What Are The Best Salicylic Acid Exfoliants?

by Gio
5 best salicylic acid exfoliants

“I’ve tried EVERYTHING to get rid of blackheads and acne but nothing works. Help!”

I get this a lot. Sephora is loaded with products that promise to get rid of blackheads, kick acne in the butt and keep your oily skin under control. But 99% of them DON’T have what it takes to do the job: salicylic acid.

What The Heck Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid, a member of the Beta Hydroxy Acids (BHA) family, is an oil-soluble exfoliant.

In other words, most exfoliants can only exfoliate the surface of the skin and make it softer, smoother and brighter. But because it can get past the lipid (oily) barrier on your skin, salicylic acid goes deeper into the pores, unclogging everything that’s accumulating in there.

No clogs = no whiteheads/blackheads/pimples. Cool, huh?

Wait, there’s more. Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties that calm down the irritation and redness that always coms along with pimples and acne.

Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Spot-Free Skin

I’m not exaggerating when I say that salicylic acid is the most important product in any skincare routine for oily or acne-prone skin. But where to find it? Here are the best salicylic acid exfoliants:

Best For Oily Skin & Clogged Pores: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00)

There’s a reason why Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid is so popular: it works. The lightweight, liquidy formula is enriched with 2% salicylic acid to exfoliate skin and unclog pores. It gets rid of blackheads, whiteheads, pimples… Even milia. Plus, it hydrates skin to boot. Ok, it leaves it a little shiny for a while too, but isn’t that a small price to pay for no acne? Thought so.

Available at: Feel Unique, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges

Related: How To Get Rid Of Blackheads

Best For Mature Skin: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00)

Let’s get one thing straight: glycolic acid may be an anti-aging superstar, but it’s by no means the only thing that keeps wrinkles at bay. If you use your retinol, vitamin C and sunscreen, you can just stick to salicylic acid and call it a night. But for those of you who have visible signs of sun damage, like sun spots or wrinkles, or are simply convinced your entire face will fall apart overnight if you don’t immediately add this miraculous ingredient to your skincare routine (marketers have done a great job convincing EVERYONE they need glycolic acid even when they really, really, really don’t), Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum is the way to go. It has both glycolic and salicylic acids, plus a few antioxidants thrown in for good measure. All bases covered.

Available at: Sephora

Related: Glycolic Acid VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Is Right For You?

Best For Sensitive Skin: Paula’s Choice Calm Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion Exfoliant ($27.00)

Is your skin so sensitive, you’re afraid to exfoliate? Paula’s Choice Calm Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion Exfoliant is just what the doctor ordered for you. For starters, it contains only 1% salicylic acid – a low dose that even your skin can tolerate. Plus, it’s loaded with soothing ingredients, like oats and liquorice extract – that can calm down redness and irritations. It’s so gentle, it’s suitable even for rosacea.

Available at: Feel Unique, Nordstrom and Paula’s Choice

Related: How To Deal With Rosacea

Best On A Budget: The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution ($4.20)

If you want a no-frills, salicylic acid exfoliant that gets the job done (and fast), look no further than The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution. It lathers a little when you apply it (totally normal) but it absorbs quickly and unclogs those stubborn pores in a matter of days. The catch? Salicylic acid is all you get here. The Ordinary gives you the active ingredients you need – but no extras. For the price, can you really complain?

Available at: Adore Beauty, Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique

Related: The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution Full Review

Best For Fungal Acne: Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid ($21.00)

I’m cheating here. Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid doesn’t have a drop of salicylic acid. Instead, it uses a different form of BHA, benzyl salicylate. It does the same thing: exfoliates skin, unclogs pores and kicks acne in the butt. But it’s better for fungal acne. Here’s why: many salicylic acid exfoliants use polysorbates as stabilisers. Malassezia, the fungus that’s making your life hell, feeds on polysorbates. That makes your acne worse, not better. You need something without polysorbates (or anything else that damn thing can eat) and this fits the bill.

Available at: Look Fantastic, Ulta and Wishtrend

Related: Are They Dupes?: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant VS Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid


What are the best salicylic acid exfoliants, in your opinion? Share your fave picks in the comments below.



