Glycolic Vs. Salicylic Acid - Which Peel is Better for Acne?

I have light to moderate acne, and a friend suggested that I start getting monthly chemical peels.  I've read up on glycolic acid peel and salicylic acid peel but they seems so similar I don't know which one would be a better acne treatment.  Please tell me which one works best.

Doctor Answers 22

Salicylic acid slightly superior

You are asking whether the alpha-hydroxy acid, Glycolic acid, or the beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is superior. In this case I am going to have to go with the Beta dog, sal acid.
A study published in Dermatologic Surgery last year compared the two types of peels and gave the nod to the salicylic acid peel. This study, performed by dermatologists at the St. Louis University confirmed the impression that most dermatologists have had for years: that the Beta peel is preferred for acne and the glycolic peel for skin lightening and rejuvenation.
The results of the Beta hydroxy acid peel (BHA) lasted a bit longer and had fewer side effects such as irritation. Both peels were effective in reducing acne lesions, however.
This was the only study I am aware of that compared these two peels.
Usually the beneficial effect of the peels occurred in about two weeks.

Virginia Beach Dermatologist
4.5 out of 5 stars 10 reviews

Salicylic acid peels typically better for acne

Typically, Salicylic acid peels are better for acne, but glycolic peels in higher concentration can be also very effective. Sometimes, alternating them is a good idea to see how your skin will respond to each of them. Remember that a series of peels will be necessary and maintenance peels to keep your acne under control. Usually not one peel or treatment works for acne, so multiple different treatments, sometimes combined with prescription medication will help.

Salicylic acid or glycolic acid for acne

Both of these acids are used for minor "peels" and often used as "adjuvants" for treating acne. However, not convinced that either alone are any more beneficial than the other. To be most effective , either glycolic or salicylic need to be combined with an appropriate acne regimen that consists of prescription creams and oral antibiotics for more severe cases.

Steven Hacker, MD
West Palm Beach Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 4 reviews

Acne and Salicylic Acid Peels

Salicylic acid peels penetrate deeper into the oil gland than the glycolic acid peels do, and cause less inflammation on your face---so go with the Salicylic acid.  It comes in a number of different strengths, and can be customized just for you.  You might also speak with your dermatologist about using some prescription topical medications at home every day to maximize your best skin.

Tobi B. Richman-Steinhardt, MD
Boca Raton Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 1 review

Sal Acid Peel

For Acne, a Salicylic Acid peel will help decrease oil and help cause P. Acne bacteria death, thus decreasing acne. This is often the best treatment for active acne however Glycolic acid is a good treatment for anyone who also suffers with acne scars. Sal Acid helps better penetration of follicules and pores which also cna make medication absorb better into the skin. 

Eric Schweiger, MD
New York Dermatologic Surgeon
3.5 out of 5 stars 11 reviews

Both Superficial Peels

Both of these are superficial peels. Glycolic acid is the stronger of the two, so generally, I have more success with it. Both can help with papules and pustules of acne.

Salicylic acid is really mild….really, really mild. While there can be some mild improvement in acne and skin texture, the penetration of salicylic acid makes the impact very low. It also makes the downtime very low, usually just an hour of redness. If you can tolerate a few hours of redness, I’d recommend beginning with glycolic acid. It’s still a superficial peel, but has shown much better activity against both the bacteria that causes acne as well as black/whiteheads (called comedones). You’ll need fewer treatments and get better results.

Bobby Buka, MD
New York Dermatologist
5.0 out of 5 stars 7 reviews

Salicylic acid better for lighter skin types, Glycolic better for darker skin types

Generally, I prefer salicylic acid peels for patients with lighter skin types.  For patients with darker skin types, who have acne, they usually also want to lighten dark spots left behind from acne spots.  Glycolic acid peels are best for patients with darker skin tones, since they even out pigmentation and treat acne.

Samantha Toerge, MD
Fairfax Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 7 reviews

Salicylic acid or glycolic peels better for treating acne

In general, salicylic acid peels are a bit better for treating acne for a few reasons.  Firstly, alicylic acid penetrates oil better and, thus, gets deeper into the hair follicle to break up the plug.  Also, salicylic acid peels are a little easier to tolerate.

However, if salicylic acid is not an option, glycolic peels can give great results, too.

Lawrence A. Osman, MD
Los Angeles Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 4 reviews

Salicylic acid is better

In most cases salicylic acid is better for several reasons-
1. It is anti-inflammatory- a good thing if you have acne
2. You can choose a concentration that is not dependent on your previous treatment. For glycolic acid peels, specialists typically start at 20% and increase. We can start sal. acid peels at different concentrations 
3. Sal acid peels are self neutralizing, hence safer than glycolic acid. 
4. You actually get peeling with a good strength sal acid peel. 

We typically use sal acid 18-23%, and get great results- especially for blackheads. 


Dr Davin Lim 
Cosmetic and Laser Dermatologist 
Brisbane and Gold Coast

Davin Lim, MBBS, FACD
Brisbane Dermatologist
5.0 out of 5 stars 8 reviews

Chemical peels

Both salicylic and glycolic peels are very effective for treating acne and acne scars. Generally we prefer to start with salicylic peels which come in varying concentrations, especially if you are new to the world of chemical peels. Glycolic peels tend to be a little stronger and are used after a series of salicylic peels has been completed

Joshua L. Fox, MD
Long Island Dermatologic Surgeon
5.0 out of 5 stars 14 reviews

These answers are for educational purposes and should not be relied upon as a substitute for medical advice you may receive from your physician. If you have a medical emergency, please call 911. These answers do not constitute or initiate a patient/doctor relationship.