Salicylic Acid: Why It’s Key To Keeping Oily Skin Spot-Free

by Gio
salicylic acid best exfoliant for oily skin

I wish I had known about salicylic acid when I were a teen.

Back then, I spent hours irritating scrubbing my face and drying out pimples with toothpaste (I read in a mag it worked 🙄 ) and then wondered why my skin looked like a mess.

Salicylic acid would have come to the rescue. It’d have kicked pimples off my face. Soothed the redness. Brightened my complexion.

It’s basically a superhero for oily skin types. Here are its superpowers:

What The Heck Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is the superhero name for Beta Hydroxy Acid (or BHA for short). 

(P.S. Not all Beta Hydroxy Acids are salicylic acid. But SA is the only BHA used in the skincare world. Got it?).

Salicylic acid is naturally found in the bark of the willow tree, but the type used in your lotions and potions is usually made in a lab. Nothing wrong with that. It keeps the costs down without hurting your skin.

the ordinary aha 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution review 01

What Does Salicylic Acid Do For The Skin?

Mmm, where to start? Oh yes, I got it:

1. Salicylic Acid Exfoliates Skin (And Pores)

I know all of you want to use glycolic acid because it’s an antiaging superstar, but if you have oily skin, salicylic acid is the better option.

Why? Cos it’s oil soluble.


Let me explain:

While glycolic acid (and all its AHAs siblings) only exfoliates the surface of the skin, salicylic acid is able to get through your skin’s lipid barrier and into your pores.

Once in there, salicylic acid quickly removes all the crap, like excess sebum and dead cells, that are clogging them before they erupt in pimples. 

Its ability to exfoliate the pores from within make it a pro at treating blackheads (and whiteheads). While pore strips only remove the black heads that have made it to the surface of your skin, salicylic acid also gets rid of their bodies, which are hiding unseen inside the pores, waiting only for the next opportunity to come forward and create new blackheads.

Plus, salicylic acid dissolves the glue that holds skin cells together on the surface of your skin. This helps even out the skin tone, smooth out wrinkles and fade away dark spots. It gives the complexion a radiant glow, too.

P.S. P. Acnes, the bacteria that causes acne, feeds on dead skin cells. By removing them, you’ll make it weaker and easier to destroy.

P.P.S. Its exfoliating properties make salicylic acid an effective treatment for dandruff, too.

Related: AHAs Vs BHA: Which One Is Right For You?

2. Salicylic Acid Has Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties. This means it can:

  • Reduce the redness that always tags along with pimples
  • Calm down inflamed acne
  • Soothe stressed and irritated skin

This makes it ideal for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.

3. Salicylic Acid Has Anti-Bacterial Properties

Salicylic acid also has antibacterial properties that weaken P. Acnes, the bacteria that causes acne. It’s just not as good as killing it as benzoyl peroxide.

I wouldn’t rely on salicylic acid alone to make your acne disappear, but it should definitely be part of your anti-acne toolkit. Cos every little bit helps.

Related: Salicylic Acid VS Benzoyl Peroxide: Which One Should You Use?

the ordinary salicylic acid 2 solution

Who Shouldn’t Use Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is awesome, but it’s NOT for everyone. You shouldn’t use it if:

  • You have dry skin: it may irritate it
  • Are on certain medications: it can interfere with certain drugs, like blood thinners
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding: taken orally in low doses can cause birth defects. Small doses ( <2% ) applied topically to the skin are safe for mum and baby, but just to be on the safe side, avoid salicylic acid peels.

Related: Which Skincare Ingredients Should You Avoid During Pregnancy?

How Much Salicylic Acid Do You Need?

You know how I always say that if you only add a sprinkle of an ingredient in a cream or lotion, it’s not gonna do much for you?

Salicylic acid is the exception to the rule. It works well even at 1 or 2% concentrations. In fact, here in the EU, you can’t use more than 2%.

