- Salicylic acid is one of the most effective skin care ingredients used to treat and prevent acne.
- It helps to maintain clear pores and prevent the buildup of dead skin cells, debris and oil on the surface skin.
- This ingredient is commonly found in over-the-counter (OTC) skin care products such as cleansers, toners and creams.
- Although generally safe to use, this acid can cause allergic reactions, and cannot be used in combination with certain retinoids, such as tretinoin or adapalene.
Acne is a chronic skin condition that develops when hair follicles become clogged by dirt, dead skin cells, excess sebum and other debris, and sometimes become inflamed. Acne may develop anywhere on the body, but most commonly appears on the face. Using salicylic acid for acne is an effective and readily available treatment solution.
This chemical exfoliant works to keep pores clear and prevent breakouts by breaking down excess sebum and sloughing off dead skin cells. These effects have been demonstrated to effectively treat and prevent mild forms of acne such as blackheads and whiteheads.
What Does Salicylic Acid Do for Your Skin?
Salicylic acid dissolves oil and clears away dead skin cells and impurities. It works by breaking down the bonds holding together the cells that make up the outer layer of skin. This exfoliates dead skin cells, preventing them from accumulating on the surface skin and clogging pores.
It can also be used as a peeling agent, wherein a concentrated solution is applied to the face to exfoliate the entire surface layer of skin. This works to purge dead and damaged skin cells, excess oil and other debris, and stimulate an increase in cell turnover. When the skin rejuvenates, it appears clearer and with a reduced likelihood of breakouts.
This acid is also effective when incorporated into products intended for daily use, such as face washes and moisturizers. In lower concentrations, it will not cause the skin to peel, but will still work to gently exfoliate, unclog pores, treat active blemishes and prevent future breakouts.
Is Salicylic Acid Effective Against Acne?
Clinical studies have confirmed that salicylic acid does effectively treat acne. This acid is an example of a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), and is oil-soluble. As such, it cleanses the skin of excess oil by bonding with it and creating an emulsion.
The acid’s oil solubility permits it to penetrate deep into the skin. This allows it to effectively break down and flush out the impurities trapped within pores.
How long does it take to work?
The amount of time necessary for acne treatment with salicylic acid to produce noticeable results will vary depending on a number of factors. These include the severity of the acne, the treatment method and whether treatments are carried out at home or in a professional setting.
Studies have shown that a cleanser formulated with this acid, when used twice daily, dramatically reduces the quantity and severity of acne symptoms within four weeks.
Professionally administered chemical peels can produce long-lasting and dramatic results after only a single procedure. However, these procedures may require up to four weeks of downtime depending on the strength of the peel.
Does it work against any kind of acne?
This ingredient also has some anti-inflammatory action, which may help to treat more severe forms of acne such as papules and pustules; however, other treatments such as benzoyl peroxide and retinoids are generally the preferred treatments for these types of acne.
Can it treat acne scars?
Salicylic acid chemical peels are among the most effective treatments available for acne scars. They typically cause only mild side effects, which may include skin dryness, redness and peeling. They also very rarely trigger hyperpigmentation for patients of any skin tone, and are considered a relatively safe acne scar treatment for those with dark skin.
Achieving dramatic, long-lasting results typically requires a total of 3–5 sessions, and a peel formula containing a 30% concentration of the acid. Treatments should be spaced out at 3–4 week intervals to minimize negative side effects.
Salicylic acid vs. benzoyl peroxide
Like salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide has both antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties; however its inflammation-reducing properties are more pronounced. As such, it is better suited for treating inflamed, swollen forms of acne such as pustules and papules.
Benzoyl peroxide lacks the exfoliating action of salicylic acid, which allows the latter to break down blockages within pores. As such, benzoyl peroxide is less effective at treating blackheads and whiteheads, as these are noninflammatory forms of acne caused solely by congested pores.
Both ingredients have the potential to cause side effects like irritation, dryness and redness, and are generally not recommended for those with dry or sensitive skin.
Topical Salicylic Acid Treatments for Acne
Cleansers, face washes, toners and moisturizers formulated with salicylic acid can be used as part of a daily skin care routine to help reduce the quantity and severity of whiteheads and blackheads. Serums and spot treatments are designed to be used weekly or as needed to address stubborn pimples and wider affected areas.
