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 Is Salicylic Acid?
- What Does Salicylic Acid Do For Skin?
- Who Shouldn’t Use Salicylic Acid?
- How Much Salicylic Acid Do You Need?
- What Are The Best Products With Salicylic Acid?
- The Bottom Line
What 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.
Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes shine, pimples, and blackheads? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin” cheatsheet to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):
What Does Salicylic Acid Do For Skin?
Salicylic acid is a multitasker. Here’s everything it does for your skin:
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? It’s oil soluble. While glycolic acid (and all its AHAs siblings) only exfoliates the surface of your 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 makes 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 your 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.
Related: 9 Ways To Soothe Irritated Skin
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. Every little bit helps.
Related: Salicylic Acid VS Benzoyl Peroxide: Which One Should You Use?
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.
Related: 5 Skincare Treatments That Can Damage Skin IF Abused
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:
- Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboois Glycolic Night Serum: available at Cult Beauty, Sephora and SpaceNK
- Paula’s Choice Resist BHA 9 Targeted Solution ($43.00): available at Paula’s Choice
- Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant ($29.00): available at Dermstore, Look Fantastic, Paula’s Choice and Selfridges
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?