Everything You Need to Know About Salicylic AcidMay 16, 2023
Let’s be real, “acid” is a scary word. It reminds us of high school chemistry class and sounds like the last thing we’d want to put on our face. But in reality, acids can be beneficial for our complexion, which is why so many skincare products are formulated with them. Alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids are two categories of ingredients commonly found in skincare products. Also known as AHAs and BHAs, these powerhouse acids are chemical exfoliants that can have major skincare benefits when used correctly.
One of the most popular beta hydroxy acids you’ll see in skincare products is salicylic acid. If you’re interested in skincare, chances are you have at least heard of salicylic acid before, but you may be unsure about what it actually does for your skin. Luckily, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading for the lowdown on salicylic acid and how to use it, plus some of our favorite products featuring the ingredient to try.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
In skincare there are two main types of exfoliating acids. There are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are water-soluble, typically derived from sources like milk, sugar cane and fruit and are generally recommended for either dry, or aging skin types. Examples of AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid.
Then, there are beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), which are oil-soluble and great for oily, acne-prone skin. “Beta hydroxy acids are similar to alpha hydroxy acids in that they are used for chemical exfoliation of the skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist and Skincare.com consultant Dr. Hadley King. “They dissolve the bonds that hold dull, dead skin cells on the surface of the skin so the skin will gently shed, revealing smoother, brighter skin underneath.”
BHAs are especially great for treating breakout-prone skin because their oil solubility means they can penetrate into the pores, so they work both on the skin’s surface and inside the pores. “BHAs can help reduce blackheads, whiteheads, pimples and milia,” says Dr. King. “BHAs also have anti-inflammatory, skin-calming properties so they are gentle enough even for sensitive skin prone to redness.” To ensure BHAs are right for your skin type, we recommend reaching out to a board-certified dermatologist.
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that can be found in a wide range of skincare products including cleansers, scrubs, serums and moisturizers. According to board-certified dermatologist and Skincare.com consultant Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, salicylic acid is the main beta hydroxy acid. “It is a great keratolytic, which means it helps remove excess dead skin cells from skin’s surface and gently exfoliates clogged pores,” he says.
What Does Salicylic Acid Do?
The main benefit of salicylic acid is to clear your pores and prevent them from being clogged with dead skin cells, excess oil and other debris. Salicylic acid is often recommended to address oily or acne-prone skin because clogged pores are one of the biggest culprits of breakouts.
“Salicylic acid is an excellent pore-clearing ingredient because it exfoliates the surface of the skin and penetrates into pores to remove oil,” says Dr. King. “This helps to prevent pores from becoming clogged and can help remove clogs that have already formed.”
Keep in mind the dryness and irritation are potential side effects of salicylic acid, so be sure to consult with your board-certified dermatologist to determine whether or not it is the right fit for you.
How Does Salicylic Acid Work?
As mentioned above, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and this is the key to how it works. Not only does it exfoliate your skin at the surface, but it is able to penetrate deeply into your pores to clear blockages beneath the surface. “This is a great ingredient for people with oily and acne-prone skin, and particularly for treating and preventing comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads),” notes Dr. King.
How Often Should You Use Salicylic Acid?
There are many different factors in determining how often you should use salicylic acid products. According to Dr. King, the frequency with which you use it “will depend on the formulation, your skin and what other products you are using.” When in doubt, follow the instructions on the packaging of the product and run any questions or concerns by a board-certified dermatologist.
What Percentage of Salicylic Acid Is Good for Acne?
Salicylic acid can be included in your skincare products at different dosages. You can try using products with anywhere between .5 to 2% of salicylic acid when targeting acne, as recommended by the Mayo Clinic. If you have sensitive skin, start with a lower percentage and work your way up. According to Dr. King, “2% will be more effective if you can tolerate it without dryness and irritation, otherwise try 1%.” Again, a dermatologist can help you determine if the ingredient is right for your skin and what percentage to use.
How Does Salicylic Acid Differ From Benzoyl Peroxide?
While salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide have many similarities (they’re both great for targeting acne), there are some differences. The biggest one is that benzoyl peroxide has antibacterial properties.
Benzoyl peroxide “is an effective treatment for acne because of its keratolytic, moderate comedolytic, and antibacterial properties,” says Dr. King. “So that means that benzoyl peroxide is helpful for treating acne because it not only kills bacteria that contribute to acne, but also helps to prevent and clear out clogged pores.”
In other words, one is mainly antibacterial and the other is an exfoliant. Benzoyl peroxide works to kill acne-causing bacteria, whereas salicylic acid chemically dissolves dead skin cells that can clog the pores and eventually cause pimples.
Our Favorite Products With Salicylic Acid
This potent vitamin C serum is specially formulated for acne-prone skin because it includes silymarin and 0.5 % salicylic acid to help decongest the skin. It works to help reduce oiliness, refine texture and improve skin clarity.
