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Salicylic Acid Is The Cleanser You Need To Clear Up Acne

Wayhome Studio/Adobe Stock Images

If you have oily, acne-prone skin or simply find yourself suffering from the occasional breakout, (maskne, anyone?), there’s one powerful ingredient that can keep your complexion clean and clear: salicylic acid. This oil-soluble beta hydroxy acid is a powerful chemical exfoliator that’s tough enough to break up acne-causing bacteria and dirt, all while clearing up clogged pores, yet gentle enough to use if you’re currently suffering from a bad breakout. Compared to its popular exfoliating cousins, alpha hydroxy acids, (AKA glycolic acid and lactic acid), salicylic acid is able to penetrate below the surface of the skin at a deeper level that its fellow acids simply can’t reach.

Skip to the best salicylic acid products

“This allows salicylic acid to penetrate into the pores to unclog them,” says Nina Desai, MD, FAAD, board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan Beach, California. Since it exfoliates and loosens up pore-clogging gunk, it’s also a great choice for treating whiteheads and blackheads, too. Not only does it clear out pores, but it prevents future breakouts by controlling excess oil production. “Salicylic acid also breaks down the attachments between skin cells promoting exfoliation so that skin debris cannot further clog pores,” says Dr. Desai. By regulating how much sebum your skin produces, it allows you to keep your complexion in check. Many who have oily skin often attempt to dry out their complexion, but the reality is that finding a balance between exfoliating and moisturizing is the key to clear skin.

While you can find salicylic acid in everything from acne spot treatments to pimple patches and even acne-fighting serums, an easy way to incorporate it into your routine to ensure your skin stays breakout-free is by using a salicylic acid cleanser. “I recommend working a salicylic acid cleanser into your skin care routine once daily,” says Dr. Desai.

Since it is an exfoliant, using the cleanser at night is a great way to give your skin a deep clean. “I recommend an oil -free or non-comedogenic moisturizer after cleansing, to hydrate the skin and protect from any irritation,” adds Dr. Desai. It should go without saying, but you should also wear sunscreen 365 days a year, (especially if you’re exfoliating, which makes your skin more susceptible to sun damage and sunburn), and you should moisturize to ensure your skin gets the hydration it needs.

About the Expert:

Nina Desai, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist in Manhattan Beach, California who specializes in laser, cosmetic, and medical dermatology.

Should You Use Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is suitable for a variety of skin types, including oily, acne-prone, and combination skin. However, if you have sensitive skin or are prone to dry skin or certain skin conditions like eczema, salicylic acid may be too harsh for your complexion. Certain individuals “may not be able to tolerate salicylic acid,” cautions Dr. Desai. It’s always best to do a patch test to ensure it’s safe for your face before you start slathering on a new skincare product, cleanser, or lotion.

“If you are just starting out with a salicylic acid product, you should avoid any other exfoliating products at the same time until your skin has built a tolerance,” says Dr. Desai. If you’re pregnant or nursing, you should also avoid salicylic acid as it isn’t considered safe for use. Instead, opt for an AHA cleanser that contains glycolic acid or lactic acid.

Not only does regular exfoliation slough off dead skin cells and help minimize fine lines, wrinkles, and fade hyperpigmentation to unveil a glowing complexion, it also gives your skin the deep clean it needs. The idea of using a chemical exfoliator that incorporates acids may sound more intimidating, especially when compared to a scrub. However, chemical exfoliation is much safer for your complexion, especially if you have acne-prone skin or are currently experiencing a breakout, which would only be further aggravated by harsh scrubbing.

Ready to unveil a clear complexion? We’ve rounded up the best salicylic acid cleansers for every skin type below.

1. Most soothing:

MARIO BADESCU Acne Facial Cleanser

MARIO BADESCU Acne Facial Cleanser

If you are dealing with a bad breakout, calming your skin is just as important as clearing up your complexion. That’s where this salicylic acid acne cleanser comes in. Made with a winning combination of powerful salicylic acid and soothing aloe vera and chamomile, it’ll balance your complexion and clear up congested skin. It also works to calm inflammation and redness, often caused by hormonal acne. Clogged pores don’t stand a chance.

