Beauty 101: Salicylic Acid

We're going back to basics to help you understand exactly what's in your favorite beauty products.

Art by Tanya Leigh Washington

Ever wonder about that certain ingredient you keep spying on the back of your favorite beauty products? Don't let fancy words or labels keep you from knowing exactly what you're putting on your face and body. With our new series, Beauty 101, we're going back to the basics of skincare. With the help of industry pros, we'll break down a common ingredient found in many of today's popular skincare products and give you the 411—think of it as Cliff's Notes for the beauty aisle. This week, we're tackling an ingredient you've likely come across many, many times: Salicylic acid.

Consulting Experts:

Michael Lin, MD, founder of Dr. Lin Skincare

Crystal Wellman, aesthetician and owner of Crystal Clear Acne Clinic

Melanie Grossman, MD, PC, NYC cosmetic dermatologist and laser surgeon, and HydraFacial MD partner

Dangene, founder of The Institute of Skinovation

Valerie Goldburt, MD, PhD, FAAD, Dial Acne Control partner

What it is:

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid and plant-based hormone widely used topically as a treatment for many skin conditions. It is a derivative of aspirin and can be found naturally in berries, mushrooms and certain herbs, spices and nuts. 

How it works:

Salicylic acid breaks down skin cells, allowing the ingredient to penetrate deeply and purify clogged pores. It does this by inducing exfoliation within the follicle, as well as the stratum corneum, or top layers of dead skin. This helps to clear clogged pores and prevent future clogging and inflammation.

What it treats:

"Dermatologists use salicylic acid to treat a wide variety of skin problems, including acne," says Dr. Goldburt. "I also recommend it for seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis of the scalp [dandruff], corns and callouses, keratosis pilaris [otherwise known as "chicken skin" on the back of the arms], warts and other, more rare conditions."

Salicylic acid is also used to treat blackheads.

Who should use it:

Salicylic acid is safe for most anyone over the age of two. "I prefer not to start my clients on salicylic acid before puberty age and never for those allergic to aspirin," says Wellman.

Although salicylic acid is safe for all skin types, those with highly sensitive skin should be cautious. "If your skin is extremely dry (if you have eczema, for instance) or it’s already broken down (if you’ve picked away at the acne), you shouldn’t use it, because it could sting or burn," says Dr. Goldburt.

Where to find it:

Generally, salicylic acid is found in over-the-counter acne treatments such as soaps, cleansers, toners, lotions, serums, pads and more. It is also used in more advanced facial technology and chemical peels. Additionally, you can spot salicylic acid in over-the-counter wart treatments. Check out some of the StyleBistro editors' favorite beauty products containing salicylic acid, below:

How much you need:

Salicylic acid is most commonly found in the .5-2 percent range. "Dermatologists agree that maximum strength two percent salicylic acid is effective in treating and preventing acne," says Dr. Lin.

Typically, the maximum percent is found in soaps and washes, whereas the lower percentages are found in creams and gels that are left on the skin for a longer period of time, according to Dr. Goldburt.

How often to use it:

"Frequency depends on the person's skin type and skin concerns," says Dr. Grossman. "Some people can use a product with salicylic acid every day, while other patients need to use it less frequently."

Generally, most people can use salicylic acid twice daily—once in the morning and once at night. For those with sensitive skin, start slowly at a low strength to increase tolerance. Of course, if skin is irritated or dry from daily use, reduce to every other day, says Dangene. And as with most ingredients and products, consistency is key to seeing results.

How long you should use it:

"Consistent use of a salicylic acid wash will help maintain clear skin," says Dr. Lin. "Taking care of your skin is part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the same way you don’t stop eating fruits and vegetables just because you are healthy." 

Meaning just because your skin clears up doesn't mean you should remove this powerful ingredient from your regimen. "Salicylic acid works by peeling the pore, so it is actually a better preventative than treatment," adds Wellman. "You must continue to use salicylic acid daily even after you are clear."

Common myths:

"Most people think salicylic acid kills bacteria," says Wellman. "This is not true." Instead, salicylic acid is responsible for the cleansing of pores.

"Most people don’t know it's an ingredient that is often found in over-the-counter wart medications," says Dr. Grossman.

Dr. Lin says a common myth people have regarding more advanced uses of salicylic acid is that a chemical peel with the ingredient is painful and will burn your skin. "Actually, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties at low concentrations and can be soothing to the skin," he explains. "Proper application of salicylic acid chemical peels will gently exfoliate the skin and unclog pores."

Former Senior Associate Beauty Editor at StyleBistro. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @CaitlinSMiller Follow me: Google
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