I’ve tried a lot of cleansers throughout the years— if a friend or family member recommends one, you can bet I’ll give it a go. I also recall one year when my skin was out of control, with pimples appearing at random intervals. My friend advised me to use a face wash that contained salicylic acid, and, thankfully, it worked.
I’ve always wondered why salicylic acid appears on the front of acne cleansers, and although I know it aids in managing acne, I’m not entirely sure why. Salicylic acid, according to Dr Hu, cosmetic chemist and co-founder of Acaderma, is a keratolytic agent that destroys the outer layer of the skin to make it easier to exfoliate dead cells and stimulate cellular turnover.
“Salicylic acid is typically found in acne cleansers, spot treatments, toners, serums, and peels,” states Dr Hu. Salicylic acid is a water-soluble chemical that dissolves in oil and can reach deep into the skin’s surface, where it removes pollutants that block pores and cause whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples. “Sweat, heat and humidity can all contribute to oilier skin. Part of the cleaning process is to remove extra sebum from pores, which reduces greasiness and helps with acne.”
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a chemical found in willow trees’ bark. It’s part of a group of chemicals known as beta-hydroxy acids or BHAs, and it’s renowned for its capacity to help exfoliate and slough off dead skin cells from the skin’s surface.
“You’ll either come across Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) or Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs) when it comes to skincare,” says Dr Hu. “Oil- and water-soluble BHA’s are different. Salicylic acid is more oil soluble, whereas alpha hydroxy acids are more water-soluble. Because BHA’s easily break through the skin cell lipid layers and go into the skin at a deeper level than water-soluble medications, they can penetrate much further.”
What Does Salicylic Acid Do For the Skin?
Salicylic acid, as well as being able to get into the skin and go beyond just the surface layer, is an effective acne-fighting ingredient. “The acid component of the molecule can dissolve and loosen the desmosomes (the proteins that bind cells together), allowing the product to more easily exfoliate and cleanse any blockages in the pores.”
Salicylic acid is a beautiful skin cleanser but has several advantages besides exfoliating dead cells and unclogging pores. Minimizing the appearance of pores, reducing inflammation, and preventing breakouts are just a few of the benefits.
Many forms of salicylic acid, typically used as an acne spot treatment, are available. The substance is also found in a variety of other formulations, such as cleansers, toners, serums, and peels, all of which can benefit the skin in their own way. “Each automobile employs salicylic acid in its own unique manner, with different clients in mind depending on their skin problems,” says Marmur. “However, some cleansers, peels, and toners may be too harsh and should be avoided,” she adds.
A Few Benefits of Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid, owing to its unique characteristics, is used to treat a variety of skin disorders other than acne, including warts and dandruff. Here’s a look at how salicylic acid helps the skin.:
- Exfoliates dead skin: Dr Marmur claims that salicylic acid is keratolytic, which means it promotes cellular turnover and sloughs off dead skin cells, resulting in smoother and less rough skin.
- Softens the contents of clogged pores: The oil-soluble component penetrates the pores, dissolves the “glue” that bonds skin cells together, and expels the contents of clogged pores, such as whiteheads, blackheads, and tiny red pimples.
- Removes excess oil: According to Marmur, salicylic acid is oil soluble, allowing it to reach beneath the skin’s surface and remove any excess sebum or grease from the pores. This can result in a reduction in pore appearance.
- Prevents whiteheads and blackheads: Because salicylic acid targets whiteheads and blackheads directly, it prevents them from resurfacing on your skin’s surface, according to Marmur. It also treats existing blemishes because salicylic acid is a capable anti-inflammatory agent…
- Combats acne: Because salicylic acid is lipophilic, it can enter pores deeply to prevent future acne from developing.
- Minimizes pores: As an astringent, salicylic acid can reduce the appearance of pores by tightening the skin.
- Available over-the-counter: Salicylic acid formulations are readily available in most beauty and drugstores, unlike some other super skincare ingredients.
- Reduces inflammation: Salicylic acid, like aspirin (salicylates), is a non-prescription drug from the same class. It helps to reduce irritation and redness associated with breakouts because of its anti-inflammatory qualities.
Salicylic Acid vs Benzoyl Peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide is one non-prescription acne treatment that rivals salicylic acid’s popularity. However, this component of the formulation has a different strategy in terms of treating breakouts. Salicylic acid reduces pore blockage, but benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial component that destroys acne-causing germs in the pores. Benzoyl peroxide is well-known for bleaching bedclothes and towels, but it’s less appropriate for sensitive skin than salicylic acid since its drying qualities can cause flakiness and discomfort.
Side Effects of Salicylic Acid (Disadvantages of Salicylic Acid)
According to Mudgil, salicylic acid is ideal for oily skin with superficial acne. For persons with dry, eczema-prone, or sensitive skin, the drying component might be too harsh and cause discomfort.
Some of the most prevalent adverse effects of salicylic acid, according to Marmur, include dry, burning, and irritated skin in places of application. These side effects are more common at the start of treatment and should not persist. “If they persist or worsen, you should immediately visit your board-certified dermatologist to inform them of your skin’s condition,” Marmur says.
Acne patients may also respond poorly to salicylic acid, for example, by causing sunburn or making their skin more sensitive to the sun. Although you should always use sunscreen, it’s essential to minimize your sun exposure when taking salicylic acid and always apply and reapply sunscreen.