Cleansers and face washes
Cleansers and face washes are among the most common salicylic acid products used to treat and prevent acne. Both types of formula are gentle enough to use daily while effective enough to fend off acne, however they differ in terms of potency and which skin types they are best suited for.
Cleansers are typically gentle formulas containing hydrating ingredients, available in the form of gels, creams and lotions. Depending on their ingredients, cleansers can be suitable for any skin type, but are usually used to treat normal, dry or sensitive skin.
Face washes are stronger formulas containing higher concentrations of active ingredients. They typically contain foaming agents, which effectively cleanse the skin of excess oil and impurities, but can also be harsh and drying. As such, washes are generally best suited for oily or combination skin that requires little additional hydration.
Toners are applied after cleansing to remove any remaining residue and rebalance the skin’s pH. Toners containing salicylic acid can help to reduce acne formation by preventing pores from becoming clogged.
Acne-prone skin tends to be oily, but still requires moisture. Moisturizers containing salicylic acid serve the dual purpose of preventing breakouts while hydrating the skin.
Since they only contain low doses of active ingredients, the acid’s exfoliating effect is reduced in moisturizer formulations, and is unlikely to cause irritation.
Serums containing salicylic acid typically contain a milder concentration of active ingredients than cleansers or toners, and do not need to be washed off after application. They are instead applied to the whole face and left to absorb into the skin.
The leave-on application method provides a deep cleanse that can help to treat wider affected areas, and the slightly milder concentration of ingredients ensures the serum is less likely to dry out and irritate the skin. That said, salicylic acid serums are still generally better suited for oily or combination skin, as they may irritate dry or sensitive skin.
Spot treatments come in the form of ointments, and typically contain higher concentrations of salicylic acid than creams, cleansers or toners. Because of their strength, these should only be applied to areas that have active acne lesions.
Since they are not applied to the entire face, the drying effects of spot treatments will be restricted to the areas they are applied to, making their negative effects more manageable. This makes them a preferable treatment method for those with dry or sensitive skin.
What concentration of salicylic acid is best for acne?
Topical OTC products usually contain concentrations of salicylic acid ranging from 0.05–5%. When trying a product for the first time, it’s best to start with a low concentration and work your way up to find the percentage best suited to your skin. An ideal concentration will be one that effectively reduces your acne formation without drying out your skin after use.
How to Use Salicylic Acid to Treat Acne
When incorporating salicylic acid products into a skin care routine, be sure to not use them in every step. Overexposure to the acid can easily lead to irritation and inflammation. Those with oily skin or severe outbreaks can use skin care products containing this acid up to twice each day in combination with spot treatments.
Those with very dry or sensitive skin should instead use these products only once daily. They may benefit from instead selecting products containing gentler acids such as glycolic or lactic acid, or additive moisturizing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid and ceramides.
Most topical cleansers and toners intended for daily acne management contain a 2% concentration of salicylic acid, and are suitable for any skin type. Products with lower concentrations tend to be better suited for dry or sensitive skin, and those intended for especially oily or acne-prone skin may be formulated with up to 5%.
Are There Any Side Effects to Using Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is generally considered safe to use, and is well-tolerated by most people with acne. However, some people—especially those with dry or sensitive skin—are mildly at risk of developing the following side effects:
- Stinging sensation
- Allergic reaction
Salicylic acid is known to interact negatively with certain medications, such as hypoglycemics and anticoagulants. It has also been found to interact with other topical acne treatments, such as the retinoids adapalene and tretinoin. If you use any prescription drugs, be sure to speak with your doctor or dermatologist before beginning treatment with salicylic acid.
Can salicylic acid make acne worse?
Overcleansing with salicylic acid can cause the skin to become irritated and inflamed, and this inflammation has the potential to exacerbate acne symptoms and trigger breakouts.
When applied too frequently, this acid also has the potential to strip the skin of natural oils, which can cause it to react by suddenly increasing sebum production. The resulting excess of oil can clog pores and lead to breakouts.
Salicylic acid is one of the most effective and commonly used topicals for acne treatment. It functions by chemically exfoliating accumulated dead skin, excess oil, dirt and debris from the surface skin, which helps to prevent acne formation. It is also oil-soluble, which allows it to penetrate deep into the skin and clear out clogged pores.
It can also help reduce the visibility of acne scars by regenerating skin.
To use salicylic acid for acne, gradually introduce the ingredient in your skin care routine. Only use one product containing the ingredient at a time to prevent side effects.
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