salicylic acid vs mandelic acid for acne

Salicylic Acid VS Mandelic Acid: which one is better at treating 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.

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. The same family as Glycolic acid and Lactic acid (I don’t recommend these two for treating acne because they can’t get inside your pores and clean them up from within).

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:

  • It gives your complexion a brighter glow
  • It helps to fade away dark spots and hyperpigmentation
  • It prevents acne (when dead cells slough off your skin, they can’t fall into your pores and clog them)
  • It treats acne (by speeding up cellular turnover, i.e. the skin’s natural exfoliation process)
  • It makes skin softer and smoother
  • It reduces inflammation

Mandelic Acid’s weak spot is it large molecular size. It’s bigger 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. There’s always a trade-off in skincare.

On its own, Mandelic Acid is 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.

Best Picks:

  • Allies Of Skin Mandelic Pigmentation Corrector Night Serum ($92.00): This serum includes both mandelic acid, salicylic acid and lactic acid to exfoliate skin and niacinamide to brighten the complexion. It’s great for people who want a brightening, exfoliating effect. Available at Cult BeautyDermstoreRevolve, and SpaceNK.
  • Facetheory Mandelibright Serum (£18.99): A simple formula with mandelic acid to exfoliate skin, niacinamide and liquorice extract to brighten the complexion, and antioxidants to prevent premature wrinkles. Available at Facetheory.
  • NeoStrata Mandelic Mattifying Serum ($44.00): A simple exfoliating formula that brightens skin and smoothes out imperfection. Just don’t expect anything more than that. Available at Dermstore.
  • The Ordinary Mandelic Acid 10% + HA ($6.80): A basic formula with mandelic acid to exfoliate oily-acne prone skin and Hyaluronic Acid to hydrate. Available at Beauty Bay and Ulta.

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 penetrates into your pores to exfoliate them from within. 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, or are experiencing whiteheads and blackheads, Salicylic Acid is still the exfoliant to go. It’s still my #1 recommendation for acne-prone skin that’s not insanely sensitive.

Best Picks:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): One of my fave exfoliants, it has both salicylic acid to exfoliate pores and glycolic acid to fade away dark spots. Plus antioxidants to prevent premature aging. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): A solid salicylic acid exfoliant for oily, acne-prone skin. It both prevents and treats blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. Its texture is a little sticky, but if you’re cool with that, you’ll get results. Available at DermstoreLook Fantastic and Paula’s Choice
  • The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A basic salicylic acid exfoliant that unclogs pores. Just don’t expect anything extra. Available at Cult Beauty and Feel Unique

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

Salicylic Acid VS Mandelic Acid: Do They Cause Acne?

When you first start using Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid, it’s not unusual for your acne to get worse. Does that mean that these acids cause acne or, at a minimum, aggravate it? Not exactly.

Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid don’t cause acne breakouts. They cause purging. From the outside, a breakout and a purge look the same: your skin is riddled with red, angry pimples. In reality, there are two key differences. Let me explain.

A breakout happens when ingredients get stuck in your pores, where it mixes with dead skin cells and sebum. This mixture clogs up your pores, causing blockages. Enter P.Acnes. Acne bacteria feed on that gooey mixture, infecting your skin. Next thing you know, it’s pimples galore. BUT, as soon as you remove the comedogenic ingredient from your routine, your skin clears up.

A purge happens when you exfoliate skin. Pimples form their roots deep into your skin before they come out to the surface. By exfoliating your skin, Salicylic acid and Mandelic acid are exposing the pimples that were already forming underneath. They would have appeared anyway, but exfoliation speeds up the process. This is a GOOD thing. Even though in the short term, your skin is full of pimples, a purge is simply clearing all that gunk in a few short weeks (a purge can last up to 6 weeks tops) and enjoy clear skin long afterwards.

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 types 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. You’ll be able to treat acne without causing further inflammation (the root cause of acne).

For everyone else, I still recommend Salicylic acid. It goes the extra mile. Why only exfoliate the surface of your skin when you can clear up your pores as well?

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! Especially when your skin is already inflamed with acne. You need to treat it with kids’ gloves, not go nuclear hoping to get rid of acne faster. Speed in skincare always backfires.

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. Retinoids should never be used at the same time as exfoliants (unless prescribed by your dermatologist). Retinoids are powerful wrinkle and acne fighters, but they’re very irritating. They can cause redness, irritation, and dryness on their own.

When you pair them with an exfoliate, the risk of experiencing these side effects is higher. Alternative Salicylic acid/Mandelic acid with retinoids at night ensures you get the best of both worlds – with a lower risk of irritation.

I can’t stress it enough, you want to get rid of acne without irritating your skin even more.

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.