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Just the words "chemical peel" can send some people's hearts racing—memories of bad experiences, red faces, and tingling, burning skin can be traumatizing for pretty much everyone. But the juice is always worth the squeeze, and often chemical peels can result in some pretty stunning, gorgeous skin. But there are plenty of types of chemical peels, some more intensive than others, so if you're worried about burning your entire face off the first time, salicylic acid is likely the best place to start.
"Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps remove excess oil and dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. Because it is oil-soluble, it penetrates the pores and is an effective acne treatment," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, an NYC-based dermatologist. Salicylic acid is stellar in peel form due to its exfoliation and acne-fighting capabilities. "The goal of a salicylic acid peel is to dry out pimples on the skin and help exfoliate. When high concentrations are applied to the skin in the form of a peel, you will experience some tingling or burning in the skin. As the skin heals over the next few days, you may experience some redness and peeling, so make sure to wear sunscreen if using salicylic acid because it can make you sensitive to developing a sunburn," he says.
Keep scrolling to see the best salicylic acid peels on the market for glowing, smooth skin.
Best Overall: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Thousands of positive reviews confirm the pore-clearing power of this leave-on treatment. Mega fans mainly love that the salicylic acid works to boost cell regeneration and minimize blemishes and wrinkles, while green tea works to soothe inflammation and provide a protective layer against free radicals.
Best Budget: THE ORDINARY AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
This potent berry-colored solution—which has been all over social media pretty much since its initial launch—can be left on for up to 10 minutes before rinsing off. It behaves like a professional peel, leaving you with glowing, radiant skin in just one use. The alpha-hydroxy acids work to minimize dark spots and fade acne scars, while the beta hydroxy acids (AKA salicylic acid) work to clear out pores. The hydrating ingredients, like hyaluronic acid and vitamin B5 in the formula, are always a welcome bonus. And for this price, you'll want to buy a few of them.
Best Dupe: Glossier Solution
When senior editor Hallie Gould ran out of her coveted Biologique Recherche P50 solution, she turned to this new potion from Glossier and found it to be a surprisingly comparable replacement for the cult-loved French product. It works to even out skin tone, smooth rough texture, and clear pores for an overall radiant complexion.
What Our Testers Say
"Spots that felt rough or bumpy were smoother, and the blackheads around my nose started to disappear. By the end of the four weeks, my complexion was a lot less dull and looked overall much healthier and more radiant." — Jenna Igneri, Product Tester
Best Luxury: Omorovicza Acid Fix AHA BHA Treatment
A triple threat of salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and lactic acid, this treatment from Hungarian skincare brand Omorovicza promises to reverse hyperpigmentation from sun damage, pollution, and acne for a clearer complexion. Intended to be used after cleansing but before moisturizer, this treatment can give nearly instant results—like you woke up with a brand-new face.
Best Bonus Ingredient: Moon Juice Beauty Shroom Exfoliating Acid Potion
Former wellness editor Victoria Hoff is a big fan of this exfoliating "potion" from formerly ingestible-only beauty brand Moon Juice. Aside from glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid, the hero ingredient here is reishi mushroom, which is used to protect the skin against stress-induced inflammation and helps give it the strength to be more resilient.
Best Travel: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
If you're on the go but still need to have your skin looking and performing its best, Dr. Gross recreated his famous in-office peel for at-home use. A two-step process that can be done in less than five minutes, these pads come drenched in five of your favorite acids meant to improve skin's texture, combat dullness, and shrink pores. Step one exfoliates, and step two neutralizes those exfoliating acids while also hydrating and smoothing skin.
Having an abundance of great choices when it comes to quality at-home salicylic acid peels makes it easier to find your skin's favorite product. Our top pick from Paula's Choice, the Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, has a stellar reputation for clearing pores to help shrink their appearance, zapping breakouts, and keeping new pimples to an absolute minimum—the added antioxidants give this formula a skin-loving boost, too.
What to Look for in Salicylic Acid Peels
Always pay close attention to the directions of the peel you are considering. Some peels can stay on after application, while others must be rinsed off with warm water. Since these peels are very potent if you leave them on for longer than instructed, you risk over-exfoliating and damaging your skin.
Peels are often very sensitizing, and those with sensitive skin may prefer to avoid them. However, there are formulas out there made with hydrating and soothing ingredients that help buffer the irritating side effects of peels. So check and see if the peel you're interested in includes ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, aloe, etc.
What does a salicylic acid peel do?
Salicyclic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid, works by dissolving dead skin cells that clog pores and reducing redness and inflammation to minimize the size of breakouts. It's also a great all-over exfoliator, sloughing away the top layer of skin to reveal a fresher, softer, and radiant complexion.
What should you expect after a salicylic acid peel?
Redness, peeling, and skin irritation are common side effects that occur after a salicylic acid peel. Following up with a nourishing moisturizer can help reduce these symptoms, and as Dr. Zeichner recommends, make sure to wear sunscreen to prevent any sunburns.
Can you use a salicylic acid everyday?
It depends on the product. Some salicylic acid peels are formulated for daily use, while others should only be used a few times a week. To help prevent over-exfoliation, it's best to start at once a week and build up your usage from there.
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Writer and editor for Byrdie, Lindsey Metrus is a beauty and wellness enthusiast with over 5 years experience in researching and recommending the best makeup and skincare products on the market.