What Is Salicylic Acid? Plus, 5 Best Salicylic Products For Skin

Last modified: Sunday, Jun 2, 2019

Daisy Marie Clay

Author: Daisy Marie Clay

Salicylic Acid is one of the most famous acids today, and for very good reasons. This acid has surged in popularity since the 1980s as a treatment for skin conditions such as acne.

It is an odorless, white to ‘colorless’ substance that is derived from the metabolism of salicin. Salicin comes from the bark of willow trees, which is surprising to most as this seems an unlikely origin for an acid being used since the late 1800s.

In addition to acne, it has also been used over the years for various other skin care uses, such as warts, psoriasis and even dandruff.

It is also used for the manufacturing of various other products… For example, it was one of the main ingredients used in the formation of aspirin, pepto-bismol and other medicines. It is also used as a food preservative.

It’s safe to say that Salicylic Acid is a diversely important acid, but in the scope of skincare, what else should you know?

What Is Salicylic Acid & How It Works?

Salicylic Acid is a lipophilic monohydroxybenzoic acid, meaning that it is a chemical compound which has the ability to dissolve in fats. Which is why it is regularly recommended for oily skin.

Salicylic acid is a type of phenolic acid, and BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid).

This acid works wonderfully on the skin, especially oily types, as lipophilic substances have the ability to dissolve on oils. Salicin itself acts as an anti-inflammatory agent in the human body. This allows the acid to penetrate into our oil generating sebaceous glands, and work to reduce inflammation.

These two features are key parts of why this acid works so wonderfully for most acne sufferers and when paired with other ingredients in certain products, allows it to do amazing things for our skin.

What Are The Benefits Of Salicylic Acid?

Among the many benefits of salicin, the salicylic acid itself has a lot of skin benefits.

It is known to be a good treatment for acne sufferers, but it is also equally useful for those who produce excess oil. It is good for preventing blackheads and blocked pores.

The reason that salicylic acid is good for acne is because it’s got the ability to penetrate any oily surface which allows it to attack bacteria and de-clog pores. This prevents spots and pimples from forming in the first place.

Quite often it’s easy to get caught up in the benefits of the oil penetrating ability of this acid, but it is also an acid after all… This means that it can exfoliate the skin, by stripping away the dead skin cells on the top layer of your skin.

This can help give you a more even complexion and smoother skin as a result.

It’s safe to say that salicylic acid is good for more than just treating acne and preventing spots. It’s an all-round skincare power house that’s useful for many different skin types

Best Way To Use Salicylic Acid

Salicylic Acid can be used for different reasons, but in terms of facial skin care you want to stick with a product between 0.5% and 2%. Elsewhere on the skin you can use a slightly higher % product such as a 3% product but that’s not a good idea for facial skin.

There are a number of different products and cosmetics that contain salicylic acid, but in order to get the most out of salicylic acid you want a product where the active ingredient is salicylic acid.

For best results in my experience, you also want to opt to get a face wash or topical treatment such as a gel or cream.

Everyone should start out using their chosen product slowly, just every few days to begin with but depending on your skin type you can look below to see the specific recommendations and guidelines for using salicylic acid.

Sensitive Skin:

You can use salicylic acid up to 3 times per week, but I wouldn’t recommend using it more than that. Also be aware that you shouldn’t use it in conjunction with other products that may irritate your skin.

Oily Skin:

You can use salicylic acid as much as once a day, but build up to this slowly so you can find the sweet spot and not dry your skin out too much.

Combination Skin:

If you have combination skin you can use the product a few times per week, but no more than 4 times per week. A good face wash product with around 2% strength will most likely work best.

Dry Skin:

If you have dry skin then you probably shouldn’t use salicylic acid because it can be quite drying and harsh, which will irritate the skin. Opt for more gentle acid exfoliants instead.

How To Choose Salicylic Acid Products

As with most products, quality is always more important than quantity and this is extremely true with salicylic acid.

You have to pay special attention to things like the brand. Are they reputable? Does the product have mostly good reviews?

This is a good first step.

The next thing you have to do is pay special attention to the ingredients… Not all ingredients that are added to products are going to help. Sometimes ingredients are added for the impact value to help with marketing and to “stand out”, but that’s not always a good thing.

