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Millennials know: If you felt a zit coming on during math class in the early 2000s, good ol’ Clean & Clear could zap that thing faster than your [equally breakout-prone] crush could say, “You dropped your pencil.”
The secret? Salicylic acid. This beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) has been used to treat skin conditions like blackheads, dull texture, and mild acne for literally 2,000+ years. (Maybe that’s how our girl Cleopatra got her glow?)
So, does salicylic acid still deserve a slot in today’s skincare routine? Let’s dive into this pore-clearing superstar’s benefits, uses, and side effects.
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) derived from willow bark. It’s also the most common BHA in the skincare game.
BHAs are chemical exfoliants — they dissolve dead skin cells, oil, and dirt without physical scrubbing. The results?
- unclogged pores
- smoother texture
- the appearance of smaller pores
Heads up: Salicylic acid is actual acid, so it has to be diluted before application. Over-the-counter (OTC) products include concentrations below 5 percent. Dermatologists sometimes prescribe stronger salicylic acid creams or chemical peels.
This little acid has sooo many uses!
As a BHA, salicylic acid boosts cell turnover. Shedding dead skin cells leads to:
- brighter-looking skin
- improved skin texture
- enhanced overall glow
Over time, proper exfoliation can help fade:
- acne scars
- age spots
- sun damage (freckles and melasma)
It helps treat acne
Older research from 2012 confirmed that salicylic acid treatments could reduce the number of pimples and blackheads. To understand why it helps to know what causes breakouts in the first place.
“Acne is the result of blocked hair follicles that become plugged with oil and dead skin cells,” explains San Diego-based board-certified dermatologist Melanie Palm.
She says salicylic acid helps because it can “penetrate down the hair follicle where acne starts.” The acid gets deeeep into pores to dissolve dead skin cells, clogs, and excess oil.
It dials down inflammation
Dealing with a particularly red, painful zit? Salicylic acid to the rescue!
“Salicylic acid is also anti-inflammatory, which can decrease redness, swelling, and inflammation,” Palm says.
It helps remove excess oil
Not all chemical exfoliants are created equal. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like lactic acid, for instance, are water-based. But BHAs (salicylic acid, baby!) are oil-based.
Being oil-based makes salicylic acid a truly legit pick for oily skin. It seeps deep to clean out excess sebum.
It wards off dandruff, psoriasis, warts, and more
Salicylic acid isn’t *just* for smooth, zit-free skin. Its exfoliating properties help it soothe other conditions, including:
- seborrheic dermatitis
- plantar warts and common warts
“Salicylic acid is ideal for individuals with oily or mild to moderately acne-prone skin,” Palm says.
It’s not the best ingredient if you fall into one of these camps:
- Peeps with sensitive skin or eczema. Salicylic acid could further dry out or irritate your skin, Palm explains.
- Folks with cystic acne. Even though salicylic acid has antibacterial properties, folks with might get better results with something stronger — like a retinoid, benzoyl peroxide, or a prescription med.
- Anyone pregnant or nursing. Advice on this varies, but Palm says pregnant, and breastfeeding peeps should talk to their doctor before using salicylic acid. (More on that below. ⬇️ )
Salicylic acid is a time-tested skincare ingredient. But, yes, there are still some safety considerations.
Possible side effects
Though salicylic acid is considered pretty safe, it can cause skin irritation, especially when you first start using it.
Some possible side effects:
Salicylic acid toxicity
Salicylate toxicity is a rare but serious problem caused by swallowing or applying too much salicylic acid.
- headache and confusion
- ringing in the ears (tinnitus) or hearing loss
- nausea or vomiting
- abnormal breathing
Reduce your risk with these tips:
- Don’t slather salicylic acid products on your entire bod. Stick to your face or a zit here and there.
- Don’t apply salicylic acid under compression garments or tight leggings.
- Always use salicylic acid products according to the instructions on the label.
Other safety considerations
- Salicylic acid and kids. Children’s skin absorbs salicylic acid at a higher rate. Avoid using salicylic acid products on kids under 2 — and talk to a dermatologist before using them on older kids’ skin.
- Salicylic acid and sun exposure. This ingredient can make your skin more prone to sunburn. “Apply SPF 30 daily, reapply every 2 hours, and seek shade whenever possible,” says Palm.
- Salicylic acid and drug interactions. Some drugs don’t play nice with salicylic acid, so talk to your doc before trying a new product (especially a prescription-strength salicylic acid solution).
- Salicylic acid and allergies. Yes, you can be allergic to this stuff! *Always* do a patch test before slathering on new skin care products. If you have sensitive skin, talk to your derm before using salicylic acid.
- Salicylic acid and pregnancy. The American Academy of Dermatology says salicylic acid is considered safe when pregnant. If you have any concerns, talk to your doc or derm.
- Salicylic acid and breastfeeding. As of 2021, there’s no info on the clinical use of topical salicylic acid while breastfeeding. It’s unlikely to be absorbed into breastmilk, but avoid applying it to skin that could come into contact with your bebe’s skin or mouth.