Acids are awesome, but if you abuse them, they can wreak some serious havoc on your skin.

And you know human nature. When something is good, you want to use a ton of it to get better results and then wonder why your skin looks like a mess. If you can’t use more than 2%, you can enjoy its benefits without any nasty side effects.

What Are The Best Products With Salicylic Acid?

Pick one product. If your moisturizer has salicylic acid, you don’t need a separate exfoliant. If you exfoliate with salicylic acid, you don’t need it to be in your toner, too. You get the point.

Just avoid it in cleansers. Salicylic acid needs to stay on the skin for hours to work its magic.

Now that’s out of the way, here are my fave skincare products with salicylic acid:


The Bottom Line

If you have oily, combo or acne-prone skin, you need to add salicylic acid to your skincare arsenal now. It’ll vanish blackheads, fade dark spots, banish pimples and soothe your skin. What more could you ask for?

Are you using salicylic acid in your skincare routine? Share your experience and fave products in the comments below.



JD August 30, 2017 - 9:14 am

I can’t find BHA in Japan. DHC used to have one product with BHA but has discontinued it. I did manage to grab a Paula’s Choice product and a Drunk Elephant one on my recent visit to the US. I haven’t tried them yet as I’m still finishing one product which I’m currently using.

JD September 1, 2017 - 12:59 am

I wrote/spoke too soon. My friend just told me that DHC is bringing back or has brought back some of the BHA/salicylic products and apparently, though not in all DHC stores, the products are/may be available online or by order.

Gio September 1, 2017 - 4:33 pm

JD, that’s great news! Hope you can get your hands on them soon.

Augusto Guerrero September 2, 2017 - 12:20 am

How often do you think it should be used? Or rather how often do you think one should chemically exfoliate? And do you recommend to use glycolic with the salicylic for best results? Or if I wanna use both use them separate?

Gio September 2, 2017 - 9:39 pm

Augusto, that depends on your particular concern. Salicylic acid is for oily, spot-prone skin while glycolic acid is for dry, sun damaged skin. If you’re dealing both with breakouts and sun damage, then getting a serum like Drunk Elephant Glycolic Night Serum is your best option as it contains both acids. But if you’re only concerned about breakouts, salicylic acid is enough. How often to use it depends on how much chemical exfoliation your skin can tolerate. I recommend using it 3 times a week to start with and building up frequency gradually.

Barbara September 10, 2017 - 1:36 pm

Hahaha I definitely used toothpaste and it worked pretty well most of the time!

I had terrible acne as a teenager and into early adulthood. Eventually it went away (not sure from what), but sadly I don’t think salicylic acid helped me a lot. Or perhaps I didn’t know how to use it properly. I think I used too much. My skin eventually was also peeling a lot. I shudder thinking how abusive I was to my skin back then!

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:11 am

Barbara, I tried the toothpaste trick too. It works but it’s SO drying.

Oh no! Sorry to hear the salicylic acid didn’t help. It could just be your skin was rebelling because you were too harsh on it. But again I can relate. You have no idea how deal with acne as a teen and it’s so easy to overdo it and make things worse. 🙁

Jenny September 13, 2017 - 8:31 am

Hi Gio,
I always find Paulas Choice effective to my skin when it comes to salicylic acid. I have oily skin and blackheads, so the use of salicylic acid does not only help me with my oily skin but also with my blackheads.

Gio September 17, 2017 - 8:15 am

Jenny, Paula’s Choice exfoliants are amazing, aren’t they?

Jenny September 19, 2017 - 2:03 am

Yes, amazingly effective! This has been one of my favorite skincare products.

Gio September 23, 2017 - 3:03 pm


Stu January 30, 2018 - 2:20 pm

For Salicylic acid – Stridex pads. Simple, cheap, sorted.

Gio February 2, 2018 - 4:25 pm

Stu, thanks for the recommendation.

