Which acid is best for oily skin?

Oily skin can be a challenge to manage. The overproduction of oil leads to enlarged pores, acne breakouts, and an undesirable shiny complexion. Using the right skincare ingredients is key to getting oily skin under control. Acids are one category of ingredients that can provide immense benefits. But with so many options – like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and lactic acid – it’s tough to know which one works best.

What is oily skin?

Oily skin is characterized by an overproduction of sebum. Sebum is the oil that lubricates and protects the skin. Those with oily skin have larger oil glands that pump out excess sebum. This leads to a greasy sheen and congested pores across areas like the nose, forehead, and chin.

Oily skin is often genetic and starts during puberty when androgen hormones tell the sebaceous glands to ramp up production. Hormonal changes during menstruation and perimenopause can also trigger oily skin. Environmental factors like high temperatures and humidity prompt the skin to produce more sebum. Diet, stress levels, and product use can affect sebum secretion as well.

Challenges of oily skin

Having too much sebum comes with its share of frustrations. Here are some of the biggest issues caused by oily skin:

  • Enlarged pores – Excess sebum plugs up the pores and stretches them out.
  • Acne and breakouts – Clogged pores provide the ideal environment for pimples to form.
  • Dull complexion – Dead skin cells and oil accumulate on the surface.
  • Greasy shine – Oily skin has a constant sheen, especially across the T-zone.
  • Reduced product efficacy – Creams and makeup slide right off oily skin.

How acids help oily skin

Acids are one of the most effective ingredients for tackling oily skin-related concerns. Here’s a look at how they help:

  • Exfoliate – Acids dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells to sweep them away. This prevents a buildup that would further clog pores.
  • Unclog pores – Removing dead cells allows oil to flow freely from the pores instead of getting stuck.
  • Control sebum – Some acids signal to the sebaceous glands to slow down oil production.
  • Prevent breakouts – With clean pores, acne-causing bacteria can’t gain a foothold.
  • Smooth skin – Getting rid of debris provides a smooth, even texture.
  • Brighten skin – Exfoliation enables radiant skin to shine through.
  • Hydrate skin – Acids help skin attract and retain moisture for balanced hydration.

Types of acids for oily skin

Acids make up a broad category with a wide range of compounds. When it comes to oily skin, there are three acids that rise to the top as the most beneficial:

  1. Salicylic Acid
  2. Glycolic Acid
  3. Lactic Acid

Below we’ll explore each of these acids and how they can specifically help oily, acne-prone skin.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid (BHA) is derived from the bark of willow trees. It’s a powerful oil-soluble acid that can get deep inside the pore lining. Here are the key benefits of salicylic acid for oily skin:

  • Clears buildup from pores to prevent acne
  • Helps manage excess sebum production
  • Sheds dead skin cells to reveal fresh skin
  • Calms inflammation and redness

Overall, salicylic acid is ideal for thoroughly cleansing congested pores and controlling acne breakouts. It’s best for those with mild to moderate oily skin.

Glycolic Acid

Glycolic acid (AHA) is derived from sugar cane. It has very small molecules that penetrate the surface layers of skin. The benefits of glycolic acid include:

  • Removes pore-clogging dead skin cells
  • Keeps excess sebum from getting trapped
  • Gives skin a bright, even-toned appearance
  • Improves moisture retention

Glycolic acid is a great choice for reducing shine and achieving a glowing complexion. Those with sensitive skin may find it too irritating when used daily.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid (AHA) is derived from fermented milk. It has larger molecules than glycolic acid so it stays on the skin’s surface. Benefits of lactic acid:

  • Exfoliates dead skin cells
  • Reduces sebum production
  • Increases natural ceramide levels to reinforce moisture barrier
  • Enhances skin elasticity and firmness

Lactic acid is gentler than other acids. It’s suitable for normal to oily skin when used in concentrations under 10%.

Acid Pros Cons
Salicylic Acid
  • Unclogs pores
  • Prevents breakouts
  • Controls sebum
  • Can be very drying
  • Higher irritating potential
Glycolic Acid
  • Brightens complexion
  • Smooths skin texture
  • Improves moisture retention
  • Can cause redness and stinging
  • Photosensitizing
Lactic Acid
  • Very gentle
  • Hydrating
  • Improves elasticity
  • Requires higher concentrations
  • May not be strong enough

How to choose the right acid

With various acid options to improve oily skin, it can get confusing to decide which one is best for your needs. Here are some tips on choosing the right acid:

  • Skin type – Those with sensitive skin do best with gentler lactic acid, while tougher skin can handle stronger glycolic or salicylic acid.
  • Acne severity – Salicylic acid is ideal for moderate/severe acne, while mild breakouts respond to glycolic or lactic acid.
  • Skin goals – If you want to unclog pores and prevent acne, use salicylic acid. For overall brightness, glycolic acid is very effective.
  • Level of exfoliation – Lactic acid offers lighter exfoliation great for beginners. More advanced users can opt for deeper exfoliation from glycolic or salicylic acid.
  • Other ingredients – Glycolic and lactic acid combine well with vitamin C and hyaluronic acid serums.

How to use acids on oily skin

Using acids the right way is crucial for getting results without irritation. Follow these tips when using acids on oily skin:

  • Start slowly with lower concentrations like 5% glycolic acid or 2% salicylic acid.
  • Apply acids at night so they can work without sun exposure.
  • Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen daily since acids make skin sun-sensitive.
  • Use acids 2-3 times a week at first to see how your skin responds.
  • Gradually build up to daily use if you don’t experience redness or stinging.
  • Avoid excessive exfoliation by limiting acids to once a day.
  • Apply a lightweight moisturizer after acids to counter dryness.
  • Reduce usage if your skin feels irritated.

The best acid products for oily skin

Ready to add acids into your oily skin care routine? Here are some top-rated products to consider:


  • CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser with Salicylic Acid – 4% acne-fighting salicylic acid formula
  • La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Face Wash – 2% salicylic & glycolic acid for pores
  • Youth to the People Superfood Antioxidant Cleanser – Mild lactic & glycolic acid cleanser


  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant – Lightweight salicylic acid toner
  • Pixi Glow Tonic – 5% glycolic acid exfoliating toner
  • The Ordinary Lactic Acid 5% + HA – Gentle lactic acid serum


  • Neutrogena Hydro Boost Gel Cream with Hyaluronic Acid – Oil-free, lightweight moisturizer
  • La Roche-Posay Effaclar Mat Oil-Free Mattifying Moisturizer – Sebum-controlling moisturizer
  • EltaMD AM Therapy Facial Moisturizer – Contains lactic acid and niacinamide

The bottom line

Salicylic, glycolic, and lactic acid all offer solutions for improving the look and feel of oily, acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is the go-to for combatting acne and clearing pores. Glycolic acid excels at evening out skin tone and texture. Lactic acid is perfect for beginners since it provides gentle exfoliation and hydration. Getting familiar with the pros and cons of each acid allows you to customize a routine suited for your particular skin needs.

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