In this article, we will be introducing the latest addition to your skincare routine and the most recent buzzed-about ingredient: salicylic acid. It has been widely regarded as something of a holy grail for those with acne problems or oily skin. But is it really a miracle cure in a bottle?
Dr. Sison is a board-certified dermatologist who practices in the Philippines and sees both medical and cosmetic dermatological cases on skin, hair, and nails.
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Salicylic acid is a type of BHA or Beta Hydroxy Acid and has the ability to penetrate deep into the skin and dissolve dead skin cells and sebum from your pores. This makes it ideal in reducing blackheads and whiteheads as well as eliminating acne and blemishes due to its anti-inflammatory and exfoliating properties.
It is typically used to reduce blackheads, prevent breakouts, and minimize pores; therefore, it is ideal for oily and acne-prone skin types. For this reason, those with dry or sensitive skin should try to avoid using it as it could potentially strip their skin of moisture. Pregnant and lactating women should also avoid using salicylic acid as it is considered a blood thinner.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that occurs as a natural compound in plants. It has direct activity as an anti-inflammatory agent and can act as a topical antibacterial agent due to its ability to promote exfoliation. It is oil soluble, so it is ideal to use for oily skin types as a mild exfoliant.
Here are some key points to consider:
For more detailed information, read through our buying guide below.
Just because salicylic acid is noted to be beneficial for unclogging your pores and removing deep-seated dirt, does not mean you should just slather it all over. Take note of your skin concern and then choose which product you would most benefit from.
If you want a product that you can apply all over your face then facial wash is ideal, as it can cover a lot of surface area and is useful in preventing acne. The inclusion of salicylic acid as an ingredient also ensures it cleans your pores and decongests your skin.
This is ideal if you want to remove all the built-up dirt and grime from your skin that has accumulated during the day without the use of harsh scrubbing. If you’re not yet sure about incorporating salicylic acid in your skin care routine, start with cleansers, as the concentration is not that potent and you can wash it off.
Cleansers containing salicylic acid are ideal for those with acne because they have low concentrations of salicylic acid and are washed off immediately, thus minimizing skin irritation. They are also ideal for hard to reach areas like the back for those who have truncal acne ("bacne").
A toner’s purpose is often misconstrued; there have been thoughts that it should be harsh and abrasive to really get the gunk out of your skin. If it isn’t tingling, it isn’t working is a common theme, but all it does is irritate your skin, dry it out, and make you more prone to breakouts.
Toner is ideal for removing excess sebum, controlling oil production and regulating your skin’s pH balance. Salicylic acid in toner is also good for preventing minor pimples from forming; think of it as a preventive measure to ensure you don’t get breakouts.
Toners containing salicylic acid are useful as mild chemical exfoliants. They can also lessen the excess sebum production and minimize the appearance of pores. Take note that these exfoliating toners are not meant to be used on a daily basis because too frequent usage can damage your skin barrier and lead to increased redness, scaling, or irritation.
Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory and drying properties, which can speed up the healing process for acne and blemishes as it exfoliates your skin and promotes new cells. This is ideal if you have the occasional mild acne popping up every now and then.
Instead of picking at it, treat it with salicylic acid instead. It will remove your skin’s redness and dry it in about a day or two.
Salicylic acid can also be used as a spot treatment for acne but only for short-term use since there are other topical anti-acne medications that are more effective. It's best to consult your board-certified dermatologist for individualized management of your acne.
Did you know that salicylic acid can be used to treat scalp concerns? As previously mentioned, salicylic acid can exfoliate dead skin cells and it does this by dissolving the layer of keratin and regulates skin cells.
This makes it useful for treating scalp conditions such dandruff or seborrheic dermatitis, which is characterized by inflamed skin with a flaky and itchy scalp.
Salicylic acid in shampoo is also useful for dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis. Dandruff responds to more frequent shampooing or a longer period of lathering. Shampoos may be used on the scalp, beard, and chest for cases of seborrheic dermatitis.
If you have problem skin, you can use lotion infused with salicylic acid. This helps you soften rough bumps in your skin such as your elbows and knees. This is also an effective mild exfoliator if you want to get rid of blemishes or dark spots.
Body lotions containing salicylic acid are useful for rough skin and those with skin conditions called keratosis pilaris since salicylic acid at low concentrations can cause shedding of scales that eventually result in smoother and softer skin.
If you have oily skin, then salicylic is a good match for you. Having salicylic acid in your moisturizer allows you to treat blocked pores and acne while still delivering a dose of hydration, so you don't dry out your skin and cause breakouts.
Serums, on the other hand, reduce excess oil and prevent your face from getting shiny and removes blackheads - tightens your pores in the process.
Moisturizers and serums containing salicylic acid are useful for those with oily skin and they can also help in minimizing the appearance of enlarged pores. Make sure to consult a board-certified dermatologist before using these skincare ingredients especially if it's your first time.
