- Salicylic acid is one of the most widely used treatments for blackheads, or comedones.
- Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate the skin’s pores to dissolve blackheads.
- Salicylic acid may not be appropriate for dry skin.
Of all the over-the-counter (OTC) blackhead treatments available, salicylic acid is one of the best known – and for good reason.
Many topical treatments encourage exfoliation and reduce the oil on the surface of the skin, but salicylic acid’s ability to penetrate deep into clogged pores is what sets it apart.
Unlike glycolic acid and lactic acid which are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), salicylic acid is a member of the oil-soluble, beta hydroxy acid family. The oil solubility of salicylic acid enables it to enter deep within skin pores, where it dissolves the sebum and dead skin cells that comprise blackheads.
How Does Salicylic Acid Treat Blackheads?
When applied to the skin, salicylic acid works in two ways:
As a softening agent
Salicylic acid functions as a keratolytic, meaning it breaks down the keratin in the outer layers of the skin. Keratin binds epidermal cells together, protecting the deeper layers of skin. When keratin is broken down, there is a greater penetration of topical medications.
Once inside an open comedone, salicylic acid also softens the keratin contained in dead cells that have mixed with sebum to clog the pores. This dissolving action helps to loosen the blackhead by making the sebum easier to remove.
As an exfoliator
Another role played by salicylic acid is that of a desmolytic agent. Desmolytic agents break the cellular junctions, or the glue that holds cells together. Disrupting this cohesion between skin cells helps to encourage the sloughing off of dead skin cells and exfoliation. This removal of dead skin cells can help prevent future clogged pores.
Other Benefits of Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid decreases sebum secretions
Aside from salicylic acid’s keratolytic and desmolytic dissolving actions, salicylic acid can also decrease sebum secretions within the skin. By reducing the sebum, salicylic acid acts as a preventative measure against future breakouts.
Salicylic acid is an anti-inflammatory
Salicylic acid helps speed the clearing of blackheads as an anti-inflammatory and antipruritic, meaning it helps relieve itching. By keeping swelling to a minimum, salicylic acid may reduce the likelihood of sebum getting trapped within pores.
In addition, by reducing or eliminating itching ,salicylic acid can reduce the temptation to pick or scratch at blackheads, which may further reduce the chances of infection or scarring.
Salicylic acid is an antibacterial
Even though blackheads aren’t caused by a bacterial infection, there is a risk that blackheads can become infected. Bacterial infections are often caused by trauma, or physically picking at the blackheads. As an antibacterial, salicylic acid can kill the bacteria that cause infected blackheads.
Is Salicylic Acid Good for All Skin Types?
While salicylic acid products are an excellent choice for fighting blackheads, they may not be appropriate for all skin types. Because salicylic acid dries out the skin and decreases sebum production, it can cause already dry skin to peel and become irritated.
If you experience excessive dryness after using salicylic acid, you may want to consider a blackhead treatment especially formulated for dry skin, such as one containing glycolic acid.
If you have sensitive skin, you can still use salicylic acid as part of your skin care routine, but you may want to limit your usage to just once or twice per week, depending on how well you tolerate it.
What Types of Salicylic Acid Skincare Products Are Best for Blackheads?
Salicylic acid cleansers can be used every day if you have excessively oily skin, but if you’re new to these products, every 2 or 3 days might be easier to tolerate. After rinsing, follow up your cleanser with a blackhead spot treatment to clear specific areas.
Looking for more information on how to clear a blackhead breakout? See our complete guide to blackhead treatments.
- Bodemer, Apple A. (2018) Chapter 73 – Psoriasis. sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B978032335868200073
- Arif T. (2015). Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, 455–461. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765