Here’s everything you need to know about salicylic acid – the skincare ingredient that will clear out your pores and keep those pesky zits at bay.
1. What it is
One of the most common ingredients you’ll see in anti-acne skincare products, salicylic acid is often referred to as a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). What this essentially means is that salicylic acid is oil-soluble as compared to its close “cousin”, alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), another class of acids frequently used in skincare products, which is water soluble.
2. What It Does
Due to its chemical structure, salicylic acid is oil-soluble (unlike water-soluble AHAs so they can only act on the skin surface), which means it is able to penetrate clogged pores to dissolve comedones like blackheads and whiteheads, as well as target sebum glands to regulate the production of sebum. As a result, it makes for an excellent ingredient to clear out congested pores and keep overactive sebum glands in check. But that’s not all, salicylic acid also has exfoliating properties (like its AHA cousins) to dissolve and lift dead skin cells that have accumulated on the surface of your skin. Plus, salicylic acid also helps soothe inflammation and provides some antimicrobial properties for an all-round anti-acne action. In summary, salicylic acid works on skin’s surface as well as deep within pores for a clearer, smoother, brighter and calmer complexion.
3. Its Closest Counterpart
Another ingredient that is commonly used for anti-acne skincare products is benzoyl peroxide. While salicylic acid works on penetrating clogged pores to clear out congestion, benzoyl peroxide works by killing bacteria responsible for causing acne. In comparison, salicylic acid tends to be gentler and works better on comedones and for regulating sebum production whereas benzoyl peroxide can be harsh for those with dry and sensitive skin, and is ideal for drying out angry red pustules.
4. Who It’s Best For
Salicylic acid is safe to use for almost everyone, even those with dry and sensitive-prone skin. This is because most over-the-counter anti-acne products that has salicylic acid content only contains low concentrations of it. However, if you’re using prescribed concentrations of salicylic acid, it is important to stick to the directions of use as advised by your doctor or you run the risk of causing skin irritation if you overuse them.
5. Know The Difference
Moreover, it is easy for consumers to confuse salicylic acid with willow bark extract as many skincare companies state that willow bark extract is a natural source of salicylic acid and also indicate the latter in their ingredients list in skin-clarifying products. While they are technically not wrong (since willow bark extract IS a natural source of salicylic acid), it is important to recognise that topical application of willow bark extract will not yield the same efficacy as salicylic acid. For the skin to reap the BHA’s maximum benefits, willow bark extract has to undergo a chemical process before it actually becomes BHA and is able to effectively penetrate clogged pores to clear out comedones, regulate sebum secretion, soothe, as well as speed up cellular turnover.
Here, six best products that contain salicylic acid to keep breakouts at bay.
Paula’s Choice Clear Acne Regular Strength Exfoliating Treatment 2% BHA (Salicylic Acid) ($41 for 118ml) Available at Paula’s Choice
With a salicylic acid concentration of 2%, this leave-on exfoliating treatment is suitable for daily use without any harshness or stripping skin of moisture. Saturate a cotton pad and sweep over entire face (yes, you can use this even around the eyes) as this weightless solution eliminates dead skin cells and purges clogged pores. Over time, you can expect skin to be less prone to shine, pores appear more refined and skin looks and feels smoother. Just remember to always use a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher if you’re using it in the day.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar (K+) ($38.90 for 30ml)
Formulated specifically to help control shine in combination to oily skin types, this purifying treatment gradually transforms skin’s surface as it clears our congested pores. Thanks to its unique ingredients including salicylic acid, it gently exfoliates skin surface while its ultra-fresh, non-greasy aqua-gel texture penetrates skin quickly to deliver hydration that lasts all day long. Skin is well-balanced, feels comfortable and stays matte.
Mario Badescu Drying Lotion ($36 for 29ml)
With a potent acne-fighting blend of salicylic acid, resorcinol and sulfur, this spot treatment is ideal as an overnight solution to calm and reduce the appearance of blemishes. It also contains calamime to help counter redness and inflammation so it only dries out zits, not your skin.
Eucerin Pro ACNE Solution Correct & Cover Stick ($26 for 2.5g)
If you’re ever stuck in the dilemma of wanting to mask your blemishes without smothering your skin with thick layers of makeup, this is your best bet. With a nifty pen-like format, it makes application on specific spots effortless. It also has a creamy formula that completely covers pimples and even contains salicylic acid to ensure that your pores don’t get clogged.
First Aid Beauty Skin Rescue Anti-Breakout Charcoal Cleanser ($37 for 142g)
Great for purifying oily and congested complexions, this cleanser contains Active Charcoal and 2% salicylic acid to draw out impurities, clear out pores and slough away dead skin cells. It is also enriched with vitamin E and yogurt extract to boost skin’s resilience for a clarified and refined complexion.