2. Best drugstore find:

NEUTROGENA Oil-Free Acne Wash

NEUTROGENA Oil-Free Acne Wash
Courtesy of NEUTROGENA

Getting a deep clean with a BHA cleanser doesn’t have to break the bank. This brightening face wash incorporates antioxidant-rich vitamin C and maximum-strength salicylic acid to treat and prevent breakouts, all while eliminating dirt and oil.

3. Best anti-aging cleanser:

DERMALOGICA Clearing Skin Wash

DERMALOGICA Clearing Skin Wash

If you want to clear skin and reduce signs of aging, reach for this salicylic acid cleanser which clears clogged follicles and improves the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, thanks to a unique combo of menthol, eucalyptus, and tea tree to leave skin clean and clear.

4. Best for sensitive skin:

AVEENO Foaming Salicylic Acid Face Cleanser For Sensitive Skin

AVEENO Foaming Salicylic Acid Face Cleanser For Sensitive Skin
Courtesy of AVEENO

This gentle, oil-free cleanser is hypoallergenic and noncomedogenic, making it a suitable choice for sensitive skin as it works to treat and prevent breakouts without overdrying your complexion.

5. Best for minimizing pores:



This pore-refining salicylic acid face wash eliminates excess oil and zaps shine to restore a clear, mattified complexion, all while minimizing pores. Bonus—it’s also paraben-free and phthalate-free.

6. Best for combination skin:

MURAD Clarifying Cleanser

MURAD Clarifying Cleanser
Courtesy of MURAD

If you have an oily t-zone or just want to control your overall oil production, reach for this clarifying cleanser which dissolves excess oil and purifies pores to clear up breakouts. It helps mattify your complexion thanks to salicylic acid and green tea extract, which soothes and calms irritation, leaving you with healthy skin.

7. Best for blackheads:


Courtesy of PERRICONE MD

If you suffer from comedonal acne like whiteheads and blackheads, this lightweight, non-foaming face wash will encourage cell turnover as it removes dead skin cells and acne-causing bacteria. It eliminates pore-clogging debris responsible for pimples thanks to salicylic acid and squalane.

8. Best foaming cleanser:

SK-II Facial Treatment Cleanser

SK-II Facial Treatment Cleanser
Courtesy of SK-II

If you love the feeling of a foaming face wash, you’ll love this exfoliating cleanser that’s made with willow bark extract, which contains natural salicylic acid to exfoliate your pores and leave you with a smooth, radiant complexion.

9. Best for acne-prone skin:

TATA HARPER Clarifying Cleanser

TATA HARPER Clarifying Cleanser
Courtesy of TATA HARPER

Looking for a deep clean? Blemish-prone skin can benefit from using this gel cleanser which works to balance your complexion to leave you with matte skin, all while clearing away impurities responsible for clogged pores. Oily skin doesn’t stand a chance.

10. Best for smooth skin:



This gentle salicylic acid cleanser will unveil soft, smooth skin without causing dryness, redness, or irritation. It works to break up pore-clogging debris and zaps up excess oil, all while improving your skin’s texture. Trust us—your skin will thank you.

11. Best on-the-go:

C’EST MOI Clarify Blemish Cleansing Wipes for Acne

C’EST MOI Clarify Blemish Cleansing Wipes for Acne
Courtesy of C’EST MOI

Want to knock out excess oil but can’t make it to the sink? Simply pack these salicylic acid cleansing wipes in your purse to get a deep clean when you’re on-the-go. Whether you need a quick refresher after a workout, while traveling, or after a day at the beach, these acne-fighting wipes won’t disappoint as they clear away excess oil and even work as makeup remover wipes.

12. Best for removing makeup:

DR. DENNIS GROSS SKINCARE Alpha Beta® Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel

DR. DENNIS GROSS SKINCARE Alpha Beta® Pore Perfecting Cleansing Gel

This vegan, soap-free, sulfate-free cleanser packs a double punch of exfoliating acids as it combines salicylic acid, glycolic acid, lactic acid, and tea tree oil to give your skin a deep clean, all while removing dirt and makeup in the process.

If you want to try out some of our favorite salicylic acid cleansers, subscribe to our Glam Bag. Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
Katrina Mitzeliotis Lanza
Katrina is a freelance writer and on-air correspondent with over a decade of experience covering beauty, fashion, and entertainment. When she isn't freelancing, you can catch her on QVC or chasing after her two-year-old son.
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Article Last Updated March 26, 2021 12:00 AM