Here's All You Need to Know About Salicylic Acid

Acne, be gone.

Over the years, I've tried several different cleansers — if a friend or family member endorses a cleanser, you can pretty much guarantee that I'll try it. I even remember one year when my skin was out of control, I had pimples popping up randomly. My friend recommended a face wash that contained salicylic acid, and fortunately, it helped control the breakouts.

I often see salicylic acid written on the front of acne cleansers, and although I know it helps to control acne, I've never really known why it's such an effective treatment. According to Dr. Shuting Hu, cosmetic chemist, and co-founder of Acaderma, salicylic acid is keratolytic; a type of compound that breaks down the outer layer of the skin to make it easier to exfoliate dead skin cells and encourage cellular turnover.

"Salicylic acid is typically found in acne cleansers, spot treatments, toners, serums, and peels," says Dr. Hu. As salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient, it can penetrate skin cells that are deep beneath the surface of the skin and remove impurities that clog the pores and ultimately lead to whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples. Part of the cleansing process includes removing excess sebum from pores, this helps to reduce oiliness and combat acne."

Below, Dr. Hu explains more about salicylic acid and its benefits for skin.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring molecule derived from the bark of willow trees. It's part of a class of acids called beta-hydroxy acids, or BHAs, and is known for its ability to help exfoliate and slough away dead skin cells from the skin's surface.

"When it comes to skincare, you'll either run into Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) or Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHAs)," says Dr. Hu. "BHAs, like salicylic acid, are more oil-soluble, and AHAs are more water-soluble. BHA's easily break through the skin cells' lipid layers and penetrate the skin at a deeper level than water-soluble products."

What Does Salicylic Acid Do For the Skin?

Because salicylic acid can penetrate deeply into the skin and go beyond just the surface layer, it's a powerful acne-fighting ingredient. "The acid part of the molecule can break down and loosen the desmosome (the proteins that hold cells together) making it easier for the product to exfoliate and cleanse any impurities that are clogging the pores," explains Dr. Hu.

But exfoliating dead skin cells and clearing out clogged pores are not the only benefits of salicylic acid, other benefits include minimizing the look of pores, reducing inflammation, and preventing breakouts.

Person looking into the mirror and applying a skincare product to their face
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Which Skin Types Should Use Salicylic Acid?

While salicylic acid is good for any skin type, Dr. Hu says that people who have acne-prone and oily skin will benefit the most from this ingredient as it has anti-inflammatory properties that help to soothe irritation, combat acne problems, and prevent new breakouts.

How Often Should You Use Products Containing Salicylic Acid?

"How often you use salicylic acid depends on what kind of product you are using," says Dr. Hu. "If salicylic acid is an ingredient in your cleanser, it is fine to use it every day."

However, if you are using an exfoliant that has salicylic acid in the formula, Dr. Hu advises only using the product three times per week, to avoid over-exfoliating the skin and drying it out.

Does Salicylic Acid Have Any Side Effects?

In general, salicylic acid is safe to use on all skin types and should not cause any negative reactions. "You might notice a little bit of irritation at first, but this should not last long," says Dr. Hu. "If irritation continues to occur, I recommend stopping the product and seeking advice from a dermatologist."

What Dosage Of Salicylic Acid Is Recommended For Acne?

Products containing between 1 to 2% of salicylic acid are effective. However, Dr. Hu recommends looking for products containing 2% if you are trying to treat acne.

"I like 4.5.6 Skin - Green Bae Cleansing Gel, CeraVe Renewing Face Cleanser, and My Clarins Clear-Out, these are all great products that contain salicylic acid," she shares.

When Should You Avoid Using Salicylic Acid?

If you have particularly dry skin, it's best to avoid salicylic acid as it works to remove oil and might cause even more dryness.

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