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Salicylic Acid & Glycolic Acid

By Kristeen Cherney ; Updated August 14, 2017

Acne is a condition in which pores get clogged from a combination of dead skin cells, dirt, oil and trapped hair follicles. Using makeup can worsen acne, depending on the types of products you use. Glycolic acid is contained in some cosmetics that are labeled “non-comedogenic," meaning that they do not clog your pores. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, is used in acne-fighting products.


Salicylic acid is a type of acne-fighting ingredient found in a number of over-the-counter products such as cleansers, toners and even moisturizers. According to the Mayo Clinic, alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic acids made from sugary fruits. A common alpha hydroxyl acid is glycolic acid, and is contained in acne products as well as cosmetics and chemical peels.


The Mayo Clinic explains that salicylic acid works by reducing the amount of dead skin cells that trap inside the pores. This prevents the formation of acne pimples and helps remove blackheads and whiteheads. Glycolic acid also removes dead skin cells and and reduces inflammation related to acne. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid are also used to improve skin texture and to smooth wrinkles.


Over-the-counter products with salicylic acid and glycolic acid are recommended for daily use, usually up to three times a day as needed. Irritation is likely to ensue at first, so you might consider using the product once a day and then increase the dosage as your skin gets used to it. Too much product will likely dry out your skin, increasing oil production from your pores. As a result, more acne is created. Also consider reducing usage if your cosmetics contain glycolic acid.


Salicylic acid can sting your skin and cause redness when you first start using it. If irritation persists, try using a product that contains a reduced amount of salicylic acid. According to the Mayo Clinic, salicylic acid is available in a range of 0.5 and 2 percent in over-the-counter products. Discontinue use if the irritation continues. The FDA reports that some side effects can occur when using alpha hydroxyl acids, including irritation, rash, blisters, itching, swelling, color changes, burning and peeling. Stop using glycolic acid if these symptoms occur.


Alpha hydroxyl acids make your skin more vulnerable to ultra violet light, causing it to sunburn easily. For this reason, the FDA recommends that you avoid sun light while using glycolic acid and to wear sunscreen daily to protect yourself. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you start with benzoyl peroxide before other ingredients, as it is associated with the least amount of side effects. If your skin tolerates it well, use an additional ingredient for stubborn acne. For example, the Mayo Clinic suggests that you use one ingredient at night and the other in the morning to reduce side effects. See a dermatologist if acne persists.

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