Salicylic Acid

Salicylic Acid

Also-called-like-this: BHA

Quick Facts

  • It's one of the gold standard ingredients for treating problem skin
  • It can exfoliate skin both on the surface and in the pores (pH 3-4 needed)
  • It's a potent anti-inflammatory agent
  • It's more effective for treating blackheads than acne
  • For acne combine it with antibacterial agents like benzoyl peroxide or azelaic acid

Geeky Details

If you have ever struggled with let’s just call it “problem skin” (acne, blackheads, whiteheads and things like these) then most probably you are familiar with salicylic acid (SA). Even if the name does not ring a bell, you have probably used it. Next to benzoyl peroxide it’s the gold standard ingredient for treating problem skin

There are two reasons for that:

Reason #1: It can exfoliate skin both on the surface and in the pores
AHAs are very cool, but they are water soluble and cannot go into the pores. SA is lipid soluble and it can go right into the pores and shed the stuck, dead skin cells out from there. That’s really good for treating blackheads as well as preventing acne formation. 

This was confirmed also by a study that compared 8% AHA and 2% BHA for treating blackheads. AHA did not decrease the blackhead density statistically significantly, but BHA did.  

Reason #2: SA is a potent anti-inflammatory
SA in chemical structure is very similar to aspirin, and it does have similar anti-irritant and anti-inflammatory effect. That is helpful both for acne and rosacea.  

So SA is definitely an ingredient to try if you have oily or problem skin, but all in all, it’s more effective against blackheads than inflamed zits. For the latter one,  it’s only moderately effective, and benzoyl peroxide outperforms it by leaps and bounds. But they work in different ways, so a combination therapy is a great way to go to fight (and win) against acne. (In fact, it’s a good idea to combine SA not only with BP, but also with any other antibacterial agent like azelaic acid or mandelic acid.)

What else to know? 
For BHA to work like an exfoliant acidic pH is needed, just like for AHAs. It can work optimally between pH 3-4. Above that it’s still useful as an anti-inflammatory but not as a pore cleansing exfoliant. 

For at home use 0.5-2% SA is effective and these products are usually gentle enough for daily use. In fact, in the EU 2% is the maximum strength allowed in at home products. 

There are also professional BHA peels that go in the 20-30% range. Those can fade pigmentation, decrease surface roughness, reduce fine lines and of course, treat acne. 

Oh, and one more things: studies show that SA does not increase skin’s sun sensitivity, but it has photoprotective effects. Not that we want to tell you not to use sunscreen, because please do!

Bottom line: SA is a great exfoliant and anti-inflammatory and you should definitely give it a try if you have oily skin, large pores, blackheads or whiteheads. If you have acne it’s also useful, but it’s even better to use it in a combination therapy with an antibacterial agent like benzoyl peroxide or azelaic acid. 

Show me some proof

  • Leslie Baumann, MD, Cosmetic Dermatology, 2nd edition, Glycolic acid, 148o
  • Seminars in cutaneous medicine and surgery, 10/2008; 27(3):170-6., Effective Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments
  • Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2010; 3: 135–142., Applications of hydroxy acids: classification, mechanisms, and photoactivity

Products with Salicylic Acid

Alba Acne Deep Clean Astringent Alba Acne Deep Pore Wash Alba Botanica Acnedote Biore Baking Soda Acne Cleansing Foam Biore Baking Soda Acne Scrub Biore Charcoal Acne Clearing Cleanser Biore Charcoal Acne Scrub Biore Pore Unclogging Scrub Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Control 3-In-1 Foaming Wash Clean & Clear Continuous Control Acne Wash Clean & Clear Essentials Deep Cleaning Astringent Dermalogica Sebum Clearing Masque Glossier Solution Gold Bond Ultimate Multi-Symptom Psoriasis Relief Cream Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum Murad Advance Acne And Wrinkle Reducer Neutrogena Body Clear Body Wash Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control Power-Cream Wash Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Stress Control Triple-Action Toner Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Facial Cleanser Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Acne Treatment & Moisturizer Skin + Pharmacy Advanced Acne Therapy Overnight Salicylic Acid Lotion St Ives Blackhead Clearing Green Tea Face Scrub Stridex Maximum Strength Medicated Pads Young Living Maximum Acne Treatment bareMinerals Blemish Rescue™ Skin-Clearing Loose Powder Foundation sCOSMETICS Purifying Cleansing Gel Paula's Choice Resist Weekly Retexturizing Foaming Treatment 4% Bha silk naturals 2% Bha Toner Paula's Choice Resist Advanced Pore-Refining Treatment 4% Bha Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% Bha Liquid Exfoliant Superdrug Deep Action Pore Cleansing Pads The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution Biologique Recherche Serum Complexe Iribiol Clean & Clear Advantage Spot Treatment Gel Indie Lee Blemish Lotion Indie Lee Clearing Mask Neutrogena Deep Clean Cream Cleanser Neutrogena Waschgel Visibly Clear Ölfrei Paula's Choice Calm Redness Relief 1% Bha Lotion Exfoliant Paula's Choice Resist Bha 9 Paula's Choice Resist Weightless Body Treatment With 2% Bha Clerasil Waschgel Porenreiniger Waschgel Dr Organic Skin Clear Toner Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos™ Glycolic Night Serum Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial Kiehl’s Facial Fuel Energizing Tonic For Men Kristina Holey + Marie Veronique Intensive Repair Serum Lixir Night Switch Bha/Aha 10% Neutrogena Pore Refining Toner