What Is Salicylic Acid And How Do I Use It?

Salicylic acid is a key ingredient which you’ve probably seen in many cleansers and blemish treatments. Thanks to its antibacterial properties and its ability to deeply exfoliate skin to unclog pores, it’s a valuable ingredient for anyone dealing with oily skin, breakouts, or acne. Interested? Here’s everything you need to know. 

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) which (thanks to its molecule size) has the unique ability to deeply penetrate through multiple layers of skin – unlike alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic and lactic acid, which can only exfoliate the surface layers.

How does it work?

Salicylic acid penetrates the surface of the skin and dissolves the ‘glue’ that holds cells together – this breaks down dead skin cells which clog pores, so reduces the appearance of blackheads and prevents breakouts from occurring. It also has the ability to penetrate through oil, so it’s really effective at reducing sebum and works well even for those with an oily complexion. What’s more, salicylic acid is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory, so it helps to calm the redness and swelling of existing blemishes as well as preventing new ones. 

Why should I use it?

If you experience breakouts, oily skin, stubborn blackheads, or acne, salicylic acid will be a valuable ingredient to add to your routine. You’ll find salicylic acid is often included within cleansers and face masks, but you can also buy it in more concentrated forms. These are best used in a targeted way (as a spot-treatment dotted onto blemishes) as salicylic acid can dry out and irritate the skin if over-used. 

When should I use it?

You can use salicylic acid in your morning and evening routines but should make sure an SPF is always included in your daily routine (because salicylic acid is an exfoliant, it will increase your skin’s sensitivity to UV).  

This is a high potency and super-concentrated form of salicylic acid, so it works fast and well. Rather than spreading it all over, use it as a targeted treatment and dot it onto existing spots or new ones as soon as you feel them coming. It’s a thin, clear gel so unlike other spot treatments, it’s undetectable on skin and can be layered beneath makeup.  

A gentle, soothing alternative to harsh, drying spot treatments, this overnight treatment contains salicylic acid alongside skin-soothing niacinamide and moisture magnet squalane. It’s especially good for people whose breakouts often leave scars or pigmentation.

Ideal for oily or combination skin that also suffers from blemishes, this gel cleanser captures excess oil without stripping dry areas. It contains just enough salicylic acid to target breakouts without causing irritation (even when used daily). It’ll also help to regulate sebum-production and make skin look less oily overall.