Rimi March 10, 2018 - 9:00 am

i have acne oily skin. i use cleanser that has veryy mild concentration of salicylic acid. Can i use ordinary 2% salicylic sol ??? after my cleanser???

Gio March 16, 2018 - 7:37 pm

Rimi, yes you can. Salicylic acid in a cleanser doesn’t really do much. I think you will see a big improvement when you introduce The Ordinary salicylic acid.

Shosh March 20, 2018 - 5:05 pm

I normally have normal skin with hormonal breakouts during the time of the my usual acid is the glycolic. I saw u reccomendd incorporating salycilic acid a week before to help control that. I just ordered the ordinary calyxilic acid. How would u apply? On a cotton pad like a glycokic toner?

Gio March 23, 2018 - 12:26 pm

Shosh, yes you can use it with a cotton pad. Let me know if you see a difference. I do. 🙂

Kirsty July 19, 2019 - 10:35 am

I really need advice on Salicylic Acid vs Glycolic Acid. I am 46 with dry skin but also blackheads and enlarged pores. Which do I use and how often? Thanks

Gio August 8, 2019 - 2:57 pm

Kirsty, salicylic acid every other day.

Scar May 30, 2018 - 2:57 am

Just wondering, can you use Salycilic acid together with The Ordinary’s Granactive Retinoid Emulsion? Would it cause my skin to peel? I have mild acne, oily to combination skin and my skin can feel pretty tight sometimes, so I’m not sure if this might dry it out even further.

I just introduced the Granactive Retinoid into my skin care and it’s doing wonders, but I just realized that I should probably have started out with applying the retinoid twice a week — I’ve been using it everyday for a week now! EEK!

Gio June 2, 2018 - 2:49 pm

Scar, yes, you can use them together. Salicylic acid is gentle and shouldn’t dry out your skin further. But if you’re worried, use them at different times (Salicylic in the morning, retinol at night) or on alternate days.

Mon August 7, 2018 - 7:53 pm

I have oily skin can I use salicylic acid facewash ?

Gio August 9, 2018 - 10:01 am

Mon, yes, you can.

Kat August 14, 2018 - 5:31 am

Hi Gio! Do you recommend applying salicylic acid all over the face or just on the breakouts?

Gio August 16, 2018 - 1:38 pm

Kat, it depends on your skin type. If it’s oily or acne prone, use it all over the face.

Kat August 17, 2018 - 3:11 am

Oh, thank you! One last question – is purging a possibility with salicylic acid?

Gio September 6, 2018 - 8:44 pm

Yes, unfortunately it is!

jossa January 8, 2019 - 7:15 am

hi gio, is salicylic good in using as a maintenance skin care everyday? or if the face is clear already then it must be stop? i have acne prone skin i think

Gio January 24, 2019 - 1:53 pm

Jossa, if you have acne prone skin, you need to keep using salicylic acid after the breakouts have cleared, or they will come back. But once skin is clear, you can use it a little less often, like every other day instead than everyday.

Kerojanai February 5, 2019 - 8:23 pm

Hi Gio,
What do you think about “St. Ives Blemish Control Face Scrub Apricot”? It contains 2% salicylic acid but the direction says to leave it on face for several minutes. According to what you said above, it would not be as effective. Right?

Gio February 8, 2019 - 6:37 pm

Kerojanai, does it have apricot kernels? That alone is reason enough to run away! But to answer your question, yes, salicylic acid works best when it’s not rinsed off.

Ilona September 10, 2019 - 12:23 pm

Hello, just made a purchase on (the official ordinary shop) based on your list. I hope it will help to solve my acne issues, or at least make it better, having problems on the side of my cheeks. This guide is very good if you don’t want to get lost in Ordinary page descriptions of the product. its very unusual if you are used to popular beauty products, like cleanser scrub cream or tonic

linh September 12, 2019 - 8:35 am

can i use the salicylic acid 2% at the first time?

Gio October 5, 2019 - 5:23 pm

Linh, yes you can.

Comments are closed.