How to Use properly Salicylic Acid
The appropriate concentration of a salicylic acid product varies from person to person and must be determined by your dermatologist, and the same goes for how often you use a salicylic acid treatment. In general, Marmur advises using salicylic acid in moderation until you know your skin can handle it. Begin by applying it once or twice a week and monitoring how your skin reacts after each application. “The most important thing is to pay attention to your skin.”” Mudgil advises. “If you’re experiencing irritation, take a day or two off and be more attentive to moisturizing.” The quantity of salicylic acid used is also essential, according to Marmur. “Don’t use more or less, and don’t apply it for longer than instructed,” he says. “To cover the afflicted region, simply apply just enough salicylic acid to cover the surface and massage it into the skin softly.”
Although salicylic acid is a readily available and inexpensive medication, there are several variables to consider while employing the acne-fighting chemical to treat breakouts, so it should still be treated with caution. The use of salicylic acid, according to Mudgil, is determined by one’s skin type, the underlying indication, and how severe the acne is. Salicylic acid, on the other hand, is an excellent choice for treating superficial acne. Although prescription medications, such as oral treatments, might be required for treating cystic acne, it’s best to get a dermatologist to evaluate your skin to determine which treatment would be most effective. “While everybody’s skin is different, incorporating salicylic acid isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” endeavor, according to Mudgil. It’s crucial to consult with your dermatologist to optimize your treatment.”
How to Use Salicylic Acid In Skin Routine for Treat Acne
Utilize as a spot treatment
If you have dry skin that is breaking out, you should avoid using salicylic acid all over your face since BHAs like this are best for oily skin. Instead, use salicylic acid to treat acne pimples by applying it only to the bumps and not your entire face.
Using in a face wash
A face wash containing salicylic acid is a must-have for people with oily to combination acne-prone skin. This is because BHAs, such as salicylic acid, go deep into the skin and break down the bonds that bind it together chemically.
Because blackheads and acne are the consequence of pores clogged daily, they must be treated regularly with a product you use every day. As a result, washing your face with a salicylic acid-containing cleanser is an excellent method to exfoliate it on a regular basis.
I prefer to massage my salicylic acid face wash into my skin for at least 60 seconds, ensuring that it has enough contact with my skin to work. However, remember that BHAs work on the deeper layers of skin, so you won’t see an immediate change!
Use salicylic acid toner.
Toning treatments, like face washes, are something you may use daily. Applying a salicylic acid toner to the skin with a cotton pad and then wiping off the face helps to deposit the product more effectively.
I like to use cotton squares soaked in BHA toner on my breakout-prone and pimple-infested regions of my skin, inspired by Korean beauty. I allow it to sit for a couple of seconds before wiping my face with the remaining substance on the cotton square. This helps improve the appearance of my skin.
Which Skin Types Should Use Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is effective for any skin type, according to Dr Hu, who says that people with acne-prone and greasy skin will get the most benefit from it since it has anti-inflammatory properties that aid in the treatment of irritation acne problems and prevent new breakouts.
How Often Should You Use Products Containing Salicylic Acid?
When used twice a day, you may use salicylic acid, but only after your skin has acquired a tolerance. Acne-prone and oily skin will benefit from the consistent application, although precautionary measures should always be taken when utilizing this potent ingredient. When deciding how often you should use salicylic acid, start with the type of skincare product you’ll be using, such as a face wash. Because it contains a lower percentage of the exfoliant and must be washed off, you may use it daily. Remember, of course, to monitor your skin’s condition and appearance so that you don’t get burned.
On the other hand, Acid toners are designed to be used only once or twice a week. They generally stay on the skin for a more extended period and contain a higher concentration of acid in their formulations, but they can be utilized daily if your skin is tolerant. Toner formulations that include chemical exfoliants, such as BHA, are very beneficial to the skin and can remove dead skin from the face, allowing for better product penetration. Over-the-counter serums have the most active ingredient and should be used only three to four times a week to allow the skin to enjoy the benefits without becoming too harsh.
Does Salicylic Acid Have Any Side Effects?
Salicylic acid is generally non-toxic and unlikely to cause any adverse effects.
Dr Hu adds that if you’re experiencing irritation, it’s average at first but should go away in a few days. “If irritation persists, I recommend stopping the product and consulting a dermatologist,” he says..”
· Can salicylic acid dry the skin out?
Yes, which is why it’s usually a good idea to begin with, a small amount and then add more if needed.
· Can too much salicylic acid be a problem?
If your breakouts keep returning even after you use salicylic acid, it’s worth considering whether the ingredient is to blame. If the problem persists, see a dermatologist.
To summarise, salicylic acid is an excellent ingredient for those with acne-prone or oily skin. It works by exfoliating the skin and helping to prevent new breakouts from forming. When used correctly, salicylic acid can be a safe and effective way to improve the appearance of your skin. Just be sure to start slowly and gradually increase the frequency of use as needed. And if you experience any irritation, be sure to stop using the product and consult a dermatologist.
- Ellen Marmur, MD, is a dermatologist at Marmur Medical and MMSkincare in New York City.
- Adarsh Vijay Mudgil, MD, is a dermatologist based at Mudgil Dermatology in New York City.
- Lu J, Cong T, Wen X, et al. Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes. Exp Dermatol. 2019;28(7):786-794. doi:10.1111/exd.13934
- Decker A, Graber EM. Over-the-counter acne treatments: a review. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012;5(5):32-40.