An oldie but goodie, salicylic acid sometimes gets pushed to the back of the vanity for newer, more exciting acne treatments. But there’s a reason that it’s long been a go-to quick fix for eliminating pimples: it works.
Unless this is your first time at the acne rodeo, you’ve likely used salicylic acid in the past, since it’s a very common ingredient in products designed for acne-prone skin. But what is it, exactly? And how can it help with breakouts?
What is salicylic acid?
Derived from willow bark, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that works in the skin’s top layer to dissolve the cells and dirt that may be causing you to break out. It belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates, along with acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin).
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How does it work?
Once it penetrates the skin, salicylic acid breaks down the connections between skin cells. This helps to clear dead skin cells and dirt that clog pores, in order to allow pimples to shrink and heal. Salicylic acid also acts as an anti-inflammatory, which reduces redness and further speeds the healing process. Lastly, it works as an exfoliant to encourage clarity and brightness
What kind of acne does it work best for?
Because it dissolves the dirt and skin cells that clog pores, salicylic acid works best on blackheads and whiteheads when applied topically. To treat cystic acne, enhanced penetration (with microneedles or microstructures) is necessary in order to allow the salicylic acid to work its magic deep below the skin’s surface.
But won’t it dry out my skin?
If you use too much, it could. When using salicylic acid too frequently, too heavily, in combination with another topical acne treatment, or in a high concentration, some people may experience dryness, peeling, redness or skin irritation. Those with sensitive skin should stick to products with 0.5% concentration of salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid should not be used on skin that has existing wounds or cuts, irritations, or infections.
What’s the best way to use it?
As with any new treatment, start slowly and work your way up to more frequent or daily use as needed. This will help you assess how your skin reacts to the ingredient.
Since salicylic acid has been around for quite a while, there are all sorts of products you can try, at all price points. Here are just a few of the many options:
- SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel removes impurities and unclogs pores for a brighter skin appearance. $41 at Dermstore.com
- The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Mask (not recommended for sensitive skin) targets the removal of dead skin cells on the surface of oily and blemish-prone skin. $12 at Sephora.com
- Origins SUPER SPOT REMOVER helps quickly fight acne blemishes as it corrects lingering discoloration for spotless-looking skin. $19 at Origins.com