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Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Salicylic Acid


If you’ve ever experienced acne or the occasional pimple, chances are you’ve probably heard of salicylic acid. It’s one of the most popular active ingredients for fighting acne and it’s easily available over-the-counter, in everything from creams, facial scrubs, and even face masks.  

If you’re curious about whether or not you should include salicylic acid in your skin care routine, keep reading this article to learn everything you need to know about this blemish-busting superstar: what it is, the benefits it offers, what skin types it works for, and the best skin care products featuring salicylic acid to try.

Cierra Creer touching her cheek

So What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark and is what dermatologists refer to as a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). In the field of dermatology, there are two main types of acids you'll likely hear a lot about when it comes to the treatment of acne: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) and beta-hydroxy acids. 

So, what's the difference? BHA molecules are separated by two carbon atoms, whereas alpha-hydroxy acid molecules just have one. This is important for your skin care know-how, because BHA's two-carbon structure makes it oil-soluble. Translation: BHAs are able to penetrate through dead skin cells and other debris that clog pores (and lead to breakouts). 

If that all sounds a bit complicated, here’s the bottom line: AHAs loosen and exfoliate dead skin from the surface, while BHAs (like salicylic acid) work deeper, dissolving excess oil and debris that later form whiteheads and blackheads.

What Are the Benefits of Salicylic Acid?

The benefits of salicylic acid go way beyond just getting rid of occasional blemishes. It’s a keratolytic medication, which means it’s a super-effective exfoliant. When excess oil, dead skin cells, and debris clog the follicles in our skin, whiteheads, blackheads, and other breakouts form. Salicylic acid works by cleaning deep inside clogged pores to unblock persistent whiteheads and blackheads, as well as boost overall radiance and even complexion.

In addition to exfoliating, salicylic acid also works wonders to soothe cystic or inflamed acne, thanks to its anti-inflammatory benefits. With regular, continued use, salicylic acid can even prevent pimples and breakouts before they form, in addition to zapping them if they do. 

Beyond facial skin care, salicylic acid has been shown to help with dandruff and dry scalp by controlling oil production around your hair follicles, too. You can find it in lots of different shampoos and hair treatments meant to keep your scalp healthy.

Cierra Creer touching her forehead

What Skin Types Can Use Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is suitable for all skin types, but it's especially great for those with oily skin, combination skin, and acne-prone skin types. 

However, as with almost any acne treatment, people with dry skin or sensitive skin may want to be careful when applying salicylic acid, as it tends to have slightly drying side effects. 

That said, many folks opt for salicylic acid over the other popular alternative, benzoyl peroxide, because it is the less harsh of the two.

The Best Salicylic Acid Skin Care Products

The great news about salicylic acid is that it comes in a whole host of different topical forms, so you’re guaranteed to find one that works perfectly for your skin type and needs. Here are our top picks for the best salicylic acid skin care products.

Clark’s Botanicals Skin Clearing Face & Body Wash

The Best Salicylic Acid Body Wash:

Clark’s Botanicals Skin Clearing Face & Body Wash


If you have acne-prone skin, you know acne doesn't just affect your face: breakouts can pop up on your body, too. Clark’s Botanicals Skin Clearing Face & Body Wash uses salicylic acid to combat all possible areas where whiteheads, blackheads, and other blemishes can form, most commonly your chest and back. A great pick for combination and oily skin types, this body wash also contains algae to gently scrub pore-clogging dead skin cells from anywhere you need it.

Clinique Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel

The Best Salicylic Acne Gel:

CLINIQUE Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel


This CLINIQUE Acne Solutions Clinical Clearing Gel is a light spot treatment that goes on smoothly after cleanser in your skin care routine. Apply a thin layer all over your face for an all-over treatment to prevent future breakouts, or dab on only specific areas for a concentrated dose of salicylic acid. It’s paraben-free and oil-free, so you really can’t go wrong. Just start out using small amounts to avoid skin irritation or dryness, and work your way up from there for clearer, pimple-free skin.

Grace & Stella Co. Acne Treatment Facial Sheet Masks

The Best Salicylic Acid Mask:

Grace & Stella Co. Acne Treatment Facial Sheet Masks


Zap your zits while binging Netflix, taking a relaxing bath, you name it–with this mask, you can sit back and relax while your skin care gets to work. In addition to salicylic acid, the Grace & Stella Co. Acne Treatment Facial Mask contains all kinds of beneficial ingredients like moisturizing honeysuckle, anti-inflammatory witch hazel, and hydrating aloe vera to keep your skin soft, supple, and free of spots. Use it at room temperature, or pop it in the fridge for an extra burst of cooling acne treatment.

Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser

The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser:

Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser 


This Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser is a must for adults with acne-prone skin. A gel-cream cleanser, 0.5% salicylic acid keeps blemishes at bay, while hyaluronic acid and other hydrating extracts keep skin hydrated and firm. Gentle enough for even sensitive skin types, this cleanser is nonetheless a powerful tool in your acne treatment arsenal


While talking to a dermatologist is the best way to properly diagnose and treat your acne, you can manage it by using an over-the-counter salicylic acid topical treatment. 

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About the author
Isabel Miller-Bottome
Ipster, California girl, French beauty product fanatic
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Article Last Updated March 19, 2020 12:00 AM