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 29

Salicylic acid slightly superior

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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

Salicylic acid peels typically better for acne

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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

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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

Better acne peels

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Thank you for your question. For the most part, people respond differently to different peels. In my opinion, both are very good for acne. I've had pbatients that cleared up with glycolic peels and topical Duac after several chemical peel treatments. Salicylic acid is very popular as well. My recommendation is to alternate between the two and see which one works better for you.

Ben Behnam, MD
Santa Monica Dermatologic Surgeon

Both Superficial Peels

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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

Glycolic Vs. Salicylic Acid

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Generally, each patient responds differently to these treatments, but both of these peels are effective and produce good results on acne prone skin. In most cases however Salicylic Acid is better for several reasons:

- It penetrates into the pores and dissolves oils better than glycolic acid.
- It is anti-inflammatory.
- It comes in variable concentrations.

Peels by themselves, however, may not be enough to treat your acne. Please talk to a qualified dermatologist about your options.

Anil Sharma, MD
Edmonton Otolaryngologist

Best Peels for Acne

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For acneic skin types, we prefer blended acid peels because they can address a variety of issues that come with acne, including inflammation and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.  One of our most successful peels for all skin types, the ZO Medical 3 Step Peel contains a blend of salicylic acid, TCA, and lactic acid does wonderfully on acneic skin because it addresses multiple issues, and can be repeated every 3-4 weeks.  We have had outstanding results in our office when peels are combined with a personalized at home skin care regimen. 

Chemical Peels for Acne Skin

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Both chemical peels are effective and produce amazing results on acne skin. My personal preference is salicylic acid because it penetrates into the hair follicles better than glycolic acid. 

David J. Sire, MD
Fullerton Dermatologic Surgeon

Chemical peels--which one is best?

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Chemical peels are great for treating acne and fading acne marks and scars.  There are lots of peels, I am not sure one is necessarily superior to the other.  They come from different companies in different strengths.  We use TCA or trichloroacetic acid peels in various strengths and get amazing results.  We also use glycolic acid peels in certain cases.  It really depends on what your doctor uses and what they are comfortable with.  If you find a great board certified dermatologist they should be able to guide you as to what type of acne regimen will work for you and what type of chemical peel. 

Rebecca Baxt, MD
Paramus Dermatologic Surgeon
4.8 out of 5 stars 29 reviews

Salicylic acid is better

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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

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.