This OTC Treatment Is the Answer to Banishing Acne
Take a walk through any drugstore skincare aisle in search of an acne remedy and you'll be inundated with several hard-to-pronounce ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, niacinamide, and azelaic acid, to name a few. But one ingredient shines a bit brighter than most, both for its exfoliating properties and for its ability to penetrate deep into the skin to clear blemishes and blackheads. This multitasking miracle ingredient is none other than salicylic acid.
While it's also a mouthful of a name, it's pretty simple in terms of treatment. It's sold over the counter in many forms such as creams, pads, gels, and washes, and it comes highly recommended by estheticians and dermatologists. It's also great for treating a bevy of other skin problems in addition to acne. Want to know more? Keep scrolling!
What Is it?
So what exactly is salicylic acid? For starters, it's an element derived from plants like willow bark and meadowsweet that helps aid in plant growth and development and fends off pathogens. When applied to the skin via topicals, however, it rapidly sloughs away dead skin cells to prevent pores from clogging or to unclog pores already filled up with dead skin cells and congestion. It also acts as an anti-inflammatory to help lessen the visibility of breakouts.
It's also found in dandruff shampoos. This is because of its ability to loosen and remove dry, scaly skin (makes sense, right?). It's also found in products that treat psoriasis, warts, and keratosis pilaris because it helps moisturize and soften the skin, breaking down rough, inflamed clusters and patches.
Salicylic acid is even great for applying to hyperpigmented areas left over from pesky blemishes. This because it diminishes the look of dark spots post-pimple by breaking down discolored cells.
It's important to note that salicylic acid isn't an antibiotic, which is where the salicylic acid versus benzoyl peroxide debate comes in. Katie Rodan, MD, told us that she believes one of the most thorough treatments for acne is a combination of the two ingredients because the salicylic acid works to break down plugged pores and slows future accumulation of dead skin cells within the pore, while benzoyl peroxide works in tandem to kill off acne-causing bacteria. However, this combination may prove to be a bit too powerful and irritating for the skin, which is why starting on a salicylic acid regimen is a safer route.
How Do You Use It?
Unlike some topical acne ingredients, salicylic acid is a bit more gentle on the skin. According to celebrity esthetician Reneé Rouleau, it's a "keratolytic beta hydroxy acid famous for its ability to smooth the skin without causing irritation." However, in higher concentrations of the ingredient (1% or higher), there is the possibility of skin peeling. While most skin types can tolerate salicylic use every day, if dryness occurs, decrease your use to a few times a week.
If you want to see the full effects of salicylic acid, don't just use it every once in a while when a pimple pops up—it's actually most effective when it's used continuously, which is why cleansers with the ingredient (for both face and body) are great bets. However, you can also spot-treat with the ingredient if your skin is bit more sensitive and can't tolerate a full cleanse.
Is There Anyone Who Shouldn't Use It?
While more studies need to be done, it's recommended that women who are pregnant should not use salicylic acid. Acute toxicity via absorption is unlikely as topical salicylic acid is absorbed in such small doses, but it's important to be cautious.
According to Manhattan-based dermatologist Sajal K. Shah, MD, dark skin tones are prone to hyperpigmentation when using an irritating topical. As salicylic acid may become slightly irritating (when using a higher concentration of the ingredient), try patch-testing first on your inner forearm to evaluate any possible skin discoloration as a result of using the ingredient.
All in all, while salicylic acid is one of the more gentle acne treatments, we suggest speaking with your doctor or dermatologist first before incorporating the treatment into your routine.
Keep scrolling to shop our favorite products with salicylic acid.
Philosophy Clear Days Ahead ($19)
One user writes, "The product is very efficient, clearing up my spot acne within a few days. I've only had the product for a week, but I love it." This treatment claims to fight off bacteria with its antimicrobial properties while salicylic acid penetrates deep to clear out pores.
Cane + Austin Acne Treatment Pads ($57)
According to one user, "These pads work really well and I love how easy they are to use. You need to be a little patient for about 10–14 days before you really see results, but then it seems like your face gets better every day." After cleansing, swipe this pad across your face to diminish breakouts and blackheads.
Do you use a product that contains salicylic acid? Which is your favorite? Please tell us below!