Salicylic acid has long been the darling of the acne aisle at the drugstore. And for good reason—this chemical exfoliant is unmatched in its ability to clear and prevent blemishes.
But if you think that’s all it can do, think again. What you might not know is that salicylic acid can actually be used by all skin types, and helps with a wide range of skin concerns. Plus, it offers distinct benefits that other acids (like glycolic and lactic) don’t have.
Consider this tutorial your complete guide to salicylic acid. You will learn how it works, what it can do for your skin, which products to try and when you’ll see results.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), a type of acid that is derived from natural sources such as willow tree bark, wintergreen leaves or sweet birch bark.
Although it is the best-known BHA, there are several other, less common BHAs that exert a similar effect on the skin:
- Betaine salicylate
- Willow bark extract or salix nigra bark extract
- Beta hydroxybutanoic acid
- Trethocanic acid
- Tropic acid
Salicylic acid is a salicylate, meaning it belongs to the same ingredient family as aspirin. As salicylates, salicylic acid and other BHAs are able to penetrate through oil, not just water (they’re oil-soluble). However, people with salicylate allergies should avoid salicylic acid.
How Does Salicylic Acid Work?
This is how salicylic acid works its magic on your skin:
- Softens the “glue” between skin cells: First of all, it softens and dissolves the intercellular cement material, which is the substance that causes skin cells to stick together.
- Exfoliates the skin surface: Once these connections are weakened, dead skin cells become loosened and are easily sloughed off the skin surface.
- Deep-cleans pores: Because it is an oil-soluble acid, it has the ability to penetrate deep into pores. There, it exfoliates the pore lining, cleans out clogged sebum and allows oil to flow out more freely.
- Suppresses oil production: It also keeps oily skin in check by both dissolving oil and suppressing the cells that produce excess sebum.
- Reduces inflammation: Just like aspirin, it has an anti-inflammatory effect. So it calms the skin, reduces redness and minimizes swelling.
What Does Salicylic Acid Do for Your Skin?
So, how exactly can salicylic acid help your skin? Let me count the ways....
1. Clears and Prevents Acne
Not only does it clear and calm active breakouts, it also helps to prevent future comedones from even forming in the first place.
Multiple studies have found that as little as 0.5% can reduce the number and severity of all types of acne lesions, and is superior to benzoyl peroxide. In another study, using a 1.5% concentration, 95% of patients saw an improvement in their acne after four weeks, with 20% experiencing complete clearing.
Rather than spot-treating, the key is a daily application all-over—even if you don’t have active acne. “Instead of treating pimples as they appear, it’s more effective to use a gentle product that contains salicylic acid every day,” says Dr. Whitney Bowe. “This helps prevent breakouts on a regular basis.”
What’s more, it also softens blackheads, making them easier to extract, and prevents new blackheads from forming.
2. Reduces Excess Oil
Anyone with oily skin can benefit, since it also dries out sebum and slows down its production—a property that alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) don’t have.
“Salicylic acid is lipophilic, which means it is able to dissolve oils,” says Dr. Jerome Garden. "This allows it to penetrate into the pores and dry out your oily skin.” It also “decreases oil production,” says Dr. Annie Chiu.
The trick is to find the right amount and frequency to keep your skin’s sebum in balance without over-drying. If you have very oily and resilient skin, you’ll likely tolerate the maximum 2% concentration as often as twice daily. But more delicate types should look for something weaker, such as 0.5-1%, and apply it once a day or every other day.
3. Minimizes Pores
You can’t change the size of your pores, but you can make them look smaller by keeping them clean—and salicylic acid can help.
“The reason pores look bigger than they actually are is because they’re clogged with dead skin cells mixed with oil,” says esthetician Shani Darden. By using a BHA to clean and unclog them, they won’t be so stretched out.
4. Smooths and Brightens
Contrary to popular opinion, AHAs aren’t the only option for exfoliating your skin surface. There’s no reason why you can’t use a BHA the same way for brighter, smoother skin.
