9 Salicylic Acid Alternatives To Treat Acne If Your Skin Doesn't Respond To BHAs

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Acne is stubborn. And unfortunately, many people's breakouts can be stubborn in different ways. My breakouts, for example, are resistant to the most popular, OTC, acne-fighting ingredient: Salicylic acid. Even though this makes it harder to find effective treatments, at least salicylic-acid alternatives to banish breakouts do exist. It's just a matter of knowing what other ingredients, or ingredient combinations to look for. So to find out about some other acne-eradicating options for when salicylic acid alone doesn't work, I emailed with a couple of experts.

Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, founder and director of Capital Laser & Skin Care and Assistant Clinical Professor for the Department of Dermatology at the George Washington University Medical Center, and Mary Delgado, artnaturals Executive Manager, both let me in on why salicylic acid may not work for you, and what you can try instead. According to Dr. Tanzi, one reason you may be experiencing trouble with salicylic acid as your primary acne-fighting ingredient is that you're using the wrong form for your skin type. If you have sensitive skin, she explains, a salicylic-acid cleanser is best. But if you have oily skin, you may not reap the benefits from a product that doesn't stay in contact with your skin for very long, which is why a toner or leave-on treatment is better.

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However, if you've tried different forms of salicylic and still didn't see any results, it may be time to try some new ingredients or ingredient combinations. After all, "Acne is caused by multiple factors which is why just a single ingredient may not completely control breakouts," says Dr. Tanzi. So if you need to switch things up, here are nine ingredients to look for instead of, or in addition to, salicylic acid:

1. Benzoyl Peroxide

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According to Dr. Tanzi, benzoyl peroxide is a great alternative to salicylic acid because it helps with both bacterial overgrowth and clogged pores. It can be a bit drying though, so start with a lower concentration and work your way up.

2. Sulfur

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If your skin doesn't respond to salicylic acid alone, Dr. Tanzi also recommends trying a topical antibiotic like sulfur either in conjunction with or instead of salicylic acid. This, she says, will help "treat other aspects of acne that don't respond to salicylic acid."

3. AHAs

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Through some pretty intensive trial and error, I eventually found out that glycolic acid works amazingly for my skin. Even though AHAs are typically recommended for dry or mature skin types, the stronger exfoliation they can provide may also work to treat breakouts.

4. Zinc

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The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, $6, ASOS

Especially if you have oily skin, Delgado recommends trying zinc in your skin care. This ingredient, she says, will help clear and balance oily skin.  

5. Tea Tree Oil

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To target excess oil and blocked pores to clear breakouts and blackheads, Delgado recommends looking to tea tree oil. This natural wonder has antiseptic and antibacterial properties to keep breakouts under control, she says.

6. Allantoin

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Help soothe irritated and inflamed, acneic skin with allantoin, says Delgado. Not only will this ingredient keep skin calm, but it will also "promote healing of current breakouts and help prevent further ones."

7. Marine Algae

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Blue Marine Algae Intense Hydrating Mask, $29, Amazon

According to Delgado, bacteria found in marine algae are believed to have similar drying properties to benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. What's more is that it also "contains powerful antioxidants to help reduce redness and inflammation."

8. Gotu Kola Extract

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This extract helps tone skin while also fighting bacteria, says Delgado, so you can count on it for an even and clear complexion.

9. Chinese Licorice Extract

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Even though licorice root extract may not be typically found in products specifically for fighting breakouts, its balancing and detoxifying properties make it a great option to help target acne, says Delgado.

So even if one or two ingredients don't work as well for your skin, don't be discouraged. You still have a ton of options to help banish your breakouts.