Bottom line: If you have an underlying medical condition, take prescription meds, or have questions about using salicylic acid, talk to your doctor. They can help determine if topical salicylic acid treatments are safe.
Wanna give this thing a whirl? Let’s dive in.
How to apply
Using salicylic acid is easy peasy.
- Start with a clean, dry face (unless you’re using a salicylic acid cleanser).
- Apply your product as directed. Start with the smallest recommended amount to avoid drying or irritating your skin.
- Allow the product to absorb and dry. Five minutes should be enough!
- Finish up with your other serums or moisturizers.
When to apply
- Timing. If you know you’ll be getting direct sun exposure, apply salicylic acid at night rather than in the morning. This helps reduce sensitivity.
- Frequency. Palm recommends introducing salicylic acid into your skincare routine by applying it just once or twice per week. Once you “confirm your skin can tolerate it,” she says it’s safe to use up to three times per week.
What (if anything) to apply with it
Salicylic acid is a powerful exfoliant. Go easy on other exfoliants when using this kickin’ acid.
“Using [salicylic acid] in conjunction with retinol, BHAs, AHAs, and manual exfoliants can irritate or compromise your skin barrier. It is best to use one exfoliant at a time,” Palm says.
Here are 3 stellar salicylic acid products to add to your skincare routine.
Paula’s Choice 2% BHA Lotion Exfoliant
- Price: $32
- Skin type: oily, acne-prone, aging
- Standout ingredients: 2% salicylic acid, lauric acid, glycerin
Palm recommends this gentle, hydrating salicylic acid exfoliant. If you’re looking for solid pimple prevention (rather than a spot treatment for existing zits), reach for this.
As a bonus, this product could brighten skin and smooth fine lines.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash
- Price: $16 for a 2-pack
- Skin type: oily, acne-prone
- Standout ingredient: 2% salicylic acid
This classic isn’t going anywhere. It digs deep into pores to remove dirt, oil, and makeup that can otherwise cause acne.
This one’s widely recommended by derms because it’s simple, effective, and inexpensive. It’s also suitable for use on your whole body, but it *can* be a bit drying.
First Aid Beauty Spot Treatment
- Price: $26
- Skin type: oily, acne-prone, sensitive
- Standout ingredients: 2% salicylic acid, glycolic acid, fruit enzymes
This spot treatment targets pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. The glycolic acid and fruit enzymes could help dial down discoloration.
Fortunately, this product is designed to be gentle enough for folks with sensitive skin. Though safe to use up to 3x a day, pros recommend starting with 1-2 applications a day and working your way up.
Trying to pick the best salicylic acid product for you? There are a few factors to consider.
- For existing pimples, snag a spot treatment.
- For warding off future blackheads and zits, go for a lotion or cream.
- For generally oily, acne-prone skin, grab an oil-free acne wash or soap.
It’s also helpful to talk to a dermatologist about the best solutions for your skin.
Active ingredient percentage
You can find OTC products with just a hint of salicylic acid or prescription products with up to 30 percent salicylic acid.
Some general tips:
- For light acne prevention on sensitive skin, look for products with less than 2 percent salicylic acid.
- For mild to moderate acne, go for the standard 2 percent (found in the majority of OTC treatments).
- For severe acne, talk to your doc about getting a prescription with a higher quantity of salicylic acid.
Don’t forget to consider these other common ingredients in salicylic acid products!
- Glycolic acid. Beta, meet alpha. Salicylic acid is sometimes paired with an AHA like glycolic acid. Glycolic acid aids in cell turnover, which just might help clear up zits even faster.
- Niacinamide. Salicylic acid also pairs well with niacinamide, a water-soluble type of vitamin B3. This can further reduce sebum production, improve the overall health of the skin barrier, and ward off redness and inflammation.
What is salicylic acid mainly used for?
Salicylic acid is commonly used to treat:
Is salicylic acid good for skin every day?
If you have oily or acne-prone skin, you might be able to tolerate using a salicylic acid cleanser daily, according to Palm.
Otherwise, pros advise against applying a salicylic acid treatment more than 3x a week “as it can cause irritation, redness, and compromise your skin barrier.”
Can salicylic acid be harmful?
Though it’s pretty safe, salicylic acid can cause irritation for folks with dry, sensitive, or eczema-prone skin. It can also make you more prone to sunburn.
Salicylic acid can also cause harmful side effects or even toxicity if you
- overuse or over-apply it
- are allergic to it
- take medications that negatively interact with it
- apply it to children’s skin
Salicylic acid vs. benzoyl peroxide: What’s better for acne?
Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide can effectively treat acne. Palm says salicylic acid clears clogged pores, while benzoyl peroxide kills the bacteria that cause acne.
According to Palm, salicylic acid tends to be more effective for whiteheads and blackheads, preventing future breakouts. Benzoyl peroxide helps tackle pretty much all types of acne, including cystic.