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Battling with breakouts is never easy. Whether it’s one rogue zit that springs up the day before a big event or a long struggle with hormonal acne, salicylic acid is the hero ingredient to keep in your armory to keep pimples in check. Hearing the word acid in skincare can still conjure up images of Samantha in Sex and the City post-chemical peel, but the reality couldn’t be further from her tomato-hued face. Unlike hydrating hyaluronic acid or glow-inducing glycolic, salicylic dives deep into the pores and gives them a good old clean — like Marie Kondo but for your skin. Whether you’re a salicylic acid aficionado or have yet to dabble with the go-to blemish buster, we went back to basics with our experts to get the full lowdown.
First and foremost, not all acids are created equally. Salicylic acid sits under the family of beta-hydroxy acids (commonly known as BHAs) and plays a leading role in anti-blemish skincare. “Salicylic acid is better known as an over-the-counter acne fighting ingredient,” Dr. Howard Murad, M.D., FAAD, tells TZR. It works by loosening and exfoliating dead skin cells, which often clog pores if left unchecked, leading to unwanted breakouts. But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s just an exfoliator in disguise. “SA is lipophilic, which means it can break down oil and fats, getting through oily skin to perform deep cleaning within the pores themselves,” Daniel Kaplan, founder of ZitSticka, explains. Being oil-soluble, it can easily penetrate the lipid (oily) layers of the skin which are why it’s an effective weapon against blackheads and whiteheads. AHAs however, such as glycolic and lactic, are water-soluble and work better on the skin’s surface as they can’t enter as deeply into the pores.
With its roots planted in nature, salicylic acid was originally derived from the bark of willow trees. “That’s where the name comes, from as the species of the tree is called Salix,” Dr. Ranella Hirsch, M.D., a Boston-based dermatologist, says. The sap of the same tree is also used to make aspirin, which is often why crushing the painkiller into a paste has been a controversial, at-home pimple remedy for years. What makes salicylic shine is its multi-faceted response to fighting breakouts. “It fights within the pore by helping to normalize excessive shedding of cells and excess oil production,” Dr. Murad says, explaining this is why we often see the ingredient in products targeted at oily skin. It’s a powerful anti-inflammatory agent that helps to calm red, swollen and acne-stressed skin with Dr. Murad noting that the benefits make it ideal for dealing with today’s breakouts and for improving the health of the skin to inhibit the formation of future breakouts.
There can be too much of a good thing, though, and correct usage is vital for best results. The first port of call is to ensure the strength of salicylic acid in your product is enough for it to actually be effective. A healthy dose, according to Dr. Murad, is typically between 0.5% and 2%, which is often listed on the product. Similar to other acids, retinoids, or even weight training at the gym, start low and build up your tolerance levels. “If someone has compromised circulation due to conditions such as diabetes or atherosclerosis, they should look for products with lower concentrations,” Dr. Gregory Bays Brown, RéVive Skincare founder, explains. Choosing the correct product will often depend on the frequency of breakouts and skin type. For example, somebody keen to minimize oil production or has regular active breakouts may use a salicylic acid cleanser once or twice a day, whereas those who get solo unwanted visitors in line with their menstrual cycle may prefer a targeted blemish gel or patch to use only on the affected area. “Salicylic can definitely be overused and may result in the skin excessively drying out. Too much dryness may cause irritation and make the zituation worse,” explains Kaplan. If irritation does occur, Dr. Brown advises starting with one application daily.
Curating your most effective skincare routine involves trial and error, especially when tackling breakouts when the root cause isn’t always clear. When using multiple products, introduce them one at a time to ensure they don’t cause irritation. “With several active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide, hydroxy acids and vitamin A derivatives, we know irritation is a by-product of them working. So it’s important to try each ingredient and let the skin adapt to it,” Dr. Hirsch notes, who adds that niacinamide is often used in parallel with salicylic acid for its additional anti-inflammatory and skin-barrier strengthening properties.
While salicylic acid skincare is often focused primarily on the face, acne is not limited to the area. “Oil is produced and released from the sebaceous glands which we have in greater density on the face, back and chest,” Dr. Hirsch tells TZR, explaining why zits are equally as common on those areas too. Regardless of whether you’ve aced the latest squat challenge, pimples on the booty are also completely normal - yes really! Unlike on the face and upper body, bum breakouts are often due to inflammation around the hair follicles known as folliculitis. "It’s beneficial to wear loose fitting clothing rather than tight as it increases skin friction and it’s always important to shower immediately after exercising, to gently cleanse the skin of sweat and bacteria," explains Dylan Bassett, PharmD, of Glytone. Thankfully, the same salicylic acid rules apply, and body washes, sprays and moisturizers can help to gently exfoliate and relieve the affected areas, with Dylon advising against aggressive scrubbing which can cause further irritation.
Salicylic may also be your scalp savior. Similarly to how it exfoliates and controls oil on your face, salicylic acid works to slough away excess skin cells and oil on your scalp. “It’s more of an advanced approach to haircare but because salicylic acid exfoliates skin and unclogs pores on the scalp, it’s beneficial in growing new, healthy hair that may be lying dormant,” Thom Priano, Celebrity Men’s Stylist and Co-Founder of R+Co, explains. Whether it’s for a refreshed and revitalized scalp or helping to remove dandruff, seborrhoea or psoriasis, all hair types can use the ingredient. “For those with dandruff, it is recommended to use a salicylic acid shampoo daily for best results in eliminating the dandruff flakes," Michele Burgess, Oribe Executive Director of Product Development, says. "For those without, it can be used once a week or so to help keep scalp in optimal condition.”
Like your best friend or your favorite bra, salicylic acid is a reliable ingredient that truly delivers from head to toe. If you're tackling the war on breakouts, discover some great options below.
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Dr. Howard Murad, MD, FAAD, of Murad Skincare
Dr. Ranella Hirsch, MD, FAAD, of Skincare Doctors in Boston
Dr Gregory Brown, MD, PSC, of Revive Skincare
Dylan Bassett, PharmD, of Glytone