If bumpy, rough skin is one of your major skincare concerns, reach for an exfoliating lotion to address the issue. Our recommendation? The CeraVe SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin. Powered by three essential ceramides, salicylic acid and vitamin D, this lotion works to exfoliate and moisturize your skin, all while helping to restore the protective skin barrier.
The multitasking La Roche-Posay Effaclar Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Serum clears up existing blemishes while also preventing new ones from forming and helping to fade post-acne marks. But acne is not the only skincare issue this serum helps with. It also works to visibly reduce the appearance of fine lines and pores.
Looking for a foaming cleanser to add to your skincare routine? Try the Kiehl’s Blue Herbal Acne Cleanser Treatment. Formulated for oily and acne-prone skin, it helps purify and cleanse pores to promote clearer skin. For the best results, wet your face, then work the cleanser into a lather and massage it into your skin. Don’t forget to rinse thoroughly.
If you’ve been wanting to try an anti-aging serum, allow us to recommend the L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensifies 12% Pure Vitamin C + E + Salicylic Acid. The non-greasy formula helps to address three early signs of aging — skin tone, pores and lines. It’s also a brightening serum that will give you radiant, younger-looking skin.
Breakouts are no match for the IT Cosmetics Bye Bye Breakout Salicylic Acid Acne Serum. We love how this product can be used at every stage of the acne lifecycle, from preventing blemishes from forming to fading the appearance of acne marks from past breakouts.
The unique formula of the Youth to the People Mandelic Acid + Superfood Unity Exfoliant combines potent antioxidants with a triple acid complex to create a gentle yet effective leave-on exfoliator. Mandelic acid helps smooth skin texture and minimize the look of hyperpigmentation, salicylic acid unclogs pores and antioxidants soothe and hydrate the skin.
It doesn’t get much easier (or mess-free) to use than these Thayers Blemish Clearing 2% Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Pads. After cleansing, simply swipe one of these salicylic-acid-saturated pads across your skin or in areas where you specifically are breaking out. If you struggle with acne blemishes, blackheads or whiteheads, you can benefit from using these pads.
No good skincare routine is complete without a moisturizer, and the Vichy Normaderm PhytoAction Acne Control Daily Moisturizer is one of our favorites for breakout-prone skin. Not only does it clear blemishes and reduce the appearance of enlarged pores (thanks to maximum strength 2% salicylic acid), but it also improves skin texture and tone over time.
Like the lotion, the Cerave Renewing SA Cleanser is great for exfoliating and smoothing rough, bumpy skin. It helps exfoliate and cleanse skin of impurities including dead skin cells, dirt and oil without drying out or irritating your skin. In addition to salicylic acid, the formula contains ceramides, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to help maintain a healthy moisture barrier.
Get plumper, glowing skin with the Lancôme Hydra Zen Oil-Free Gel Moisturizer. This moisturizer delivers serious hydration, but feels totally lightweight thanks to the bouncy, gel-like texture. Since it’s oil-free and features salicylic acid, it’s an ideal moisturizer for oily and combination skin types.
For a soothing cleanse that will help balance out the skin, opt for this formula with salicylic acid and blue tansy. It will soothe redness, irritation, active breakouts and leave your skin feeling cleansed and clear.
A salicylic toner is a must-try if you want to target problem areas like around the chin or nose. We love this powerhouse toner that has a six acid blend (SA included!) to minimize large pores and keep your skin matte and bright.
Pimple patches are one of our favorite ways to spot-treat stubborn blemishes. All you have to do is stick the hydrocolloid sticker onto the blemish, leave it there for six or more hours and watch your pimple shrink. These pimple patches from Starface are infused with salicylic acid to help target deeper-rooted blemishes. Plus, the adorable star shape and baby blue color makes these so fun to rock during the day.
With 1.5% salicylic acid, this potent acne treatment face oil from Sunday Riley helps to banish breakouts and clear out pore-clogging debris to give you smoother, clearer skin. You don’t have to worry about this face oil feeling too heavy or leaving behind any greasy residue — it dries and absorbs into your skin super quickly.
You’ll fall in love with the soothing, refreshing feel of the Dr. Loretta Micro-Exfoliating Cleanser, a milky gel cleanser formulated with 2% salicylic acid. The salicylic acid is balanced out with aloe vera and coconut oil to ensure that this cleanser effectively exfoliates and detoxifies skin without stripping away essential moisture.
The Dr. Barbara Sturm Darker Skin Tones Foam Cleanser is specially formulated to meet the skincare needs of darker skin tones, cleansing and boosting skin radiance without undermining the skin’s natural moisture barrier. Salicylic acid cleanses and exfoliates your skin while hyaluronic acid locks in hydration and purslane minimizes irritation.
Unclog pores and tackle blemishes with the Mario Badescu Anti Acne Serum. Salicylic acid and thyme in the formula work to clear up skin congestion for a healthier-looking complexion. It also contains glycerin to hydrate and fight the appearance of wrinkles. Use this serum as the final step in your nighttime skincare routine, applying it to problem areas as needed before bed.