid may be a better fit if you:

  • are mainly concerned with hyperpigmentation or uneven skin tone
  • want to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles
  • don’t have oily skin
  • have little to no acne breakouts

On the other hand, salicylic acid is probably a better option if you:

  • have active acne breakouts
  • have acne-prone or oily skin
  • have clogged pores

You can also find products with both glycolic acid and salicylic acid. This combo is ideal if you have both hyperpigmentation and acne.

Glycolic acid and salicylic acid are two popular skin care ingredients. Glycolic acid is an effective exfoliant, meaning it can remove dead skin cells. It’s well suited to reducing hyperpigmentation, fine lines, and uneven skin tone.

If you have acne-prone skin, salicylic acid is usually a better option. It can get rid of excess sebum and prevent or treat acne.

When using any skin care product, always follow the instructions on the packaging. Using too much may cause irritation.

If you’re still unsure about whether glycolic acid or salicylic acid is right for your skin, talk with a skin care expert or dermatologist.