Glycolic Acid vs Salicylic Acid: Which Is Better For Your Skin?

Glycolic Acid or Salicylic Acid

Any time people start discussing the best ways to exfoliate their skin, it’s not long before the ingredients glycolic acid (AHA) and salicylic acid (BHA) are brought up.

(Just to clarify, glycolic acid is an AHA, or alphahydroxy acid while salicylic acid is a BHA, or betahydroxy acid)

By now you know both of them work exceedingly well at making skin look smoother, brighter and ultimately, younger.

But what you may not know is which of these two is better for your skin?

In a nutshell, both ingredients work as chemical exfoliators that loosen the “glue-like” substance that holds your skin cells together.  This allows dead skin cells to slough off more easily (which is the point of exfoliating).

How they work varies a bit… and that’s why the decision to use glycolic acid versus salicylic acid really depends on what type of skin you have.

If you have sun-damaged or dry skin, then glycolic acid is the one you’d want to choose.

The reason?

In addition to being a great exfoliator, glycolic acid actually improves the moisture content of your skin.

Because glycolic acid is the AHA with the smallest molecules, it penetrates the skin more easily than other AHA’s like lactic acid, citric acid or malic acid.

That means it’ll be more effective at the things you need it to do like exfoliate, improve wrinkling  and stimulate the production of collagen and elastin.

The fact that glycolic acid improves moisture content is one of the main reasons why it’s preferred for people with dry skin.

On the other end of the spectrum, salicylic acid (BHA) is better for those with oily, acne-prone skin or those with sensitive skin.

The reason is salicylic acid gets through oil that clogs pores.  So it helps “normalize” the lining of misshapen pores that tend to cause acne.  In layman’s terms, it penetrates individual pores.

Another plus, this ingredient has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial action– both of which are great for oily skin.

All-in-all, salicylic acid is a great exfoliator that can improve skin thickness, improve barrier function and stimulate collagen production.

Whichever ingredient you choose to use in your daily or weekly exfoliation routine, keep in mind both of these must be absorbed into the skin to work.

So using a cleanser with these ingredients is a waste of money (because you wash it off before it’s had time to work).

You’ll notice that the directions on most AHA and BHA creams say to leave them on for at least a few minutes.  And many will instruct you to leave them on all day or night.

We think that’s a much more sensible approach than just washing them off as soon as you put them on.

Ultimately the decision to use one of these products is up to you but should be based on what type of skin you have.

Although AHA’s like glycolic acid are far more well-known and widely used, BHA’s like salicylic acid also have their uses…

Bottom line:   If you’re skin is normal or dry, opt for glycolic acid (AHA).  If you’re skin is oily or acne-prone, opt for salicylic acid (BHA).

To see reviews of exfoliators that contain glycolic acid or salicylic acid, take a look at our ranking of the best exfoliators.

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