Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/26/2022
Acid: the one thing you just know you shouldn’t put on your face, right?
We grow up learning of the dangers of “acids” and the serious injuries that they can cause us.
From salicylic acid to alpha hydroxy acid, there are many “healthy” and beneficial types of acids out there — and many of them are well-known skincare products.
These common acids can help with aging, acne and may even help bring about brighter skin. Skin care acids can possess anti-inflammatory properties and are known to help with problems affecting skin tone, texture, oiliness, dark spots, the appearance of wrinkles and more.
Glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid are two of the types of acid products in question, and these face acids can both be healthy, useful, and beneficial parts of a skin care routine.
They’re also both very different in what they bring to the table.
Let’s start with the harder acid to pronounce: hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid, or HA, is a beneficial component for skin health, specifically for its ability to increase your skin’s moisture retention.
In the big picture, that can mean benefits in counteracting the effects of aging, acne and general dull appearance in your face.
Hyaluronic acid’s big claim to fame is that it can retain a lot of moisture — like a lot.
HA can bind to over 1,000 times its weight in water, and when you get some of it under your skin, that can create a substantial surplus of water for your cells to access whenever they need it.
Think of it as an oasis or a water cooler, but just for your cheeks, forehead and other parts of your face.
This is an important part of the anti-acne and anti-aging equation, but HA does not itself fight these conditions. Instead, it’s like a resource for the cells and proteins doing the work.
Hyaluronic acid is found naturally, both inside and outside our own bodies, and you can supplement it very effectively with hyaluronic acid serums — it’s even a major component in some types of injectable fillers.
If hyaluronic acid is like water for the outer layer of your facial tissues, then the function of glycolic acid is more like fire. It’s a key component in chemical peel treatments, which also have an important value for their anti-aging properties — but with a more “spicy” effect.
Chemical peels essentially chemically burn off the outermost layer of the dead, dull, often dry cells on your face.
That’s a good thing when those cells, left as they are, can both contribute to the appearance of more severe wrinkles and also increase your risk of acne breakouts.
Dead skin cells stuck on your face can increase your risk of inflammation, irritation and other things you don’t want, particularly if you’re planning to take a selfie in the next week.
Glycolic acid can also help with problems like hyperpigmentation, photoaging, sun damage and other issues that are mostly considered “cosmetic.”
The fire and water analogy is important for understanding these two active ingredients, but it’s not all there is to consider with regards to how hyaluronic acid and glycolic acid are different.
You can approach this question in several ways.
Another way to look at the difference is their primary function: glycolic acid is designed to take something away (dead cells) whereas hyaluronic acid is designed to add something (hydration).
Both compounds are designed for the same ultimate purpose — healthier, better-looking skin — but it’s fair to say that when one of them is supportive and the other is arguably destructive, they go about it in two very different ways.
Another “difference” between these two compounds? Their side effects.
Facial acids do a lot of things to and for your skin, but not all of them are positive.
Glycolic acid has side effects. Using it in the context of a peel can cause irritation, redness, inflammation and, if used incorrectly, it can indeed cause injury to your skin.
According to some data, five percent of patients develop mild side effects, which can include mild skin irritation, exacerbation of infections and other injuries and additional inflammation.
If used correctly and as instructed, the likelihood of adverse effects is greatly diminished.
Hyaluronic acid, meanwhile, is generally considered safe and effective with even lower risks of injury.
Side effects generally have to do with application — as an injection, for instance, irritation is sometimes noted at the injection site.
But this stuff is considered safe enough for pregnant women to use, so your face shouldn’t have much of an issue.
It’s important to understand that as effective ingredients, both glycolic acid and hyaluronic acid have been proven to do what they’re designed to do.
Likewise, glycolic acid has been proven effective as a peel therapy tool when used properly and under the right guidance and supervision.
What’s not so obvious is which one you should use here and now.
Without having your skin issues examined and analyzed by a qualified healthcare professional, it may be difficult to determine which of these two acids will present you with the most benefits.
Maybe you need that extra storage of hydration for the next few layers of growing skin cells. Maybe, instead, you just need to expose a fresh layer of skin with its already-there glow.
Or maybe — just maybe — you could benefit from both of these popular ingredients.
It’s fair to wonder whether you can use a combination of hyaluronic acid and glycolic acid. The answer is a resounding “Yes,” though not simultaneously — especially if you have sensitive skin.
It’s entirely likely that if you’re dealing with issues related to dry skin or dull skin, both hyaluronic acid and glycolic acid could be of great benefit to your appearance and your skin health.
The reality though, is that there’s no reason to use both simultaneously.
Glycolic acid, for instance, may take time to work its magic, and you don’t want to hydrate dead, dry cells.
It might be best to use one and then subsequently the other. This is a conversation that you should also have with a healthcare provider, based on your individual needs.
Skin care is not always a “more is better” conversation, and we have no problem being the first people to pile on the argument that sometimes, less really is more.
If you’re thinking your best shot at the face you want is a mixture of these magical acids, you’re probably best left in the thoughtful care and guidance of someone who does this for a living.
Our advice? Before you jump in on any option or options, consult a healthcare professional about your skin concerns. Your issues — the things you want to change — may be handled with simpler solutions, and maybe not the chemical kinds.
A healthy diet, exercise and just drinking more water might be enough to fix many of your skin ailments.
Likewise, acne-prone skin, sensitive skin types and skin in need of anti-aging benefits may require more tailored, more complicated or even more serious treatments that don’t come in the form of cosmetic procedures related to special acids.
What’s going to work best for you is an individual consultation to uncover what’s really going on, so that you can get the skin you want and keep it.
In the meantime, there’s no harm in putting these face acids on your wish list for down-the-road treatments. Just treat them like the acids from your chemistry class in high school: keep them away from your face until someone says it’s okay.