Hyaluronic acid vs Salicylic acid

Despite both hyaluronic acid and salicylic acid both being ‘skincare acids’ they couldn’t be more different, with hyaluronic acid acting as a hydrator and salicylic acid exfoliates. Due to these differences, each ingredient is ideal for different skin types – with hyaluronic acid suiting all skin types, but salicylic acid is perfect for oily or combination types. 

What is Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid is technically known as a humectant, meaning it holds water (up to one thousand times its own weight) and helps to draw the moisture into the skin. Hyaluronic acid naturally occurs within the body; found in the eyes, joints and skin. Within skincare products hyaluronic acid can be of vegan origin, by fermentation using bacteria. This is the most common form of hyaluronic acid found within skincare, yet occasionally hyaluronic acid is derived from animal-sources, such as rooster combs or bovine tissue. 

Benefits of Hyaluronic Acid

  • Ensures hydration, as hyaluronic acid is a humectant and holds onto 1000 times its own weight in water. This allows natural hydration levels within the skin to be replenished. Hydrated skin is happy and healthy skin!
  • Reduced fine lines and texture, due to the plumping nature of hyaluronic acid it diminishes the appearance of fine lines and texture. As skin dehydrates, the skin cells shrivel up which makes fine lines look more prominent, and skin looks duller. By hydrating skin cells they become more plump – this phenomenon is easy to imagine by looking at a deflated balloon (notice how many wrinkles are on it!) then blow it up and you notice how smooth the surface of the balloon is. 

Risks of Hyaluronic Acid

  • Clogged pores, despite hyaluronic acid as an ingredient being classified as non-comedogenic. Hydrating products, such as serums, moisturizers or masks may combine comedogenic ingredients with hyaluronic acid – leading to a breakout risk. A great infographic is below, which may help you identify any comedogenic ingredients if you have noticed your new moisturizer has clogged your pores. If you’d like to read about this further, this article is fantastic. 
  • Dehydrating skin further, which is all down to how your products are used. As hyaluronic acid is a humectant, it needs to be applied onto something which is water rich; I love to apply a hydrating toner or face mist first, but splashing your face with water after washing it would also work! This allows the hyaluronic acid molecules to ‘grab’ onto the water molecules from the toner/mist/water and deliver this hydration to the skin cells. Without the hydrating layer before applying your hyaluronic serum means the hyaluronic acid molecule takes water out of your skin cells, making them more dehydrated – and you thinking hyaluronic acid isn’t as good as everyone says. 

What can Hyaluronic Acid be used for?

Hyaluronic acid, due to its natural role in the body, is found in a wide variety of products with examples including cosmetic injectables, supplements for skin and body, as well as the skin care serums, moisturizers and masks we are familiar with. The skin care products are used to target skin dehydration, as well as plumping the skin to diminish fine lines. Hyaluronic acid comes in different molecular sizes, meaning the ones found in your skin care will impact its role – smaller molecules penetrate further and will hydrate deeper down layers of skin, whereas larger molecules will stay at the surface, targeting these surface cells which is more likely to diminish the appearance of fine lines.                      

When and How often should you use Hyaluronic Acid?

Hyaluronic acid fits into any routine with ease, as it doesn’t react badly with other ingredients. The most important thing to note when using hyaluronic acid is to ensure you apply any serum to a damp base, as mentioned previously this could be water or a hydrating mist/toner. As hyaluronic acid isn’t sensitizing in the same way other acids are, you don’t need to build up a tolerance to it, and it won’t make skin more sensitive to the sun – so it’s fine to use in morning skincare routines. 

What skin types is Hyaluronic Acid for?

Hyaluronic acid is for everyone – it’s very unlikely it won’t suit your skin, but as always when trying a new ingredient or product, patch test it first!

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a type of beta hydroxy acid (BHA) with salicylic acid being oil soluble meaning it can dive deep into pores. Salicylic acid can either be artificially made, which is the likely origin when you see ‘salicylic acid’ on an ingredient list, or it can be naturally found in the leaves of the wintergreen plant, or willow bark. 

Benefits of Salicylic Acid

  • Reducing inflammation and redness, which isn’t surprising as salicylic acid belongs to the chemical family known as salicylates. They are the active compound within aspirin, which is known for its anti-inflammatory effects, so it’s unsurprising that salicylic acid also has this effect. Redness and inflammation are usually linked, meaning when inflammation reduces the redness also usually subsides.
  • Reducing acne, as a root cause of pimples is often clogged pores filled with sebum, and other debris. As salicylic acid is oil soluble in nature it can work from inside the pore, which allows it to break down the sebum, meaning that the pores don’t clog as easily. A closed clogged pore is known as a whitehead, whereas a blackhead is an open clogged pore. 
  • Regulates oil, meaning that less oil is produced by any overactive oil glands (which is common for people with acne) and skin won’t have that horrible greasy feeling at the end of the day.
  • Enlarged pores may be reduced, due to enlarged pores normally occurring due to their congestion. By easing this congestion, it allows pores to return to their original (and smaller!) size. 

Risks of Salicylic Acid

  • Increased sun sensitivity, Due to salicylic acid speeding up cell turnover, and hence leaving skin more vulnerable to the impact of the sun. This makes it more important to wear SPF during the day, reducing the potential damage from UV light and also only using stronger BHA products at night. 
  • Irritation is more likely to occur, especially if you overuse your products! As salicylic acid is oil soluble, and helps to decrease the production of oils using it too much may dry the skin out too much. This often makes the skin look irritated, appearing as red and flaky skin. 

What can salicylic acid be used for?

Salicylic acid is fantastic at decongesting pores, as well as lessening the formation of blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic acid is also often used within body care products, as body acne is something very common!

When and How often should you use it?

Salicylic acid tends to be sensitizing to the sun, but most people find it okay to use in the morning (as long as adequate SPF is applied.) Personally I prefer to use salicylic acid in the mornings, as I then have no overlap upon my evening routine with retinol or other acids (like azelaic, lactic or mandelic.) It’s always best to avoid mixing acids together, as they are usually strong ingredients and mixing them together greatly increases the risk for irritation. 

I would always build up my use with salicylic acid, for example using the toner perhaps 4 times a week, building this up. If it is a weaker product it may be suitable for daily use, whereas a stronger serum I would recommend alternating with a hydrating serum, every other day. 

What skin types should use it?

Salicylic acid is ideal for supporting oily, combination and acne-prone skin types. 

Can Salicylic Acid and Hyaluronic Acid be used together?

Absolutely – they work fantastically together, as they perform different functions, but don’t have opposing pH’s or impact each other’s mechanisms (which are usually the reasons why other ingredients don’t work well together!) 

They often make each other work more effectively – as salicylic acid unclogs pores and removes dead skin cells , it allows the skin to properly absorb the hyaluronic acid.

Originally Published: May 06, 2023

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Analyzed by Beth Cooper
I'm a beauty content creator from the UK, on both Instagram and TikTok. I adore exploring new beauty products, whilst also learning the science behind the skincare (I'm a major science nerd - currently studying a Bachelors Degree in Health Sciences!) I'm passionate about making acne care accessible for all, whilst empowering people to feel like they are good enough and beautiful with or without their acne. It's such a complex condition, so getting good information to people is so important to me, years of those horrendous internet DIYs really damaged my skin! Read more of Beth's articles.

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