What's the Difference Between Willow Bark Extract and Salicylic Acid? We Explore

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Tawni Bannister for BYRDIE

If you're one of the lucky ones who regularly experience breakouts, you're no stranger to salicylic acid, but how much do you know about willow bark extract? The plant extract is often touted as the gentle, natural alternative to salicylic acid, but can it really address your acne, slough away your dead skin, and remove excess oil as effectively as the tried and true BHA? Feeling equal parts skeptical and hopeful (such is life with acne-prone skin), we turned to board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, and cosmetic chemist and founder of Perfect Image David Petrillo, to get some answers. Ahead, the similarities and differences between salicylic acid and willow bark extract, plus everything else worth noting about the latter ingredient.

Meet the Expert

  • Melissa Kanchanapoomi Levin, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Entière Dermatology.
  • David Petrillo is a cosmetic chemist and founder of Perfect Image.

Willow Bark Extract

Type of ingredient: Plant extract

Main benefits: Gently exfoliates, calms redness, reduces oiliness and signs of aging.

Who should use it: Levin says, in general, willow bark extract is gentle, low-risk, and can even be used on sensitive skin.

How often can you use it: Levin says the daily use of willow bark extract is appropriate.

Works well with: As an exfoliating ingredient, willow bark extract can be slightly drying, so Petrillo suggests always following up with a good moisturizer. To boost the exfoliating and skin-cleansing benefits of willow bark extract, Petrillo recommends using products with salicylic acid, too.

Don't use with: "Willow bark is commonly used in cleansers and toners," Petrillo explains. "As long as none of the products you use contain active ingredients that don’t work with salicylic acid, then it is safe." A few examples of ingredients that Petrillo doesn't recommend mixing with salicylic acid are retinol and vitamin C.

What Is Willow Bark Extract?

Willow bark extract (or what Petrillo refers to as nature’s aspirin) is derived from various willow bark trees, including white, black, and purple. The ingredient is a natural salicin source, which is where the powerful acne-fighting ingredient that you're likely more familiar with, salicylic acid, comes from. Petrillo explains that, because of the salicin, willow bark extract has potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties (which improves the appearance of pores and fine lines, Levin adds). Not only does it have a rich supply of salicin, but as the skin experts point out, willow bark extract also has high concentrations of tannins, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and other minerals that help calm the skin and aid in cell regeneration. Because all of these ingredients allow for a more refreshed, youthful complexion, it makes sense why you might find willow bark extract included in all kinds of skincare products, like cleansers, moisturizers, toners, masks, and more.

Benefits of Willow Bark Extract for Skin

Thanks to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties, willow bark extract offers more than few skin benefits worth noting:

  • Gently exfoliates: Petrillo explains that thanks to the salicin, willow bark extract can provide a gentle exfoliation to reveal more radiant, healthy-looking skin.
  • Calms redness: Because of salicin's anti-inflammatory properties, Petrillo says it can also help alleviate redness and irritation.
  • Refines pores: As mentioned, willow bark extract is rich in tannins, which are natural astringents. Petrillo says this helps to keep the skin tight and makes the pores appear smaller.
  • Reduces oiliness: Petrillo adds that the tannins can also reduce oiliness, reducing acne breakouts. This explains why it's a prevalent ingredient in toners.
  • Reduces signs of aging: Thanks to the polyphenols and flavonoids (powerful antioxidants) that help our skin fight against free radical damage, Petrillo says the ingredient can also reduce signs of aging and eliminate wrinkles.
  • Locks in moisturize: The antioxidants also retain moisture, which allows the skin to stay healthy and hydrated. "Together, these powerful ingredients can help alleviate certain skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea," Petrillo says.

Willow Bark Extract vs. Salicylic Acid

"Salicylic acid, a popular and effective beta-hydroxy acid, is extensively used in skin care for its exfoliative and keratolytic properties for the treatment of acne," Levin explains. But what about the slightly lesser-known exfoliating ingredient, willow bark extract? Are they basically the same thing? Let's explore.

