Ingredients Hero: Salicylic Acid 101: The Best Acne and Blemish Slayer

Ingredients Hero: Salicylic Acid 101: The Best Acne and Blemish Slayer
  • Are you looking for an ingredient that will solve your acne problem? It might be your answer to use salicylic acid.
  • Anti-acne products contain salicylic acid as their main ingredient. It can be used to treat mild to moderate acne. Use of this ingredient, however, must be done carefully. Learn about the skin benefits of salicylic acid, how it is used, and its side effects.

The Opinion of the Expert

According to one study, salicylic acid formulations are well tolerated and can treat acne by reducing the number of lesions over time

- Kraft J and Freiman A


What is salicylic acid?1,2,3

  • Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble BHA (beta-hydroxy acid). Often, these two terms are used interchangeably. It is commonly found in over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products at a range of 0.05% - 5% (up to 0.5% in Korean skincare). Commonly, it is obtained from the bark and leaves of the willow and wintergreen trees. Salax, meaning willow tree in Latin, is the origin of the name.
  • When it comes to exfoliants, you have more than a few options to choose from depending on your skin type. I will describe how salicylic works after explaining how breakouts form: clogged pores are caused by bacteria, dust, debris, and sebum mixing together. As opposed to alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are water-soluble and ideal for surface exfoliation, salicylic is oil-soluble, so it is able to penetrate deep within your pores and exfoliate them to remove blockages.
  • It works by increasing the amount of moisture in the skin and removing the substance that binds the skin cells together, making it easier for them to shed. So now you can see why the ingredient has been a favorite for oily, acne-prone skin for so long, then?
  • While salicylic acid is most commonly known as a mild acne spot treatment, the ingredient can also be found in a variety of other products, such as cleansers, toners, serums, and peels, all of which can benefit the skin. Each vehicle uses salicylic acid in its own unique way, and is designed to target specific skin issues in specific people. The caveat is that some cleansers, peels, and toners can be overly harsh and should be avoided.

Benefits of Salicylic Acid4,5

  • Exfoliates dead skin: Salicylic acid is a keratolytic, encouraging cell turnover and sloughing off dead skin cells. This can improve dullness, blemishes and texture of the skin.
  • Softens the contents of clogged pores: the oil-soluble ingredient penetrates the pores and loosens the "glue" that sticks the skin cells together, which leads to whiteheads, blackheads, and small red pimples.
  • Removes excess oil: Because salicylic acid is oil-soluble, it can penetrate beneath the skin's surface to remove excess sebum from the pores and reduce oil production. Furthermore, the pores may also appear smaller as a result of this.
  • Prevents whiteheads and blackheads: Salicylic acid will not only treat existing breakouts, but it will also prevent them from returning to the surface of your skin because it targets whiteheads and blackheads directly.
  • Reduces inflammation: Salicylic acid is part of the same chemical family as aspirin (salicylates). In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, salicylic acid helps reduce irritation and redness associated with breakouts.

Precautions You Should Take Before Using Salicylic Acid6,7,8

  • Based on a review of literature, salicylic acid is most suitable for those with oily skin and mild acne. Dry, eczema-prone, or sensitive skin may find the drying ingredient too harsh, resulting in irritation.
  • It is most commonly associated with dry, burning, and itchy skin in the area of application; however, these symptoms are most common at the beginning of treatment and should not be extended or repeated on alternate days to build tolerance. Consult your board-certified dermatologist if side effects persist or worsen.
  • If you use salicylic acid, your skin may become more prone to sunburn. While using salicylic acid, limit your sun exposure and reapply sunscreen every couple of hours.

How to Use It- Salicylic Acid7,8

  • The recommended concentration and frequency of salicylic acid treatment varies from person to person, and should be discussed with your dermatologist. To use salicylic acid moderately until you know your skin can tolerate it. Take note of your skin's reactions to it after applying it every few days at first. It's important to pay attention to your skin, According to Dermatologist. If it's getting irritated, you need to take a day or two off and moisturize more. Don't do more or less, and don't use it for longer than recommended.
  • In spite of the fact that salicylic acid is a common acne-fighting ingredient that's readily available and available at the drugstore, it's important to use it with caution when treating breakouts. Salicylic acid is used based on a person's skin type, underlying indication and the level of acne.


Short Summery of Salicylic Acid

  • Type of Ingredients: Anti-Inflammatory & Exfoliant
  • Benefits: Remove dead skin, Unclog the pores and minimize appearance of pores, Remove excess oil (Sebum), Treat the acne (Blackheads, Whiteheads), Reduce acne induce inflammation (Cystic acne).
  • Suitable for: It is generally recommended for people seeking treatment for acne, such as whiteheads, blackheads, and small red pimples, who have oily skin which prone to acne and inflammation.
  • How to use: Use salicylic acid in moderation until you know your skin can handle it without irritation. When your skin tolerates it, you can increase the frequency to twice a day, unless you know you'll be getting direct sun exposure, then it should only be applied at night and frequently used with sunscreen.
  • Compatible with: Hyaluronic Acid, Squalane oil, Rosehip oil and Moisturiser etc. (Calm the irritation)
  • Non-compatible with: You should not mix it with niacinamide at the same time, don't apply it to wounded skin, don't mix it with other exfoliating agents without consulting a skin expert.



  1. Kraft J, Freiman A. Management of acne. CMAJ. 2011;183(7):E430-E435. doi:10.1503/cmaj.090374
  2. Lee HS, Kim IH. Salicylic acid peels for the treatment of acne vulgaris in Asian patients. Dermatologic surgery. 2003 Dec;29(12):1196-9.
  3. "Salicylic acid".
  4. Eady EA, Burke BM, Pulling K, Cunliffe WJ. The benefit of 2% salicylic acid lotion in acne a placebo-controlled study. Journal of dermatological treatment. 1996 Jan 1;7(2):93-6.
  5. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology. 2015;8:455.
  6. “Salicylic Acid Topical” Data base of USA national library of medicine “Medline Plus”.
  7. Documents of USFDA; FDA Drug Safety Communication: FDA warns of rare but serious hypersensitivity reactions with certain over-the-counter topical acne products.
  8. Documents of USFDA; Beta Hydroxy Acids
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