If your skin is prone to breakouts, you’ve likely used at least one product formulated with salicylic acid, aka acne’s over-the-counter kryptonite. In fact, many consider the beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) to be the quintessential acne-fighting ingredient; just look to its presence in countless cult-favorite clarifying face washes, toners, and serums as proof (seriously, check your products’ labels: yours probably have it, too). But it’s not just known for its preventing and treating pimples — the ingredient is also beloved for being a gentler option than many other acne-quashing actives on the shelves.
“Salicylic acid is effective, relatively non-irritating, and doesn't bleach or stain your fabrics,” says Dr. Joshua Zeichner, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai. “It’s [also] recognized by the FDA as safe and effective, and included in its acne treatment monograph.” Hence: salicylic acid’s well-earned VIP status in the battle against breakouts.
Want to learn more about the beauty staple? Read on for everything you need to know about using salicylic acid for skin, according to experts.
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What Is Salicylic Acid & How Does It Work?
Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, meaning it helps slough dead skin cells off the surface of the skin. But what separates salicylic from other acids is its ability to clarify pores while offering anti-inflammatory properties. “Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid that is oil-soluble, so it penetrates deep into pores to eliminate excess oil and unclog the pores,” Dr. Marisa Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology, tells Bustle. “Glycolic acid, and other alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), are less likely to penetrate the pores and help with oil,” she says, explaining that AHAs are water-soluble — meaning they’re more effective at exfoliating the skin’s surface. Since salicylic is oil-soluble, says Garshick, the BHA is better equipped to penetrate deep into the pores to help unclog any buildup (which is why it’s a go-to for those with oily or acne-prone skin). “[Salicylic acid] also acts as a keratolytic to help break down dead skin cells, [so] it can help to improve the overall texture and tone of the skin,” she adds.
The BHA is also renowned for its anti-inflammatory effects, says Dr. Rachel Nazarian, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group (fun fact: salicylic acid is the main ingredient in Aspirin.). “This is why salicylic acid is more tolerable than many other acne medications,” Nazarian explains. In fact, it can be used on an active breakout despite its exfoliating properties. “Physical exfoliants can be really irritating and inflame skin further, while salicylic acid is a gentle way to slough skin cells and encourage cell turnover,” she tells Bustle.
Those with hyperpigmentation can benefit from the BHA, too, as it’s known to help with dark spots and acne scars. “Salicylic acid helps those marks fade faster,” says Nazarian. That’s because its light exfoliation essentially mimics a mini chemical peel on the surface of your skin.
Is Salicylic Acid Safe For All Skin Types?
According to Dr. Snehal Amin, M.D., F.A.A.D, board-certified dermatologist and surgical director at MDCS Dermatology, salicylic acid is suitable for most skin types, though those with certain skin conditions should avoid it. “Salicylic acid should not be used by pregnant people, eczema patients, or those with sensitive skin,” Amin says, clarifying that people with rosacea or taking Accutane pills count as members of the sensitive skin club.
All of that being said, much of this has to do with how a product is formulated. “Salicylic acid has the potential to be irritating for certain skin types, so it can depend on what it is combined with,” Garshick explains. “For example, when combined with hydrating ingredients, such as hyaluronic acid, or soothing ingredients such as niacinamide, it may be less like to cause irritation,” she says. Formulas that contain a lower concentration of salicylic acid or an encapsulated form of the BHA are also less likely to lead to irritation, says Garshick.
How To Use Salicylic Acid
While salicylic acid is known for being a more gentle exfoliant, experts assert that it can still dry you if used in excessive amounts — especially if your skin is naturally on the dry side. Therefore, experts urge newcomers to start with a low percentage of salicylic acid in their products, then work their way up from there (if at all). “I usually recommend products with 1-2% salicylic acid, while 0.5% salicylic acid is mild enough to use every day without causing irritation,” Zeichner tells Bustle. If your skin is sensitive, stick to the lower end of the percentage spectrum.
Other options? Using the BHA in the form of a cleanser rather than a leave-on product, or layering the ingredient with moisturizer, he adds. “This can help minimize potential irritation, but shouldn’t prevent the salicylic acid from working,” Zeichner explains. Unsure which type of moisturizer to use? Zeichner recommends light lotions or gel-based formulas for people with acne-prone or oily skin.
Lastly, Nazarian strongly suggests you don’t use salicylic acid in several products at once. “Don’t be too redundant with this ingredient, and have it in your cleanser, serums, and lotions,” she says. “Instead, incorporate it into a part of your regimen that you use several times weekly, or at most, once a day.” Garshick concurs, reiterating that if you experience dryness or irritation, you should only use it a few times per week.
Shop Salicylic Acid For Skin
The Acne-Fighting Cleanser
Garshick recommends this cleanser for preventing pimples, as its 2% salicylic acid blend helps reduce breakouts while gently exfoliating the skin. Plus, it’s formulated with oil-absorbing hectorite clay to help reduce clogged pores, as well as hydrating hyaluronic acid and calming niacinamide and ceramides. “So it won’t leave the skin feeling dry or irritated,” Garshick says.
The Exfoliating Toner
This exfoliating toner is formulated with acne-fighting salicylic acid and aloe vera, the latter of which moisturizes and calms the complexion as the BHA plus poly-hydroxy acid (PHA) blend works to reduce blemishes. This formula is also suitable for all skin types and deemed safe to use daily.
The Brightening Serum
This cult-favorite vitamin C serum targets dullness and hyperpigmentation while combatting acne and sun damage due to its potent, yet gentle, combination of vitamin C, bearberry, licorice, and kojic acid along with salicylic acid (less than 1%).
The Clarifying Serum
Garshick also recommends Glow Recipe’s clarifying toner, as it contains salicylic acid, mandelic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid), and azelaic acid liposome, as well as hyaluronic acid, allantoin, and bisabolol that work together to soothe, moisturize, and protect the skin. “The salicylic acid is encapsulated, working to minimize irritation while helping to decongest and reduce oil,” Garshick adds.
The Spot Treatment
Formulated with both blemish-clearing salicylic acid and skin-soothing, redness-reducing aloe vera, these acne healing dots help to eradicate pimples in mere hours without drying or irritating the skin. (Plus, they prevent you from picking at your pimples!)
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