Cristina September 19, 2018 - 1:24 pm

Is it even worth using the Drunk Elephant one once a week ? ( i wonder 😉 ) . How often does people use it ? DE says once a day. 🙂

Gio September 26, 2018 - 7:46 pm

Cristina, imo, daily exfoliation is way too much for most people. Skin can exfoliate on its own, so unless it’s stopped doing the job properly (as it happens with age), it only needs a little helping hand.

If you have dry skin and are using it for glycolic acid, a couple of times a week is enough. If you have oily skin and want it to unclog pores to, you can use it three or four times a week.

Mariana September 20, 2018 - 10:55 pm

Sadly, The Ordinary’s products did nothing for me. My skin isn’t even all that problematic, still I saw no results. I tried it in every shape and form, used it in many ways, and still didn’t do a thing. Too bad for me I guess…

Gio September 26, 2018 - 7:36 pm

Mariana, sorry they didn’t work for you. But as your skin isn’t very problematic, could it be they were just maintaining the status quo?

Kristina February 17, 2019 - 5:01 pm

Unfortunately, I had the opposite experience as some others – The Ordinary’s salicylic did too much for me – it left my skin red and irritated! So I’ve ordered the Cosrx BHA, in hopes that my skin may be able to better tolerate betaine salicylate. Fingers crossed the Cosrx BHA is a better fit for my skin!

Gio February 20, 2019 - 5:41 pm

Kristina, oh no, I’m sorry to hear that! Betaine salicylate is gentler so you should be fine.

K June 2, 2019 - 8:37 pm

An update on my previous post – I just finished my bottle of Cosrx BHA, and I loved it!

I initially used it once a day, and have since increased my used to twice a day without experiencing irritation. I have large pores and tend to be oily, formerly with blackheads in my t-zone area. The blackheads have largely disappeared since incorporating Cosrx BHA into my routine, and the remaining stubborn blackheads are slowly disappearing since I’m increased to twice daily BHA exfoliation. The BHA, coupled with twice-daily niacinamide and azelaic acid, has significantly lessened the oiliness. I’ve now tried 3 of the 5 products on this list (TO and Paula’s Choice), and hands down, the Cosrx BHA is my favorite. Wish I had found it years ago!

However, a caveat – like any skin care product, what may work well for many doesn’t work for all. I had my partner try it, and she experienced significant irritation. Akin to a sunburn, and it took a full 2 days for the irritation to dissipate. So far, the only acid that she can tolerate is the First Aid Beauty radiance pads…

Gio June 4, 2019 - 6:25 pm

K, thank you for the update. Glad to hear it’s working well for you. And I couldn’t agree more. People ask me all the time what the best acid is and I always tell them: they one that works best for you! Just because an ingredient is popular or works for your best friend, it doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Get to know your skin and what it likes.

Amie Schantz August 30, 2019 - 4:29 am

A very affordable fungal acne safe salicylic acid is Stridex, the pads in the red box.

Marissa Gaanderse April 28, 2020 - 9:15 pm

I’ve been using the cosrx for a year, I don’t really notice a difference on my skin. It’s not irritating for my skin at all, acually more soothing, which also makes me doubt if it’s actually effective at exfoliating. The Ph of cosrx bha is tested by consumers (i.e. on reddit) between 4 and 5. The ideal range for a betaine salicylate’s effectiveness is pH-dependent, with a pH range of 3.8-4.2 being needed. Is it possible that the cosrx bha is mostly neutralized? there is a lot more research done into salicyc acid and it seems the only reason cosrx used betaine salicyc acid is because korea doesn’t allow salicyc acid to be used in skincare. I also read all the raving reviews about cosrx and it has great ingredients, but it seems that people write positive reviews about stuff that doesn’t work all the time, so I’m not sure how reliable reviews are. What do you think about this gio?

Gio May 17, 2020 - 8:09 am

Marissa, Betaine Salicylicate is less effective than salicylic acid at the right pH. I personally recommend Korean BHA exfoliants only to people who can’t tolerate salicylic acid as it takes a lot longer to see results.

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