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Salicylic acid is the “gold standard” for treating blackheads, whiteheads and excess oil — and is naturally found in willow bark, vegetables and fruits. A common skin care ingredient, you’ve likely come across it while shopping for acne face washes, blackhead treatments and acne spot treatments, explained board-certified dermatologist Kathleen Viscusi, MD. But what is it, and why is it so popular? A beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that can penetrate the skin to help remove excess oil and unclog the pores, salicylic acid possesses keratolytic properties that enable it to exfoliate dead skin cells and improve texture and tone, noted board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD. If you’re dealing with congested pores and acne right now, you might be looking for skin care products with salicylic acid in them. To help you find the right options for you, we consulted medical doctors on the benefits and limitations of salicylic acid in skincare.
SKIP AHEAD Best salicylic acid products
Benefits of salicylic acid in skincare
Although salicylic acid is best known for its ability to treat whiteheads and blackheads, it can also help eliminate buildup and scaling on the skin caused by psoriasis, warts, calluses and dandruff, said Garshick. Since salicylic acid can also buff away dead skin cells, it boosts the efficacy of your face moisturizer by allowing it to better penetrate your skin, she added.
Popular skin care brands like Neutrogena, CeraVe and Nécessaire have created body washes and scrubs to help those dealing with pimples popping up on their back — popularly referred to as bacne. You can also utilize salicylic acid face products on your body if you prefer. For example, in our recent guide to the best acne face washes, board-certified dermatologist Erum Ilyas, MD, recommended showering with Neutrogena’s salicylic acid face cleanser to help minimize pesky body acne.
Salicylic acid limitations
If you have sensitive or dry skin, you should proceed with caution to avoid the three most common side effects associated with salicylic acid: dryness, irritation and sun sensitivity, noted board-certified dermatologist Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, of Laser Skin & Surgery Center of NY.
Salicylic acid can be paired with popular ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide if you want to decongest your pores and avoid dryness. Pairing salicylic acid with benzoyl peroxide, retinol or retinoids like adapalene, however, might result in over-exfoliation and further irritation, as well as increased sensitivity to the sun, noted Garshick. If you do opt for those combos, you will need to be especially diligent about using moisturizer to prevent dryness and sunscreen to prevent sunburn. Yes, this is true even if you’re working from home — medical doctors do recommend applying sunscreen indoors.
Most over-the-counter salicylic acid products, whether for the face or body, are usually formulated with a 2-percent concentration of the ingredient while hair care treatments like dry scalp shampoos are generally made with a 6-percent concentration, Murphy-Rose added. If you want products with a higher concentration of salicylic acid, you can try face peels at home or at a doctor’s office.
Best salicylic acid products
We’ve learned from our previous acne coverage that you need to be persistent with your skin care routine to see results and salicylic acid products are no different. You may notice some improvement in just a few days, but the most significant results will appear in about four weeks, noted Murphy-Rose.
To that end, salicylic acid skin care products are available at Shopping reader favorite retailers like Walmart, Sephora and Amazon. You can also find these anti-acne items at Target, Ulta and Dermstore. To help you sort through the seemingly infinite amount of face products infused with salicylic acid, we rounded up 10 expert-recommended items that range from cleansers and toners to spot treatments and serums.
This “classic” skin care product earned a recommendation from Garshick because it is made with a 2-percent salicylic acid concentration. She advised cleansing your face and body with this oil-free wash no more than twice daily to help reduce blackheads and breakouts, plus prevent new ones from forming. Neutrogena’s face wash received a 4.7-star average rating from 4,880 reviews on Amazon.
First Aid Beauty makes a “great” salicylic acid spot treatment that targets blemishes, blackheads and whiteheads and is gentle enough for those with sensitive skin, according to Garshick. Beyond salicylic acid, it contains glycolic acid, a popular type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), plus fruit enzymes that help to reduce discoloration, she noted. While you can dot it on your breakouts up to three times a day, Garshick recommended starting with one or two applications a day and only increasing the frequency if necessary. This Clean at Sephora acne spot treatment received a 4.4-star average rating from more than 40 reviews on Sephora.
The combination of salicylic acid and tea tree oil found in this cleanser helps “eliminate” dirt, buildup and excess oil, which in turn prevents and treats breakouts, noted Garshick. As a bonus, St. Ives claims this non-comedogenic and paraben-free formula is stored in a 100 percent recycled bottle. This acne face wash earned a 4.2-star average rating from nearly 290 reviews on Amazon.
Viscusi called this her "favorite" drugstore salicylic acid product and noted it "gently and instantly" unclogs and tightens pores for a noticeably clear complexion. La Roche Posay's toner received a 4.6-star average rating from more than 1,870 reviews on Amazon. In addition, the brand claims this fragrance-free product is oil-free and non-comedogenic, meaning it will not clog your pores.
Viscusi is a fan of SkinMedica's salicylic acid-infused face wash and cream — they contain fruit enzymes, tocopheryl acetate and panthenol (provitamin B5), which protect against free radical damage as well as soothe, moisturize and replenish the skin. The face wash boasts a 4.7-star average rating from nearly 1,200 reviews on Amazon and the cream earned a 4.7-star average rating from almost 240 reviews on Amazon.
As one of Viscusi's "go-to" salicylic acid face washes, this " super concentrated" formula "deeply cleans pores," removes oil and impurities and employs salicylic and lactic acids to exfoliate the skin. According to the brand, it is also made with sucrose laurate, a cleansing agent that doesn't strip away moisture. This cleanser earned a 4.8-star average rating from nearly 90 reviews on Amazon.
Exuviance created a “very effective yet still gentle” exfoliating salicylic acid face wash that can treat and prevent acne, according to Murphy-Rose. It also features mandelic acid, one of her favorite ingredients to help promote cell turnover and collagen production. Exuviance’s Toner Pads received a 4.4-star average rating from nearly 110 reviews on Ulta.
Drunk Elephant is a popular Clean at Sephora brand and its T.L.C. Framboos serum boasts a combination of pore-clearing salicylic and glycolic acids, which is why it earned a recommendation from Murphy-Rose. The raspberry extract found in this serum offers many skin benefits, including cleaning the pores, soothing the skin and targeting fine lines, she added. It received a 4.3-star average rating from more than 3,040 reviews on Sephora.
These “easy-to-use” 2-percent salicylic acid toner pads can decongest your pores and “improve the appearance” of acne, noted Garshick. They are also made with antioxidant-rich green tea extract, which help soothe your skin and calm irritation. Humane’s Clarifying Toner Pads received a 4.4-star average rating from 45 reviews on Amazon.
If you’ve previously incorporated hydroxy acids into your oily skin care routine and can tolerate a stronger product without irritation, Murphy-Rose recommended this salicylic acid and retinol serum. “It is one of few exceptions to the rule of avoiding a combo retinol and hydroxy acid product,” she said. Like with all salicylic acid products, you should ease yourself onto the AlphaRet Clearing Serum — start using it every other night and increase to nightly use, but only if tolerated, advised Murphy-Rose.