Always use your best common sense here, as if you’ve got sensitive skin you likely know what products cause irritation when you use them too often or in too much volume. It’s also always good to check the ingredients of your salicylic acid products.

5 Best Salicylic Acid Products For Skin

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne and Redness Facial Cleanser

I’m putting this one first on my list because it’s been a great product for me… It also cost me under $10 to get it which is fantastic value for money. This 6 ounce pump bottle’s primary ingredient is the salicylic acid and it comes in at a 2% strength which is the higher-end. This is great for people with acne prone skin and oily skin and I personally love it as it’s a nice and gentle face wash.

Aveeno Clear Complexion Daily Facial Cleansing Pads with Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment

Aveeno’s daily facial cleansing pads is another great salicylic acid product. Unlike the face wash above this can be great if you just want to give your face a quick wipe over. *I use this on the days that I’m not using the Neutrogena Cleanser as this is only a 0.6% product which is more gentle.* The lower strength percentage of these pads means it’s ideal to use every other day if you want to give your regular salicylic acid product a day in-between use. If you have sensitive or dry skin and decide to use this daily then you get roughly a months supply with 28 pads. AND at under $10 it’s great value. It does contain soy extract which is worth noting if you have allergies.

Paulas Choice--SKIN PERFECTING 2% BHA Liquid Salicylic Acid Exfoliant

This is a pretty well-known salicylic acid product, and it’s definitely one of the best that I’ve ever used. I moved away from using it more regularly as it’s a pricier alternative and this is mainly because it contains additional ingredients such as Butylene Glycol (hydration enhancer) and Green Tea. Which are both great ingredients, however I wanted a more basic product that was mainly Salicylic Acid. That being said, the Paulas Choice Liquid Exfoliant is perfect if you have combination skin as it’s not going to dry your skin out quite as badly. I do however think that this product would still be a bit much for those with dry skin (unlike what the product states).

The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution

One of the things I love about The Ordinary is that their products work and for a fair price. That’s why this product makes the list, but unlike some of their other products it does contain additional ingredients that I wasn’t really looking for. Specifically it contains Witch Hazel (Hamamelis Virginiana Leaf Water), which you should avoid if you have sensitive skin and in fairness to them they do specify that this product isn’t good for people with sensitive skin. If you don’t have sensitive skin it’s a top product and definitely the best salicylic acid serum that I’ve come across. Use this product if you have oily to combination skin and if you prefer serums to other types of products.

BeBarefaced Acne Cream Treatment Moisturiser With Tea Tree Oil & Salicylic Acid

This one is a little bit different as it’s a moisturiser, and it doesn’t immediately seem like a great idea but I tried this one out earlier this year and it left my skin feeling smooth and it certainly didn’t seem to have any negative effects. I really love BeBarefaced as a brand, and one of the reasons for that is they are a cruelty free brand and don’t include nasty synthetics such as parabens. I’ve put this last on the list because I can see that it might not be ideal for a lot of people, but I do recommend it for combination skin types.

Possible Salicylic Acid Side Effects

The main possible side-effect of salicylic acid is an allergic reaction, so always be sure to patch test first.

It’s not generally advisable to those who are allergic to aspirin.

It can also interact with certain medications, so always check with your GP/Doctor before using this product if you are concerned that it might interact with medication you take.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Use Salicylic Acid While Pregnant?

No you shouldn’t use salicylic acid when pregnant.

Can You Use It While Breastfeeding?

Yes it is safe to use while breastfeeding!

Can Salicylic Acid Make Acne Worse?

No. In sensitive skin it might be that it irritates, and this can be perceived as breaking out if you have sensitive skin. If this happens to you either cut back the % you are using or the amount of times you are using it and see if that makes a difference.

If you feel like you are breaking out worse since starting to use salicylic acid, it could be due to your skin purging. Salicylic acid works by unclogging your pores which means in the beginning you might notice more spots - as things deep in your pores are brought to the surface.

Can Salicylic Acid Be Used On Rosacea?

No. It’s not a great idea for use with rosacea as it can actually be fairly harsh on the skin and isn’t great for sensitive skin. Since almost all people with rosacea have sensitive skin I personally wouldn’t recommend it.