Remember: Willow bark contains salicin, which is where salicylic acid comes from. The salicylic acid found in skincare products is the metabolized derivative, Petrillo explains. "Willow bark extract has been shown to produce similar results to synthetic salicylic acid, except without some of the drawbacks," Petrillo continues. "Even in small concentrations of 0.5% to 1%, salicylic acid may cause irritation, redness, flaking, and dryness. Those with sensitive skin may actually break out more because of salicylic acid." On the other hand, salicin in willow bark extract is a much gentler version of salicylic acid. "Studies have found that even at a level of 100%, which is equivalent to 10% formulation of salicylic acid, salicin is non-irritating," Petrillo adds.

However, Levin argues that the exfoliative and skin rejuvenating properties of willow bark extract compared to salicylic acid are less effective for treating acne and exfoliating the skin. "Nonetheless, willow bark extract can provide skin benefits, such as anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties," Levin adds.

Side Effects of Willow Bark Extract

As is the case with any skincare product, willow bark extract can cause irritation and allergic reactions. However, Levin says it's generally low-risk and gentle enough for sensitive skin.

How to Use It

How you should apply willow bark extract to the skin depends largely on the product at hand, but the ingredient is generally safe to use daily, according to Levin. Because the exfoliating ingredient has the potential to be drying, Petrillo recommends applying a moisturizer afterward.

The Best Products With Willow Bark Extract

Peach Slices Deep Blemish Microdarts
Peach Slices Deep Blemish Microdarts $9
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Not just any zit sticker, these patches from Peach Slices are packed with micro-darts (176, if we're counting) that dissolve deep into the skin to deliver acne-fighting and skin-loving ingredients like salicylic acid, willow bark extract, tea tree oil, sodium hyaluronate, niacinamide, and cica. Slap one on next time a pimple pops up to help your spot heal faster and protect it from wandering fingers—even when you're wearing makeup.

tata harper Resurfacing BHA Glow Mask
Tata Harper Resurfacing BHA Glow Mask $65
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The next time your skin is looking dull or feeling rough, incorporate this Byrdie editor-approved refining mask into your skincare routine. Thanks to the pomegranate enzymes, pink clay, and white willow bark extract, this formula exfoliates dead skin for a softer, smoother, more even complexion.

Rosen Skincare Paloma Serum
Rosen Skincare Paloma Serum $14
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When you want to treat both active breakouts and the dark spots they leave behind, turn to this multitasking face serum. Containing 7% glycolic acid and 7% willow bark extract, this chemical exfoliant gently smooths and brightens the skin, no harsh scrubbing required.

SweetSpot Labs Buff & Brighten Body Exfoliating Pads
SweetSpot Labs Buff & Brighten Body Exfoliating Pads $30
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If you're looking for more of an all-over option, one Byrdie editor swears by these jumbo-sized exfoliating pads that you can use pretty much anywhere (yep, even down there). Dark spots, ingrown hairs, and bumps are no match for this formula, packed with aloe vera, witch hazel, glycolic acid, and willow bark extract.

Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta® Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin $88
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Whether you've got sensitive skin or you're just new to the whole at-home peel scene, these gentle peel pads (a Byrdie favorite) will slough off dead skin in an easy two-step process. Start with a swipe of step one to chemically exfoliate, followed by step two to soothe the skin. Thanks to ingredients like lactic acid, mandelic acid, willow bark extract, witch hazel, and colloidal oatmeal, your skin will feel equal parts smooth and soothed.

Starface Space Wash
Starface Space Wash $11
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Turn to this formula when you want a cleanser that does more than a basic face wash but less than the typical irritating acne cleansers. This face wash gets the job done gently (you can read our review on Space Wash to find out more), but here's the gist: it's clean, ideal for acne-prone skin, affordable, and dare we say fun? The bright, happy packaging makes washing your face not so boring.

Paula's Choice Oil-Absorbing Mask
Paula's Choice Oil-Absorbing Mask $22
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A blend of clays, willow bark extract, and colloidal oatmeal, among many other skin-loving ingredients, allow this face mask to simultaneously sop up excess oil, soothe, and soften the skin. Once you give it a try, you'll understand why it's one of our favorite face masks for men.

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