Ideally your skincare products should contain around 0.5 – 2% concentration of salicylic acid, which is effective for treating blackheads and acne, though some have noted how 1% is the golden standard. You might think that it does not sound like much, but acids should be used sparingly.
Remember that this acid is rather potent, so you should not aim for more in hopes of it being more effective. Anything higher must be consulted with a dermatologist or doctor, as it exceeds the spectrum of home use and over-the-counter classification and falls under professional use.
Salicylic acid with concentrations of 2% or less can be used as a mild chemical exfoliant. This is useful for those with oily skin and acne.
In concentrations of 3% to 6%, it causes shedding of scales by softening the skin's outermost layer, dissolving the intercellular matrix, and loosening connections between skin cells. In concentrations greater than 6%, salicylic acid is already destructive to tissues and should only be used under the guidance of a board-certified dermatologist.
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The Inkey List
Salicylic Acid Cleanser
Zinc Compound to Reduce Excess Oil
AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
Gently Exfoliate and Hydrate Skin
Salicylic Acid 2% Solution
Infused with Witch Hazel to Reduce Acne Bumps
Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser
Your Gateway to Salicylic Acid Products
Some by Mi
AHA BHA PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner
Triple Acid Formula for More Radiant Skin
SA Lotion for Rough and Bumpy Skin
Smooth Rough Patches of Skin
Pore Clearing Moisturizer with Bamboo Charcoal
Salicylic and Bamboo Charcoal for Clearer Skin
Anti Acne Serum
Get Rid of Face and Back Acne
Spot Remover Anti-Blemish Treatment Gel
Clears Pores and Targets Pesky Zits
T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo-Scalp Build-Up Control
Medicated Shampoo for Scalp Concerns
If you have been using salicylic products for a while, then it doesn’t hurt to step up your game a little bit. This cleanser can remove makeup, which is ideal if you have missed any spots with a makeup remover. It unclogs pores as well as gently exfoliates your skin, so you have brighter looking skin afterward.
Their formulation has an added zinc compound, which is helpful in reducing excess oil, so you don’t feel greasy after. It also has allantoin, which has anti-inflammation and hydration benefits so your skin will not be dried out. You’ll be pleased to find out that their cleanser can be used both in the morning and at night.
Cosrx’s toner has often been raved about when it comes to toners for its relatively affordable price and quality results. It has been noted to be effective in removing blackheads and whiteheads without drying out your skin. Its mild formula is said to suit even those who are new to BHA products.
Their toner combines BHA to smooth out acne bumps and make your skin clear with its gentle exfoliation while the AHA works to hydrate and revive dry and dull skin so you can have two benefits in one product. This is ideal if you want an introductory product to ease you into the world of acids.
The Ordinary’s product is praised for being an excellent exfoliant, which is at par with high-end brands, for an affordable price. Most of the time, people are wary of chemical exfoliants because it feels like acid on your face. But if you want to try exfoliating your face without involving any harsh scrubbing, then this is for you.
It is also a great spot corrector as it is formulated with witch hazel to reduce oil and to flatten any bumps without the harsh drying effect. Keep in mind that this product is rather potent so just apply a few dots on your face where you want to remove a pimple or blemish if you are just trying it out.
This Korean brand has been gaining quite the reputation when it comes to salicylic acid products. Their face wash is ideal if you want to introduce salicylic acid into your skincare routine as it only has 0.5%, which is gentle enough to be used everyday. Feel it dissolve your oils, making you feel fresh in the process.
Their product has a creamy texture that draws out impurities from your pores and gives you a softening effect. It is also exfoliating so you can prevent the formation of blackheads and whiteheads before they develop into nasty bumps on your forehead and nose, just clear skin.
This brand is new on the K-beauty scene but its miracle toner is already making waves thanks to its 30-day guarantee of improving your skin. It is packed with 3 acids; AHA, BHA, and PHA that work together as an effective exfoliator to give you smoother, cleaner, and more radiant skin.
Despite the presence of three acids, the formula does not feel very drying, which is ideal if you have easily irritable skin. It also contains niacinamide that can help brighten your skin as well as glycerin to keep your face from drying out. This toner is ideal if you want an effective formula that won’t burn your skin.
CeraVe’s lotion is ideal if you have rough patches of skin, such as on your elbows or knees. It contains salicylic and hyaluronic acid, which gently exfoliates dry skin, as well as hyaluronic acid and ceramides, which are humectants that help prevent your skin from losing moisture.
It features an MVE delivery system that continuously releases moisturizing ingredients for 24-hour hydration. It is also enriched with vitamin D to help prevent premature aging. This lotion is very gentle on your skin, hypoallergenic, and non-comedogenic, making it safe for those with eczema.
Origins delivers an acne treatment and moisturizer in one. It is formulated with 1% salicylic acid, which some consider as the gold standard as far as percentages go. This product can help clear up and prevent breakouts from occurring. It also contains bamboo charcoal, which is useful for reducing oily skin and making pores look smaller.
