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Like niacinamide or benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is a hero ingredient in many anti-acne skincare products, which is why you've likely been using it for years if you're someone who struggles with chronic breakouts. What you might not know, however, is that it's not exclusive to anti-acne skincare. It's not even exclusive to skincare itself, as it's present in hair and body care products too. It all goes back to its exfoliating properties. You see, salicylic acid clears away dead skin cells and other pore-clogging impurities from the surface of the skin. This means it can alleviate acne, sure, but it also helps other skincare products penetrate deeper, provides important anti-inflammatory benefits, and smoothes and softens the texture of the skin. The science behind salicylic acid—which is a compound derived from willow and meadowsweet plants—is actually fascinating.
If these skincare benefits sound good to you (and why wouldn't they?), then it might be time to include salicylic acid into your beauty routine.
Check out the best salicylic acid products to use for softer, smoother skin.
Best Overall: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash
Let's start with the basics: face wash, specifically a classic anti-acne face wash like Neutrogena's Oil-Free Acne Wash. There's a reason most acne washes contain salicylic acid, as explained by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Morgan Rabach, "It’s an oil-soluble acid that can permeate the pores in your skin and dissolve old dead skin and debris that is clogging pores. "
This sudsy cleanser is recommended by dermatologists and contains a high percentage of the skincare compound to alleviate blemishes. Take it from David Lortscher, MD, of Curology, who recommends this exact product for use as an anti-acne face wash and/or body wash. (And on that note, check out the five other anti-acne body washes real dermatologists recommend for quick and clear results.)
Be cautious when using other sensitizing ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and retinol with salicylic acid.
Best Peel: StackedSkincare TCA Multi-Acid Body Peel
The Multi-Acid Body Peel from StackedSkincare is a God-sent for your entire body. Combining lactic acid, trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and salicylic acid, the peel decongests pores, prevents breakouts, brightens dark spots, and smoothes texture and fine lines. It also helps to control eczema and keratosis pilaris on the body. "Sal acid is great for exfoliation and calming inflammation, making it also great for sensitive skin like rosacea and eczema," explains StackedSkincare founder Kerry Benjamin. "Of course, if the skin is actively inflamed, I do not recommend applying sal acid." She recommends applying the peel one to two times per week with the StackedSkincare Body and Face Fan Brush, $29, for the ultimate at-home spa experience.
Best Cleanser: Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser
Tata Harper is one of our favorite natural skincare brands (shout out to the Purifying Mask, $68, which is next-level). This cleanser contains physical and chemical exfoliants. First, there's apricot seed powder, which manually buffs away pore-clogging impurities as you massage it into your skin, while white willow bark, which is a natural salicylic acid, exfoliates, smoothes, and brightens the complexion. There are even pink clay and pomegranate enzymes to exfoliate even further.
If you're new to the hero ingredient, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Howard Sobel says to use it in small amounts at first. "Use will vary between products, but it is important to start out using salicylic acid once every few days to make sure there is not an allergic reaction," he explains. "After that, the product can be used up to two times per day depending on the tolerance of your skin."
Best Toner: Glossier Solution
Glossier's exfoliating treatment, called Solution, can be used as a post-cleanse toner. Simply press a cotton pad down on the pump and press it over your skin. The brand promises that smoother and clearer skin will result from the combination of three different acid groups (which include .5% salicylic acid). Based on before-and-after pictures and some glowing customer testimonies, we believe it.
Best Toner, Runner-Up: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Clarifying Solution Acne Toner
La Roche-Posay is a Byrdie-favorite French pharmacy brand that's now widely available at places like Walgreens. The brand's toner uses a combination of glycolic acid and salicylic acid to clear and smooth problem skin.
Best Exfoliating Mask: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial 25% AHA + 2% BHA Mask
Drunk Elephant's Babyfacial is a cult-favorite product. It combines glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic acids for an intensive exfoliating effect. Because of this, it's meant to be used only on occasion—definitely not every day. The brand recommends using it once per week as a face mask. It will reveal brighter, smoother skin after a few minutes. We can attest to its skin-transforming powers, as can the other 120,000 people who gave it a "love" on Sephora's website.