“Exfoliation leads to a reduction in thickness of the dead-skin-cell layer, which gives the skin a brighter, more glowing appearance,” says Dr. Dendy Engleman.
5. Reduces Fine Lines and Wrinkles
“The exfoliative properties of salicylic acid have been shown, over time, to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by promoting collagen growth,” adds Dr. Engelman.
One study, for example, found that a weekly 30% peel was associated with a thickened epidermal layer, dense collagen, and elastic fibers after six weeks.
6. Fades Pigmentation
Anyone dealing with dark spots, post-acne marks or sun damage should consider salicylic acid, too.
It fights pigmentation by exfoliating away darkened surface cells to reveal the fresh new cells underneath. It also has some ability to inhibit melanin formation with low risk of irritation.
“While some AHAs and other acids can trigger post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, you won’t see that with salicylic acid,” says Dr. Haleh Bakshandeh. “It’s a very safe and predictable acid. I use it to treat patients with darker skin looking to correct sun and age spots and hyperpigmentation issues.”
The Best Salicylic Acids for Your Skin
Many people aren’t aware of salicylic acid’s many benefits, because it used to be sold primarily as a spot treatment for pimples. But to really get the most out of it, you should use it just like glycolic and lactic acids, in an all-over toner, gel or serum.
Thankfully, there are more and more formulas becoming available that allow us to do just that. Here are my top picks:
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant is perhaps the best-known formula, with 2% salicylic acid in a fragrance-free liquid (which you’re meant to apply with a cotton pad). It’s potent, so I’d recommend this one for oily, resilient skin only.
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner
Farmacy Deep Sweep 2% BHA Pore Cleaning Toner is a clean beauty option with 2% salicylic acid in an alcohol-free, fragrance-free toner. Despite having the maximum concentration of the active, it is surprisingly gentle and non-stripping.
The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid
The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid has 2% salicylic acid in a lightweight serum. It’s fortified with 1% zinc for added oil control, and 1% hyaluronic acid to bind moisture. Plus, it’s silicone-free and fragrance-free.
First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma White Clay Acne Treatment Pads
For those who prefer to swipe on their salicylic acid, there’s First Aid Beauty FAB Pharma White Clay Acne Treatment Pads. These have 2% of the active, and like all the brand’s products, are safe for even sensitive skin. I’ve gone through a whole jar and didn’t find these irritating at all.
TULA Clear It Up Acne Clearing + Tone Correcting Gel
TULA Clear It Up Acne Clearing + Tone Correcting Gel not only targets active acne, it also works to fade the dark marks it leaves behind. Besides 2% salicylic acid, it has azelaic acid and niacinamide to brighten, hyaluronic acid to hydrate, and probiotics to lock in moisture.
ClarityRx Fix It 2% Pore Perfecting Solution
If you’re looking for a minimalist formula, look no further than ClarityRx Fix It 2% Pore Perfecting Solution. All that’s in here is water, alcohol (to assist penetration) and 2% salicylic acid. (Just be sure to moisturize well after, to compensate for the alcohol’s drying effects.)
Biossance Squalane + BHA Pore-Minimizing Toner
Biossance Squalane + BHA Pore-Minimizing Toner is made not with salicylic acid but with willow bark, which is said to be even more anti-inflammatory. With the equivalent of 2% BHA, it gives you a gentle exfoliation while hydrating with squalane.
SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense
SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense is a serum specifically made to combat both breakouts and signs of aging. It has 1.5% salicylic acid along with 2% dioic acid (which is similar to azelaic acid, and reduces oil production). There’s also 0.3% LHA (a salicylic acid derivative), 3.5% glycolic acid and 0.5% citric acid.
Arcona Raspberry Clarifying Pads
Arcona Raspberry Clarifying Pads are a set of cotton pads infused with a 1% salicylic acid solution. As such, they are one of the only options available at this strength. Just follow up with a good hydrator, since these do contain some alcohol.
Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum
Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum is not only a more natural option, it’s also milder than most BHAs, with just 0.75% salicylic acid. You don’t need to have blemishes to benefit from its exfoliating and clarifying properties.
Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner
Benton Aloe BHA Skin Toner is a K-beauty toner that is so gentle on the skin, everyone can use it. It combines 0.5% salicylic acid with 80% aloe, so it soothes and calms while it lightly exfoliates.
COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
As many of you know, my favourite BHA of all is COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid (reviewed in-depth here). Rather than 2% salicylic acid, it contains 4% betaine salicylate, which is said to be equal in strength but more moisturizing. In my experience, that has been true—I absolutely swear by this stuff!
How to Use Salicylic Acid
If you’re new to acids, you could start by including salicylic acid in your routine a few times a week, and building up to more frequent applications from there. For breakouts, you’ll get the best results if you can use it once or twice daily.
But it’s very important to choose a concentration that your skin can tolerate. Normal to oily skin can probably handle the maximum 2%, but anyone who is dry or sensitive should look for weaker 0.5-1% formulas. Whatever strength and frequency you decide, always watch your skin and back off if you experience irritation.
To apply salicylic acid:
- Wash your face: Acids should be applied on clean, dry skin after cleansing. Avoid other exfoliants when using BHAs, as this will increase the risk of irritation.
- Apply a thin layer: Spread a thin layer of the acid over your face, avoiding the lips and eye area. Alternatively, you can just concentrate it on areas of congestion, such as your T-zone.
- Wait up to 30 minutes: Acid operates at a low (acidic) pH, so you don’t want to apply any higher-pH products on top (like moisturizers) until it has had a chance to do its work. I recommend waiting a good 20 to 30 minutes before proceeding with the rest of your skincare products. (Don’t wash off the acid.)
- Apply hydration and/or sunscreen: Follow your acid with your preferred serums or moisturizers, and (during the daytime) a good sunscreen.
Can Salicylic Acid Cause Acne?
If you start breaking out after adding salicylic acid to your routine, don’t panic. This type of acne is known as skin purging, and it is a completely normal—and in fact, beneficial!—reaction.
Purging is an initial period of increased breakout activity that can occur after starting an active product that increases skin cell turnover, such as salicylic acid. In fact, BHAs are the most likely to cause a purge because they work on top of the skin as well as inside the pores, loosening both dead skin and trapped sebum. This brings any underground comedones to the surface all at once, whereas they’d otherwise take weeks or months to arise.
The good news is that purging doesn’t go on forever. Although it can range between two to eight weeks, most people see an improvement within about a month. The breakouts will heal faster, with less inflammation, and your skin will gradually become clearer and clearer.
For more on purging, see my skin purging vs breakouts tutorial.
How Long Does Salicylic Acid Take to Work?
Don’t give up on salicylic acid too soon. While it does produce some immediate improvements, it does take time for its full benefits to become apparent.
Like any acid, you’ll get a glow and smoother texture right away, thanks to the removal of dull, rough dead skin cells. Its oil-dissolving properties can also work quickly to dry out active blemishes.
However, to really start preventing future breakouts, it can take at least four to eight weeks of consistent use, after which you should continue to use it to maintain your results. A study found that 2% salicylic acid reduces the number of acne lesions after four, eight and 12 weeks, with the best reduction in inflamed lesions occurring after 12 weeks.
Conclusion + Further Reading
Now you know why BHAs are my chemical exfoliants of choice.
It wasn’t always this way, as I used to be faithfully devoted to the lactic acid-based Lotion P50. But once I switched, I never looked back—and my skin has never been better!
For me, salicylic acid and other BHAs have been much more effective than AHAs at keeping my skin bright, smooth and clear. My pores are cleaner, my skin is softer and produces less oil, and any dark marks fade quickly. Breakouts are rare, and when they do arise, they’re less inflamed and disappear fast.
Needless to say, I think salicylic acid is well worth your consideration!
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