Chances are, you’ve heard the term exfoliant. You may even know two of the most popular chemical exfoliants — salicylic acid and glycolic acid — by name. But do you know the difference between the two? Or how (and why!) to incorporate them into your skincare routine?
There is a lot of conflicting information circulating out there (especially on social media!), so we’re clearing up the misconceptions. Whether you’re a newbie, or a seasoned skincare enthusiast, read on as we myth-bust these potent actives.
Top 3 salicylic acid myths
First off, let’s recap what salicylic acid is. Often called “the wonder acid,” this beta hydroxy acid is oil soluble — meaning it can penetrate into your sebum-filled pores to clear out dead cells and excess oil. It also sloughs off dead cells from the skin’s surface.
MYTH #1: Salicylic acid is only for blemishes
Yes, it’s true that this beta hydroxy acid is known for its incredible ability to help keep pores clear of sebum and dead skin cell buildup. It also inhibits bacterial growth — making it ideal for blemish-prone skin. But salicylic acid also exfoliates dead surface cells, combatting dullness and fine lines — which makes it ideal for an anti-ageing regimen as well. It also calms inflammation, with the same ingredient found in aspirin.
One of Dr. Sandra Lee’s (that’s Dr. Pimple Popper) favourite BHA products is her SLMD Salicylic Acid Body Wash — formulated with maximum-strength salicylic acid — ideal for exfoliating body skin daily.
MYTH #2: Salicylic acid is just like other exfoliants
Unlike water soluble alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic or lactic, salicylic acid is an oil soluble beta hydroxy acid. This means that it’s capable of dissolving in oil — pretty useful when trying to penetrate past the fine layer of lipids on the skin’s surface. Once salicylic acid reaches the pores, it can dive deeper into the gunk that’s trapped there — like excess sebum, dead skin cells, and possibly bacteria — and unclog that buildup. This means that it’s especially helpful for addressing the root cause of all blemishes.
MYTH #3: Salicylic acid is not safe for sensitive skin
Especially when used in cleansers, salicylic acid is mild and safe for all skin types and is a natural anti-inflammatory. Even Dr. Lee, who has very sensitive, dry skin, uses her best-selling SLMD Skincare Salicylic Acid Cleanser regularly. In the dry winter months, she uses it only in the evening, and just splashes water on her face in the morning — so she still gets the exfoliating benefits of BHA without irritation or dryness.
If you have sensitive skin or a chronic skin condition like atopic dermatitis (aka eczema), try patch testing the product and build up gradually as tolerated. If you experience an issue, dial it back. As always, just listen to your skin, and wear sunscreen — as salicylic acid can make you more UV sensitive.
Top 3 glycolic acid myths
The most widely used alpha hydroxy acid, glycolic acid is a very small, water soluble molecule available at varying concentrations, from over-the-counter formulations to prescription-strength peels. It is an excellent keratolytic, meaning it helps dissolve the bonds that hold dead skin cells together.
MYTH #1: Glycolic acid is too drying
While it is true that over-exfoliating can compromise the skin barrier (which leads to dehydration), glycolic acid itself isn’t drying. Because these AHA molecules are so tiny, they’re capable of penetrating down into the dermis at certain concentrations. Studies have shown that glycolic acid has the potential to stimulate the production of glycosaminoglycans — a class of natural substances that hydrate and lubricate the skin and joints (including hyaluronic acid).
If you’re experiencing dryness after using AHAs, try using your exfoliants less frequently. Be sure to always moisturise (try SLMD Facial Moisturizer and hydrating Skin Drink) and wear SPF daily, as alpha hydroxy acid products will make your skin more sun sensitive.
MYTH #2: Glycolic acid irritates sensitive skin
As Dr. Lee always says: listen to your skin. Certain chronic skin conditions, including both eczema and keratosis pilaris (aka “chicken skin”), can typically benefit from glycolic acid products that are formulated with gentle concentrations. SLMD Glycolic Acid Body Scrub is ideal for exfoliating dry, rough body skin.
For the face, start with lower concentrations, not more than once weekly. While some slight tingling is perfectly OK, lingering redness and burning are signs of overdoing it. Keep in mind that you can rinse your face shortly after applying any type of AHA, as water neutralizes the acid.
MYTH #3: Glycolic acid is just for ageing skin
It’s true: this AHA is an anti-ageing superstar: shown to minimise fine lines, reduce the appearance of pores, and promote a more even skin tone. But this multitasker also helps manage keratosis pilaris — aka “chicken skin.” Although researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes KP, those rough bumps are the result of excess keratin — the primary protein that makes up skin. The keratin builds up inside the pores and forms a hardened bump, which sometimes also traps hair, creating ingrowns. Glycolic acid breaks down the bonds holding the keratin together, which smooths skin.
Dr. Lee’s last word
I get so many questions from patients about how to use chemical exfoliants. There’s just so much conflicting information out there, especially on social media — which is why I always suggest that you start with a skincare solution that’s tailored to your particular skin concerns. I developed my SLMD Skincare line to give people access to high-quality dermatological ingredients, formulated in products that are effective for all skin types. Of course, everyone’s skin is different — so when you’re using exfoliants, don’t overdo it, and always listen to what your skin is telling you.
—Dr. Sandra Lee