What is salicylic acid?

When it comes to anti-acne skin care, there are a bunch of different ingredients that can help you manage acne-prone skin and those frustrating outbreaks. One important ingredient that is commonly used in cleansers and anti-acne treatments is called salicylic acid. So what is salicylic acid and how can it help your acne-prone skin?

Salicylic acid is not as complicated as it sounds – we promise! It belongs to a group of chemicals called hydroxy acids and is often referred to as a beta-hydroxy acid. The ‘beta’ part of the name means it is able to dissolve in oil, which means it can mix with the oils on your skin and inside your pores. The ‘hydroxy acid’ part refers to what it does to your skin – hydroxy acids work by breaking down a protein called keratin, which is really important for making up the structure of dead skin cells in the outer layer of your skin. Salicylic acid can come from certain plant sources, like willow tree bark and wintergreen leaves, but it can also be made in a laboratory.

What does salicylic acid do to your skin?

Salicylic acid disrupts and loosens the glue-like substance that helps hold skin cells together by mixing with and removing oils and proteins in the skin cells. This makes it easier for the outermost layer of dead skin cells to be removed and make way for the fresh, new skin cells underneath.

That’s why topical salicylic acid products – ones that are applied to your skin – can be used to treat a range of skin conditions where the skin has become thick or scaly or flaky. Salicylic acid products come in various forms (e.g., creams, cleansers, gels, peels) and contain different concentrations or strengths based on what condition they are being used to treat.

Can salicylic acid help acne-prone skin?

When you have acne, excess oil production in the skin’s pores combines with a build-up of dead skin cells, leading to clogged pores that then develop into comedones – the blackheads and whiteheads. These clogged pores cause an increase in the amount of an acne-causing bacteria, driving inflammation and an immune response.

Thanks to its ability to soften and remove the outer layer of dead skin cells, salicylic acid can help to slow down the build-up of dead skin cells and prevent clogged pores. And because it can dissolve in oils, salicylic acid can penetrate into the oil glands to help reduce the excess oil production that is a key player in acne, as well as help to break down whiteheads and blackheads once they do form, as well as help to relieve inflammation in the skin.

So all in all, salicylic acid products can help acne-prone skin, which is why it is a common ingredient in cleansers and other topical acne treatments. Salicylic acid is also sometimes combined with other ingredients that work against acne-causing bacteria, or with other anti-acne ingredients to help them penetrate better into the skin.

How to use salicylic acid products

Whether you’re using a salicylic acid cleanser, lotion, gel, or cream, the most important thing to remember is to always follow the directions on the label – how much to apply, how many times each day, and how long you should continue using it.

Things to remember about using salicylic acid products

Some people who use a salicylic acid cleanser or another salicylic acid product may experience some skin dryness, peeling, or stinging and irritation. If this occurs, you should rinse it off and reduce how often you use the product[1] . Talk to your pharmacist or doctor if you have any concerns about how your skin feels after using salicylic acid products.