It's well-known for reducing acne by exfoliating the skin and keeping pores clear. You can find salicylic acid in a variety of over-the-counter (OTC) products. It's also available in prescription-strength formulas. Salicylic acid works best for mild acne (blackheads and whiteheads).
Salicylic acid belongs to a class of drugs known as salicylates. When applied to the skin, salicylic acid may work by helping the skin to shed dead cells from the top layer and by decreasing redness and swelling (inflammation). This decreases the number of pimples that form and speeds healing.
Two types of alpha hydroxy acids that are used in nonprescription acne products are glycolic acid and lactic acid. Alpha hydroxy acids are synthetic versions of acids derived from sugar-containing fruits. They treat acne by helping to remove dead skin cells and reduce inflammation.
"If salicylic acid is an ingredient in your cleanser, it is fine to use it every day." However, if you are using an exfoliant that salicylic acid in the formula, Dr. Hu advises only using the product three times per week, to avoid over-exfoliating the skin and drying it out.
The Ingredient: Salicylic Acid
When You'll See Results: When you use a product with salicylic acid, “there are some immediate improvements, because it helps dry out pimples,” Dr. Zeichner says. But getting the full blemish-busting effects takes about 12 weeks of regular use.
Acne treatments — especially those that contain active ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid — are drying and a bit harsh on your skin. If you use too many treatments at the same time, your skin may become irritated, and you may actually suffer more breakouts as a result.
How often should you use salicylic acid? You are able to use salicylic acid twice daily, but only after your skin has built its tolerance. Oily and acne prone skin will benefit from frequent application, however precautionary actions should always be followed when using this potent ingredient.
Can I apply moisturizer after using salicylic acid? Yes. Moisturizers can help hydrate and repair skin, making it a good step to do after using an exfoliating treatment with salicylic acid.
“You can use a salicylic acid–based cleanser in the morning to unclog pores and avoid acne and a glycolic acid–based cleanser at night to exfoliate your skin and get rid of dead skin cells,” notes Jailman.
Salicylic acid and vitamin C are both effective products on their own but, when combined, they can be even more beneficial. Whether you're looking to brighten your skin, reduce the likelihood of blemishes or just help slow down the skin's natural aging process, these ingredients may be just what you're looking for.
Signs it's not working: Your acne isn't going away and your skin is damaged. Why it might not be working: Not all acne is created equal — and if your acne is severe, salicylic might not be strong enough for you. “Cystic acne will need something stronger than salicylic acid,” says NYC-based dermatologist Debra Jaliman.
No, salicylic acid is not a skin lightening (as in whitening) agent and therefore, it cannot lighten your skin. However, since salicylic acid has the ability to exfoliate your skin's surface and remove dead skin cells, it can help give your skin a brighter more even complexion.
If you have blackheads and whiteheads, salicylic acid alone should work well to clear out your pores. If your acne tends to be inflammatory, such as papules and pustules, opt for benzoyl peroxide to stop outbreaks at the source. For sensitive skin, start with salicylic acid, since it's less likely to cause irritation.
Salicylic acid works best on blackheads and whiteheads.
"Salicylic acid helps with the first cause by dissolving the type of skin debris that clogs pores and causes acne," he says. Therefore, salicylic acid is ideal for treating blackheads and whiteheads.
It has the same anti-inflammatory ingredients as aspirin, can help de-clog pores, and is also an exfoliator that helps get rid of dry skin to prevent future break outs (via HuffPost).
Salicylic acid creams that are only 1% or 2% in strength, you can leave it overnight on the skin and rinse it off in the morning. Remember to use a good broad spectrum sunscreen because salicylic acid can make your skin sensitive.
The best time to apply toner is right after cleansing your skin. You don't need to wash toner off after applying it to your skin. Toner with salicylic acid is one of the best ways to fight acne. Toner can be drying, so start by applying it a few times a week to see how your skin reacts.
Salicylic acid is a great ingredient for people with oily and acne-prone skin, and particularly for treating blackheads and whiteheads. If you are suffering from only minor congestion of the pores on your skin, then salicylic acid may be too strong of a spot treatment option and could potentially lead to dry skin.
Salicylic acid serums are popular skin care products to treat acne and exfoliate skin, but they can also be expensive. However, you can make your own using salicylic acid powder, propylene glycol, and a carrier oil like grapeseed or avocado oil.
Benefits. While ice alone may not cure a pimple, it can decrease swelling and redness, making the pimple less noticeable. Ice also has a numbing effect, which can offer temporary pain relief for severely inflamed pimples.
But overall, stick to using water-based products and serums together. AHAs and BHAs, such as glycolic, salicylic, and lactic acids should never be used with Vitamin C. Vitamin C is an acid, too, and is unstable, so the pH balance will be thrown off by layering these ingredients together and might as well be useless.