What Salicylic Acid Is Doing in Skincare, and Why You Need It in Your Breakout Emergency Kit

If you have an occasional breakout, clogged pores or more persistent spots, you need a product with salicylic acid in your life. Here is why.

Salicylic acid is one of a few ingredients that has solid clinical evidence for being effective against acne. It helps to clear up clogged pores, heal inflamed blemishes faster and prevent new ones from forming. It can do it because of the two main properties. First, it is a good anti-inflammatory agent. It helps calm down the inflammation like the one inside and around a red breakout. Its second superpower is the ability to exfoliate inside pores and hair follicles, explaining its effectiveness against spots and clogged pores. In contrast to other chemical exfoliants used in skincare (for example, glycolic and lactic acid) which are water-soluble, salicylic acid is oil-soluble, meaning that it can mix with lipids in our skin and be effective a little bit deeper inside our skin.

Another advantage of salicylic acid is that it has been around for a long time so we have a lot of data on it. It has been first isolated from first willow bark in 1820s. Chemically, it is a relative of aspirin, and this is also where its anti-inflammatory properties are coming from. Salicylic acid can be extracted from a few plants, for example willow bark, sweet birch and wintergreen leaves. In plants, it works as a phytohormone helping regulate different processes, for example growth and fruit yield. Luckily, today we don’t have to cut trees to get salicylic acid because we can synthesize in a lab.

You might read that salicylic acid is classified as a BHA, or a beta-hydroxy acid. Not that it has any bearing for how you would use it in your skincare, but here is an interesting fact in case you enjoy skincare trivia. Salicylic acid is indeed a hydroxy acid, but the “beta-” part of the classification is wrong, at least from a chemistry standpoint. It is a phenolic acid. What’s interesting is that some dermatologists speculate that the classification mistake was made deliberately for marketing purposes in beauty industry, to make use of the popularity of the alpha-hydroxy acids in skincare.

Because salicylic acid has been used in skincare and dermatology for so long, we have a good understanding of its safety profile and potential side effects. The great news is that salicylic acid is an very unlikely allergen. It can cause skin irritation though through its exfoliating action if used too frequently or in too high concentrations. Recommended concentrations are usually in the range between 0.5% and 2% for applying on larger areas of a face, and up to 10% for spot treatments or occasional in-depth home peels.

While salicylic acid is safe when used in these concentrations without exceeding the recommended frequency, you should consult your doctor before using it in case you are pregnant, breastfeeding, you want to use it on a large area of your body in a high concentration or you intend to use it on a child. This is because salicylic acid penetrates our skin barrier (this is why it is effective against acne) and if too much is absorbed, it can lead to an overdose with some serious health implications. The good news is that if you are using salicylic acid in an over-the-counter skincare product on your face only, or have it added to a body wash that stays in contact with your skin just for a short period of time, your risk of any side effects beyond over exfoliation is tiny.

Overall, salicylic acid is one of those skincare ingredients that we don’t get enough fame in the beauty industry even despite the solid evidence for its effectiveness. The cosmetic industry marketers probably consider it to be not novel, expensive, or exotic enough. Regardless of the skincare fashion, a salicylic acid product is an essential in a skincare emergency kit for those of us who struggle with occasional or regular breakouts. When selecting products, as always, look for the least irritating ones and make sure to use sunscreen daily, especially on the days after applying salicylic acid products.