Best with AHA/BHA: Omorovicza Acid Fix AHA BHA Treatment
One of my personal favorite salicylic acid treatments is this one from Hungarian skincare brand Omorovicza. I use it two to three times per week. After cleansing, I add a few drops to my palms and then press it against my skin. "Since [salicylic acid] is keratolytic, it breaks down the outer layer of skin," explains Dr. Rabach. "This can cause irritation and flaking especially in people with sensitive skin." Although it can prove to be a tad drying, it's nothing that my favorite hydrating moisturizer can't correct. Plus, the glowy, smooth, and clear results have kept me a loyal fan.
Best Overnight Treatment: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Overnight Repair Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment
Another option is philosophy's overnight repair salicylic acid acne treatment pads. These are used in the same way. Simply swipe one of the individual pads around your face after cleansing and before moisturizing for brightening, smoothing, and acne-alleviating effects.
Best Moisturizer: Origins Zero Oil Oil-Free Moisture Lotion With Saw Palmetto & Mint
This Origins moisturizer provides a matte finish to the skin, which makes it helpful for anyone trying to keep oiliness and shine at bay (like some of us). "Salicylic acid should be used in different types of products based on an individual's skin type," explains Dr. Sobel. "For those who struggle with acne, it is best to use a face wash containing salicylic acid compared to those who only have a few blemishes and should then use a spot treatment or a light serum with lower levels of salicylic acid." The Origins moisturizer fits the bill for those with fewer blemishes because of the low salicylic acid content.
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment & Moisturizer
If you didn't catch it already, this moisturizer is from the very same product line as the aforementioned Clear Days Ahead peel pads. It's oil-free, like the Origins pick, and has salicylic acid to keep acne at bay. What's more is that it has an antimicrobial formula, which eliminates acne-causing bacteria from the surface of the skin (yes, please).
Best Shampoo: Kiehl's Amino Acid Shampoo
Hydrolized Wheat Protein is an amber-colored liquid made from wheat germ. It helps repair damage and prevent future breakage, while also adding much-needed volume and shine.
Since salicylic acid effectively clears away dead cells from the surface of the skin, it makes for an excellent anti-dandruff ingredient. "Salicylic acid shampoo is super helpful for people with thick scales on their scalp, for example, people that have psoriasis on their scalp," explains Dr. Rabach. Even if you don't have obvious dandruff, it can help keep your scalp clean and healthy. Look for it as an active ingredient in products like Kiehl's Amino Acid Shampoo. It combines the dry skin–banishing acid with coconut oil to moisturize and hydrolyzed wheat protein to condition.
Best Body Wash: Neutrogena Body Clear Acne Treatment Body Wash with Salicylic Acid
This Neutrogena body wash has a high concentration of salicylic acid to discourage blemishes on the body. It's another product that made the list of best anti-acne body washes. We like it because it's inexpensive, easy to use, and leaves zero oily residues behind after rinsing. If you struggle with body acne, you can't go wrong choosing this drugstore classic.
Best Lotion: CeraVe SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin
There's even salicylic acid in body lotion. "Salicylic acid lotion is good for removing dead skin on the body or bumpy skin (keratosis pilaris) or for softening elbows and knees," says Dr. Rabach.
This one is formulated to soften and smooth rough and bumpy skin, whether that's on your legs, arms, or elbows. It can be applied daily on any of those areas so the salicylic acid, lactic acid, and ceramides can go to work smoothing, exfoliating, and moisturizing. It's even fragrance-free and hypoallergenic for people with sensitive skin.
We have one final thought: Salicylic acid can be irritating to the skin in high quantities, which is why it's always best to patch test before committing to a new skincare product. Also, because it's so effective at exfoliating, using various salicylic acid products at the same time will prove too harsh on your skin. That's why we don't suggest incorporating all of these into your beauty routine at once. Pick and choose which products will work best for you and, as always, keep the health of your skin in mind.