Their moisturizer has an oil-free formulation, which is ideal if you have oily skin, as it balances out your skin by preventing an increase in oil production yet hydrating it at the same time to avoid it from drying out. The result is clear and refreshed skin without looking too greasy.
Did you know that your serum can contain salicylic acid as well? Mario Badescu’s anti-acne serum is formulated with salicylic acid to help decongest your skin, which is ideal if you feel like your skin has been stuffy lately. It also contains thyme extract, which is effective in reducing acne-causing bacteria to prevent breakouts.
A serum is noted to have a rather concentrated amount of active ingredient, which in this case, is salicylic acid. Therefore it is recommended that the product be used at night. Before going to bed, cleanse and tone your face, after which apply a thin layer of the product. You can also use it on your chest and back if you suffer from back acne or "backne".
Do you experience the occasional zits and bumps on your forehead? Instead of poking and prodding at it, try using a spot remover. Origins’ spot remover is a potent treatment that has a blemish-free fighting formula that can help clear your pores as well as reduce spots in about 2-3 days. Keep in mind a little goes a long way.
Its key ingredient is salicylic acid, which has antibacterial properties to effectively kill any pesky pimple. It is also enriched with plant extracts such as cloves to remove dead skin cells. Its anti-inflammatory properties can also help reduce any redness as well as correct discoloration to help your skin stay spotless.
Do you have persistent dandruff? Sometimes dandruff isn’t really caused by not rinsing your hair enough as you were led to believe. It might be something else. Try Neutrogena's therapeutic shampoo. It helps get rid of pesky flakes as well as all the build-up in your scalp. It’s also great if you have mild psoriasis.
It has been deemed to take effect after just one use. Usage is recommended to at least twice a week after consulting with a doctor. It has a rather potent formulation of salicylic acid at 3% so take care not to go overboard with it. For best results, leave it on your scalp for a few minutes after massaging it in.
Despite its holy grail status, salicylic does have its negative points. Here's how to ensure you're getting the most out of it without harming your skin.
Yes, there is actually too much of a good thing. In this case prolonged use of salicylic acid can irritate your skin and lead to peeling and skin purging, which is when your skin breaks out because of the rapid exfoliation process.
If it is your first time using it, gradually introduce it to your skin. Use it for about 2-3 times a week and make sure to do a patch test first to know if your skin has any harsh or allergic reactions to the product.
Products containing salicylic acid are not meant to be used daily since it can increase the chances of skin irritation, especially if it is a leave-on product (toners, serums, lotions, moisturizers).
Salicylic is considered an active ingredient, which means it is responsible for producing the desired effect in a skin care product. This means it can have a rather potent effect on your skin.
If you mix it with other exfoliants such as retinol, which has drying properties, you’re likely to dry out your face because you are getting twice the amount or dosage.
Skincare products with salicylic acid should not be used with other actives like alpha-hydroxy acids, retinoids, and Vitamin C because doing so can lead to more skin irritation or damage to your skin barrier.
This is because salicylic acid is an exfoliant and makes you more prone to photosensitivity and potentially burns your skin when exposed to UV rays. Try to use salicylic acid at night.
If you can’t avoid it, let’s say you’ve got a rather nasty zit or breakout that you need to zap, then remember to use sunscreen. This will ensure your face is protected as you go about your day.
Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen on all exposed skin not covered with clothing because salicylic acid can increase your skin's sensitivity to sunlight. Stay away also when the sunlight is the most intense and use other means of photoprotection like sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, and UV protective clothing when applicable.
Below are some of the most asked questions on the web answered by dermatologist Dr. Meg Sison.
Acne scars can either be atrophic (depressed) or raised (hypertrophic). Salicylic acid will not be able to remove these types of acne scars. It is best to consult a board-certified dermatologist for a tailored treatment plan which consists of various procedures such as microneedling, lasers, subcision, fillers, chemical peels, intralesional steroid injections, etc to address these scars.
Salicylic acid can remove warts at high concentrations. Consult a board-certified dermatologist for guidance on how to use salicylic acid for wart removal.
Yes, it can cause purging, but not all individuals will experience this. This is due to increased skin cell turnover caused by retinoids and chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid.
Sure salicylic acid is all the rage right now, but let’s not forget to get back to the basics. Check out these products for a foolproof skincare routine.
Our buying guide was carefully researched and crafted by the mybest team of writers and editors, in collaboration with the expert featured in this article. We used the buying guide as a basis for choosing and ranking the product recommendations, and we looked at reviews and ratings from different E-commerce sites like Lazada, Shopee, and more.
No. 1：The Inkey List｜Salicylic Acid Cleanser
No. 2：Cosrx｜AHA/BHA Clarifying Treatment Toner
No. 3：The Ordinary｜Salicylic Acid 2% Solution
No. 4：Cosrx｜Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser
No. 5：Some by Mi｜AHA BHA PHA 30 Days Miracle Toner
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