Glycolic acid vs. salicylic acid

Written by laura bramble
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Chemical peels are a great way to refine your skin, achieve an instant glow and jump start any skincare regimen. Once the sole province of dermatologists and physicians, many different products have come onto the market for home use and deciding on the right one can be confusing. Two of the most common and best-known peels involve glycolic acid and salicylic acid.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane. It is the smallest AHA molecule and works by penetrating the skin and breaking up the bonds that hold dead cells to the surface of the skin. It exfoliates and revitalises skin by allowing fresh, new skin cells to come to the surface and, over time, helps spur the growth of new skin and the formulation of collagen.


Glycolic acid peels provide a gradual effect, so for best effect they need to be used over a period of a few weeks. Most skin types are able to tolerate these peels, which are available in various concentrations and in a wide array of applications. This allows you to find the right combination that best suits your individual skin. A typical "course" would be one to two times a week for four to six weeks, with a few weeks off between courses.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that comes from the heart of the sweet bark and willow bark trees. It is used as both a peel and a topical acne treatment. It is a peeling agent and an anti-inflammatory that is able to dissolve sebum found in the pores and flush it out. It is a less gradual peel than glycolic acid, yet can be used in lower concentrations, so it may be better for skin types that are sensitive to the harshness of glycolic acid. Over time, it can also help protect skin from sun damage due to its ultraviolet ray-absorbing properties.


Peeling effects from a salicylic acid peel can last up to three days, so it is not used as often as a glycolic acid peel. Once a week is usually enough. Like glycolic acid, a period of use is followed by a break in treatment for the best effect. As salicylic acid is an ingredient found in aspirin, do not use this peel if you are allergic to aspirin.


Both glycolic acid and salicylic acid peels are not recommended for home use by people with very dry, sensitive or damaged skin. They will cause irritation and stinging when you use them, but they should not cause pain. Rinse the peel off immediately if it causes pain and do not reapply until you speak to a dermatologist.

The acids are only meant to be left on the skin for a short period of time---three to five minutes at most. Leave them on longer than that, and you risk causing skin damage. Start with the lowest concentration you can find and work your way up to a stronger one. Be sure to use a sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15, as the new skin you are revealing is very sensitive to sun damage.

With careful use, glycolic acid and salicylic acid can give you younger-looking skin, reduce acne and acne scarring, and control oil production. Use common sense, follow directions and consult a dermatologist before using them to be sure that these products are right for you, so that you can enjoy the benefits with a minimum of side effects.

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