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abstract image of a model with clear skin reflected in broken glass, understanding salicylic acid

Simple Skincare Science: Salicylic Acid

Any long-standing sufferers of acne will likely fall into one of two categories. You’ve either heard of salicylic acid (and use it regularly)… Or you’re about to fall to your knees and cry out in gratitude for your new skincare saviour.

This perhaps sounds dramatic, but when you consider the abundant benefits of adding this simple solution to your skincare routine, you’ll understand the hyperbole.

Best known for its exfoliating and bacteria-fighting prowess, it turns out there is a lot that people don’t know about salicylic acid. From what exactly it is to how suitable it is for different skin types, today we’re covering the need-to-knows.


What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) with the ability to sink deeply into the skin and disperse excess oil and dead skin cells. It’s an organic, carbon-based compound that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, and willow bark.

It’s FDA approved, and an absolute treasure in the topical treatment of acne; one recommended for those with oily skin by a wide range of dermatology experts.

You’ll find salicylic acid in a host of over-the-counter skincare products, but it’s also available in stronger formulas on prescription.


How does salicylic acid work?

In the simplest of terms, salicylic acid exfoliates the surface of your skin. It cleanses your pores (hair follicles) by penetrating them to remove clogs of excess oil. Over time and regular use, it can even help to prevent your pores from clogging up again

In essence, salicylic acid breaks through the bonds between skin cells, allowing for deep exfoliation and a dramatic decrease in oil secretion.

Since the most common causes of blackheads, whiteheads, or pimples, is when your pores get clogged up with oil and dead skin cells, you’ll often find acne sufferers singing the praises of salicylic acid.

Keep in mind, however, this is no instant miracle solution. It can take many weeks of regular use for you to notice the improvements to your skin. Be vigilant with your application. And if you haven’t noticed any results after roughly six weeks, contact your dermatologist for advice.


person with clear skin looking at camera, smiling, hands on cheeks

What are the benefits of salicylic acid?

There is a reason salicylic acid has a longstanding following of loyal fans – from dermatologists to beauticians, journalists, celebrities, and everyone in between. Let’s take a closer look at why so many skincare enthusiasts adore this affectionately nicknamed skin saviour.


Fight and prevent acne breakouts

Ok, bottom line – acne bacteria cannot stand oxygen. It’s why you’ll find acne flourishes when your pores are clogged.

Since salicylic acid gets in deep and thoroughly exfoliates your pores, by using it you’re creating a healthy, oxygen-rich environment; one that’s fresh and utterly hostile to bacteria.

Keep in mind though, salicylic acid isn’t targeting the bacteria, strictly speaking. It’s not designed to destroy the bacteria, merely create that fresh air environment that acne hates. Consider it a way to weaken your acne, then use complementary ingredients like benzoyl peroxide to wipe it out completely.

While salicylic acid may need help to fully rid you of acne, you’ll find that this comedolytic solution is an exceptional preventative measure against future breakouts. Regular use will help keep your pores clean and far from a hospitable environment for acne bacteria.

Clean pores, no excess oil or dead skin cells, no whiteheads, no acne. 


Accelerate skin rejuvenation

Being a peeling agent, salicylic acid is remarkably useful at helping your skin speed up its renewal of new cells. By helping to remove dead skin cells and replenish new ones, including this ingredient in your skincare routine can bring about highly desirable restorative effects.


Soothe inflammation

Ever heard of salicin? No? How about aspirin? Both have anti-inflammatory properties which are highly effective at calming inflamed skin and irritation. And you’ll find plenty of salicin in our beloved skin saviour.

Acne sufferers, say goodbye to those intense hours of red, sore puffiness. Anyone struggling with psoriasis inflammation would be wise to give salicylic acid a try, too. As a topical remedy, this naturally occurring chemical really is a skincare miracle.


Is it OK to use salicylic acid every day?

Most dermatologists don’t recommend salicylic acid for daily use, since it can cause irritation and dry out your skin. However, plenty of people do consider it a cornerstone of their daily skincare routine. Start out by applying it no more than twice weekly, then increase if you have no adverse reactions.

