salicylic acid vs mandelic acid for acne

Salicylic acid has been the only exfoliant I’ve recommended to acne-prone skin for years. There’s nothing that cleans up your pores and gets rid of those stubborn blackheads and whiteheads better (well, maybe manual exfoliation, but that’s irritating and – when done at home – may even cause scarring).

Until The Ordinary made Mandelic acid famous a few years ago. Now, when you’re shopping for an anti-acne exfoliant, you have one more option to choose from – and confuse the heck out of you.

Which is really better at treating acne, Mandelic acid or Salicylic acid? Here’s what the science says.

Mandelic Acid: Benefits & Side Effects

Made from the extract of bitter almonds, Mandelic acid is a member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) family.

Like all AHAs, Mandelic Acid exfoliates skin by dissolving the glue that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter and smoother skin underneath. Plus, AHAs are also hydrators, so they’re a great choice for dry skin.

Thanks to these exfoliating and hydrating properties, Mandelic Acid benefits skin in several ways:

  • Gives the complexion a brighter glow
  • Helps to fade away dark spots and hyperpigmentation
  • Prevents acne (if dead cells slough off your skin, they can’t fall into your pores and clog them)
  • Treats acne (by speeding up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliation process)
  • Makes skin softer and smoother
  • Reduces inflammation

Mandelic Acid is a larger molecules than other AHAs acids, like Glycolic and Lactic.

You know what this means? It has all the benefits of AHAs, but it penetrates skin more slowly. Slower penetration = less irritation BUT slower results.

On its own, it’s a great option for sensitive skin that can’t tolerate stronger acids. Everyone else, I recommend you use it together with other acids to get faster results (make sure those other acids are in the same product – it’s never a good idea to mix different exfoliating products).

P.S. AHAs are water-soluble, so they can’t penetrate your skin’s protective barrier and get into your pores to clear them up.

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Related: Everything You Ever Need To Know About Mandelic Acid In Skincare


Want an effective skincare routine that targets both acne AND premature aging? Download your FREE “Best Acne + Anti-Aging Skincare Routine” cheatsheet to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):


Salicylic Acid: Benefits And Side Effects

Derived from willow bark, Salicylic acid is the only Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) used in skincare.

Unlike AHAs, BHA is oil-soluble. This means that it exfoliates the surface of your skin AND the inside of your pores. This makes it a fantastic option to remove whiteheads, blackheads, and anything that’s stuck in your pores. Plus, being able to get into your oil glands, it also controls the production of sebum.

Here are the benefits of using Salicylic acid in your skincare routine:

If you have anything stuck in your pores, this is the acid to call.

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Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Spot-Free Skin

Salicylic Acid VS Mandelic Acid: Which One Is Better At Treating Acne?

To answer this question, you need to understand the main difference between AHAs (Mandelic acid) and BHA (Salicylic acid).

AHAs, like Mandelic acid are water-soluble. In plain English, this means it can’t penetrate the skin’s lipid barrier and clear up your pores, where all the clogs that lead to acne form.

What AHAs do is exfoliating the surface of your skin, getting rid of dead cells BEFORE they have a chance to falling into your pores and causing clogs.

BHA, a.k.a. Salicylic acid, is oil-soluble. This makes it able to penetrate your skin’s lipid barrier and get deep into your pores, removing everything that’s clogging them, including the tails of your whiteheads and blackheads.

The reason pore strips don’t work well is because they only remove the black or white heads of your blackheads and whiteheads, the part you can see with the naked eye. Their bodies are stuck in the pores and only Salicylic acid can get in there and remove them completely.

Both Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid can treat acne. But Salicylic acid is more effective at getting rid of non-inflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads) while Mandelic acid works better at treating inflammatory acne (pimples, papules, etc).

Related: AHAs VS BHA: Which One Is Better For You?

Paula's Choice Clear Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution 2% BHA

Who Should Use Salicylic Acid?

If you’ve got blackheads or whiteheads, you need Salicylic acid in your skincare routine. Nothing else is as effective at removing them. Period.

If you’ve got pimples, papules, or other times of inflammatory acne – in addition to blackheads and whiteheads – still stick to Salicylic acid. It does the job well.

Related: How To Treat Blackheads: What Really Works

Who Should Use Mandelic Acid?

Although research shows both Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid are effective at treating acne, Mandelic acid is less irritating.

If you have acne AND your skin’s so sensitive, it can’t tolerate Salicylic acid, then switching to Mandelic acid makes sense.

For everyone else, I still recommend Salicylic acid. It goes the extra mile.

Related: Three Ways To Exfoliate Sensitive Skin

the ordinary mandelic acid 10 + HA

Can You Use Salicylic Acid and Mandelic Acid Together?

Yes and no. Let me explain.

Studies show that using Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid together is more effective at reducing acne (and hyperpigmentation – including the dark spots left behind by pimples) than glycolic acid. And gentler, too.

If you find a product that combines both, great! Use it.

BUT, I’m NOT a fan of using two separate exfoliants, one with Salicylic acid and one with Mandelic acid. Good exfoliants are formulated to provide maximum benefits for you skin and, when you mix and match them, it’s really easy to go overboard and over exfoliate skin.

Overexfoliation = irritation, redness, dryness, pain. Not a pretty picture. It can take your skin WEEKS to recover from it!

Related: 5 Skincare Treatments That Can Damage Skin (When Abused)

How To Use Salicylic Acid/Mandelic Acid To Exfoliate Skin

Whether you opt for Salicylic acid, Mandelic acid, or an exfoliant that contains both, I recommend you use it every other night to avoid over exfoliating skin.

If your skin’s sensitive, it may only tolerate exfoliation twice a week. As a rule of thumb, if you experience any side effects (irritation, redness, dryness), cut back frequency.

If you’re using retinoids, alternate them with exfoliation at night. Again, you want results without the irritation.

Related: How Often Should You Exfoliate (Based On Your Skin Type)?

The Bottom Line

Both Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid are effective at treating inflammatory acne. Salicylic acid is better at treating blackhead and whiteheads, while Mandelic acid is gentler and more suitable for sensitive skin.