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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 explore other products containing salicylic acid, including for the scalp, hair, and body. Many products on this list combine salicylic acid with other actives for intense exfoliating and other benefits.
Check out the best salicylic acid products to use for softer, smoother skin.
What to Look For in a Product with Salicylic Acid
Like other acids found in skincare (glycolic, lactic) salicylic is an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and can cause sensitivity. If you haven't used products that contain the ingredient before or your skin tends to react to new products, it's always a good idea to start slow—many of the products on this list are meant to be used only once or twice per week. You can also look for moisturizing ingredients paired with salicylic acid to help prevent irritation and dryness.
Whether you prefer an intensive peel for an occasional or weekly treatment or you want a light treatment to apply every day, consider your beauty routine when adding a step to it. Pads containing salicylic acid can be convenient for when you're on the go, while a toner can be added to your nightly skincare regimen. Salicylic acid-packed formulas range from body wash and shampoo to lotion and peels.
Again, salicylic acid is one of those ingredients that can cause sensitivity for some people, especially after first use. If your skin is sensitive, look for the cleanest formulas you can find to avoid potential irritants. Products that are free of fragrance are well-loved by those with sensitive or reactive skin.
Best Overall: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash
Reduces excess oil
Can be a tad drying
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 our full anti-acne skincare routine real dermatologists recommend for quick and clear results.)
Type: Cleanser | Active Ingredients: 2% salicylic acid | Size: 6 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Be cautious when using other potentially sensitizing ingredients like alpha hydroxy acids, benzoyl peroxide, and retinol with salicylic acid.
Best Peel: StackedSkincare TCA Multi-Acid Body Peel
Contains multiple actives
Helps fade dark spots
The Multi-Acid Body Peel from StackedSkincare is a God-send for your entire body. Combining lactic acid, trichloroacetic acid (TCA), and salicylic acid, the peel can decongest pores, prevent breakouts, brighten dark spots, and smooth texture and fine lines. It may also help to control eczema and keratosis pilaris on the body: "Salicylic 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 salicylic acid." She recommends applying the peel one to two times per week with the StackedSkincare Body and Face Fan Brush, for the ultimate at-home spa experience.
Type: Peel | Active Ingredients: Lactic, glycolic, phytic, and salicylic acids | Size: 5 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Cleanser: Tata Harper Regenerating Cleanser
A little goes a long way
Makes skin glow
Helps serums soak in
Could irritate some skin types
Tata Harper is one of our favorite natural skincare brands (shout out to the Tata Harper Purifying Mask, $72, which is next-level). This cleanser contains physical and chemical exfoliants. First, there's apricot seed powder, which is meant to manually buff 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 meant 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."
Type: Cleanser | Active Ingredients: Willow bark, apricot seed powder, pomegranate enzymes, French pink clay | Size: 1.7 / 4.1 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"The Tata Harper site recommended a second buff, but I stuck to cleansing once since my skin is reactive. However, I did leave it on for a couple of minutes in the shower. My skin looked healthy, and when I applied my serums (hyaluronic acid and vitamin C), they soaked right into my skin." — Bianca Lambert, Product Tester
Best Toner: Glossier Solution
Improves skin texture
Boosts radiance and glow
Reduces appearance of blemishes
Increases sun sensitivity
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 says that smoother and clearer skin will result from the combination of three different acid groups (which include 0.5% salicylic acid). Based on before-and-after pictures and some glowing customer testimonies, we believe it.
Type: Toner | Active Ingredients: 0.5% salicylic acid, glycolic and lactic acids | Size: 4.4 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"It leaves the skin smoother, brighter, and more radiant without being overly harsh or irritating—and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s affordable, too." — Jenna Igneri, Product Tester
Best Toner, Runner-Up: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Clarifying Solution Acne Toner
Helps clear pores
Won't irritate sensitive skin
Reduces excess oil
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 meant to clear and smooth problem skin.
Type: Toner | Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Size: 6.8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Exfoliating Mask: Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial
Helps reduce whiteheads
Leaves skin feeling soft
Drunk Elephant's Babyfacial is a cult-favorite product. It combines glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic acids meant 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 helps to 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.
Type: Mask | Active Ingredients: 25% glycolic acid blend, 2% salicylic acid | Size: 0.5 / 1.7 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best with AHA/BHA: Omorovicza Acid Fix AHA BHA Treatment
Makes skin looks radiant
Helps fade dark spots
Refines skin texture
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.
Type: Serum | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, sodium hyaluronate | Size: 1 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Overnight Treatment: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Overnight Repair Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment
Helps clear acne
Easy to use
Formulated to address scarring
Can be drying
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.
Type: Pads | Active Ingredients: 0.5% salicylic acid, glycolic acid, niacinamide | Size: 60 pads | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Oil-Free Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment & Moisturizer
Won't aggravate acne-prone skin
Helps minimize pores
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 helps to eliminate acne-causing bacteria from the surface of the skin (yes, please).
Type: Moisturizer | Active Ingredients: 1% salicylic acid | Size: 2 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Shampoo: Kiehl's Amino Acid Shampoo
Helps with dandruff
Multiple sizes available
Can be a little drying
Hydrolized Wheat Protein is an amber-colored liquid made from wheat germ. It helps repair damage, 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 might 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 meant to moisturize and hydrolyzed wheat protein meant to condition.
Type: Shampoo | Active Ingredients: Amino acids, coconut oil, salicylic acid | Size: 8.4 / 16.9 / 33.8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Body Wash: Neutrogena Body Clear Body Wash
Helps clear blemishes
This Neutrogena body wash has a high concentration of salicylic acid meant 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.
Type: Body wash | Active Ingredients: 2% salicylic acid | Size: 8.5 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best Lotion: CeraVe SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin
Restores and protects the skin barrier
Contains mineral oil
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 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 might 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 likely 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.
Type: Lotion | Active Ingredients: Salicylic and lactic acids | Size: 8 fl. oz | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
What Our Testers Say
"As someone who doesn’t always take the time to moisturize from the shoulders down post-shower, using this nightly has been a gamechanger for my skin. Not only have the dry patches on my legs, elbows, and heels disappeared, but the texture on my back has started to smooth." — Bianca Lambert, Product Tester
Can I layer salicylic acid with other acids?
Yes. Many products on this list combine salicylic acid with other acids like glycolic, lactic, tartaric, and citric. Salicylic acid is often combined with other exfoliating acids for a peeling effect. The combination of acids can be an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation.
How does salicylic acid exfoliate?
Salicylic acid is keratolytic, meaning it breaks down the outer layer of skin, says Rabach. Known for its ability to dissolve dead skin cells deep within pores, it's an effective acne treatment. Flaking typically occurs as it exfoliates dead skin cells.
Can I apply moisturizer after using salicylic acid?
Yes. Moisturizers can help hydrate and repair skin, making it a good step to do after using an exfoliating treatment with salicylic acid. Many salicylic acid-containing products are cleansers, toners, spot treatments, and serums, all of which can be followed by a moisturizer. Generally, it's best to wait a couple minutes after applying a salicylic acid treatment to let it absorb before applying your daily or nightly moisturizer.
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