It’s important to be aware of how your skin reacts to each application. The last thing you want to do is invite discomfort by charging ahead with a routine you’re not ready for. If your skin starts peeling or feeling itchy, irritated or dry, either stop using or cut back on how much or how often you’re using it.

It is also worth mentioning that, under the rarest of circumstances, some people may encounter an allergic reaction. If you start experiencing a break out of hives or any similar reaction, stop using salicylic acid immediately and seek medical help.


closeup of two people, their faces touching side by side, both looking at the camera, suitable skin types for salicylic acid

What skin type is salicylic acid good for?

If you have oily skin or you’re prone to acne, you owe it to yourself to give this topical treatment a try. Not only does this stuff clean out excess oil in your pores, but it also helps reduce how much oil you produce in future.

For those of you who suffer from comedonal acne (whiteheads or blackheads), you’ll find over-the-counter salicylic acid especially effective. For those with more severe cystic acne, you’d be better off consulting your dermatologist; you may be able to get a higher concentration via prescription that can help, or find alternative viable acne solutions.

Keep in mind that if your skin is sensitive or particularly dry, salicylic acid might not be right for you. It can cause dryness and irritation.


Are there side effects?

Though considered safe by the medical community, it’s entirely possible that you might encounter negative side effects when using salicylic acid. Particularly when you first use it.

These are more likely in those with sensitive or dry skin. If you experience any of the following, you should stop using the product immediately, and consult your doctor if conditions worsen.

  • Stinging, tingling, or burning sensation
  • Skin tightness and drying out (itchiness)
  • Red patches of flaky/peeling skin
  • Acne flare-up
  • Hives
  • Swelling, blistering or rashes

With side effects like a slight stinging or burning, this may simply be your skin adjusting to the salicylic acid – a passing condition far less severe than swelling or blistering. Take your time when trying this skincare solution, don’t rush, and always consult an expert if you’re unsure or concerned about your reaction.


How to choose the right salicylic acid product

The right product for you will depend entirely on your skin type and what you’re hoping to get out of it.

Always keep in mind, this is a drying agent. As such, the most essential consideration you should have is your skin’s hydration levels. Look for products with hydrating ingredients – hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and soothing oils.

For over-the-counter products, you’re likely to find the concentrations of salicylic acid range between 1 and 5%. Conversely, peels tend to come in between the 10 to 30% concentration range – at this kind of strength, you should absolutely be seeking expert advice before using a salicylic acid product.

If you’re determined to try salicylic acid despite having dry or sensitive skin, be sure you opt for products with low concentrations. No more than 1% is recommended, or you risk inviting negative side effects.


closeup of person's chin and cheek, acne sufferer ready to use salicylic acid, how to

How to use salicylic acid

First, some do’s…

  • Complete a patch test before applying liberally.
  • Err on the side of caution, even if you had no reaction to the patch test. Start with small amounts and work your way up to a more widespread application.
  • Be aware of how your skin reacts over the course of 24 hours. You may need a lower concentration product if you start reacting badly, or you may need to dial back how much you use.
  • Apply to your entire face when you’re confident that your skin won’t have a negative reaction.
  • Avoid the eyes, lips and mouth.
  • Abide by the age-old adage – less is more. You shouldn’t be using more than a pea-sized amount for your entire face.
  • Complement your treatment by applying an oil-free moisturiser twice daily. This will help balance out the drying effects.
  • Remember to use sunscreen daily and keep your time in the sun to a minimum. Salicylic acid doesn’t offer protection from UV rays.


And now, some don’ts…

  • Don’t apply salicylic acid products to large areas of your body.
  • Avoid using for lengthy periods of time.
  • Never apply salicylic acid under air-tight dressings
  • Don’t scrub your face – this is a chemical exfoliant and doesn’t require scrubbing to work. Let it soak in.



Salicylic acid isn’t a cure for acne, but it is an affordable means of managing breakouts. You should, however, always consult your doctor or dermatologist before trying out a new product like this.