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Salicylic Acid 101: Everything You Need To Know Before Adding It To Your Skincare Regimen

Get ready to become a salicylic acid pro!

Dealing with acne during my teenage years was tough. But it was this journey that introduced me to salicylic acid, a powerful chemical exfoliant that changed everything. I remember reading beauty magazines and hearing dermatologists extolling the benefits of this ingredient for fighting acne. Lo and behold. It really did improve my breakouts and blemishes, and here I am to share the inside scoop about salicylic acid. By the end of this post, you’ll have all the insider knowledge on how this ingredient works and whether it deserves a prime spot in your skincare regimen. Because, as you’ll learn, salicylic acid is not for everyone.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that belongs to the class of compounds called salicylates and can be synthetically produced or naturally derived from the bark of white willow and wintergreen leaves.

In the skincare scene, salicylic acid functions as a keratolytic agent that dissolve the glue that holds dead cells together and encourages them to shed off. Its small molecular weight is what makes it so effective for oily and acne-prone skin. Unlike other exfoliants that work on the skin’s surface, salicylic acid is oil-soluble. That means it can penetrate the fat layers and go deep down to the pores to clear them.

How does it work?

Salicylic acid works by promoting the skin’s natural exfoliation process. It’s often used to target conditions like clogged pores, acne, excess sebum, and rough skin texture. But there’s much more this acid can do. 

Salicylic acid unclogs pores and fights acne

When it comes to fighting acne, few ingredients can rival the power of salicylic acid. This BHA works like a pore-vacuum, soaking up the sebum, bacteria, and dead cells trapped inside the pores, therefore reducing the chances of these elements causing congestion and blackheads. It also reduces the growth of acne-causing bacteria.[1]

Whether you use it in a cleanser or a more potent serum, salicylic acid can effectively treat mild to moderate acne. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology shows that a 2% salicylic acid face wash provides a gentle, non-drying daily approach to preventing acne breakouts, which is both effective and well tolerated.[2]

Just keep in mind salicylic acid is particularly effective for non-inflammatory acne, such as blackheads and whiteheads, which is caused by the accumulation of sebum, dead skin, and bacteria within the pores. It can have some benefits for papules and pustules as well since it has mild anti-inflammatory properties. But for this type of inflammatory acne, other treatments like benzoyl peroxide are more suitable. 

Exfoliates and smooths texture

The buildup of old cells on the skin’s surface often makes the skin appear rough, dull, and uneven. Luckily, salicylic acid has some serious skills in removing that buildup and revealing fresher, smoother skin underneath. The keratolytic properties allow it to break down the bonds between the skin cells and promote their shedding.[3] This can also be effective in diminishing post-acne marks and other blemishes.

It’s an astringent that minimizes pores and balances oily skin

Dealing with large pores? No worries, salicylic acid is a great pore perfector. It acts as an astringent to shrink pores by tightening the skin around them and reducing sebum that can get stuck in pores and enlarge them. Moreover, by regulating oil, salicylic acid can balance oily skin and take away some of the greasy and shiny spots.

Improves rough and bumpy skin

Salicylic acid is one of the best ingredients to improve texture irregularities. Its unique ability to penetrate deep into the pores allows it to target the buildup of keratin, a protein that can contribute to roughness and uneven texture. When keratin gets trapped and plugs hair follicles, it causes tiny reddish bumps, which can feel dry and rough. This is known as keratosis pilaris, a common culprit behind strawberry skin. As salicylic acid breaks down these keratin plugs, it smooths the skin’s surface and promotes a more refined texture that feels soft to the touch.

Removes blackheads and sebaceous filaments

While blackheads are formed when pores become plugged with excess oil and dead cells, sebaceous filaments are naturally occurring structures that help transport sebum through the pores. However, they can appear similar to blackheads due to their dark appearance. Salicylic acid not only clears out blackheads but also minimizes the appearance of sebaceous filaments by dissolving the buildup of impurities within the pores. It also reduces inflammation in the affected areas and inhibits the growth of bacteria that can worsen these conditions.

Reduces inflammation

Salicylic acid belongs to the same class of drugs as aspirin, called salicylates, which are known for their anti-inflammatory properties. When you apply it to your skin, it works by putting the brakes on certain enzymes that trigger the inflammatory response. This makes it great for calming swelling, pain, redness, sunburn, and conditions like psoriasis.

Evens the skin

As a peeling agent, salicylic acid can promote even-toned skin and eliminate blemishes. It does that by removing the pigmented cells from the top layer of the skin that has been overloaded with melanin. It can also clear up skin discoloration caused by sun exposure. 

Does salicylic acid have side effects?

Salicylic acid is not free of side effects. Some people may experience dryness, peeling, and itchiness not long after applying salicylic acid products, and this especially applies to salicylic acid peels. This is because peels are loaded with higher concentrations of actives that can potentially irritate the skin. Usually, the skin becomes accustomed to the product after a few weeks, but if the side effects persist, stop applying salicylic acid and consult a dermatologist to recommend something that better suits your skin.

Purging (worsening of acne breakouts) within the first few weeks is also a common side effect of salicylic acid. It’s a normal process that happens due to the accelerated exfoliation process that leads to a temporary surge in dead cells. However, this is an expected reaction as the treatment works to unclog the pores and remove impurities. 

How to reduce the side effects

It’s all about taking a mindful approach, low and slow. The maximum concentration of salicylic acid allowed in OTCs is 2%, but that can be too much to handle for the first time. I’d say to begin with a product with a moderate concentration, such as 0.5% salicylic acid, to give your skin a chance to acclimate. Remember, less is often more. Avoid the temptation to slather on excessive amounts of product, as it can lead to dryness. Along the way, keep your skin hydrated by applying a moisturizer with soothing and hydrating ingredients every day.

If you encounter bumps or redness, listen to your skin and adjust accordingly—reduce the frequency or try milder products.

Related: 13 Gentler Salicylic Acid Alternatives

Who should use salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is best suited for people with oily and acne-prone skin because of its ability to help balance sebum, clear bacteria, and decongest pores. Those looking to smooth the appearance of rough, bumpy skin are also ideal candidates for a salicylic acid product. On the flip side, if you have severely dry skin or eczema it’s best to avoid it. 

Can you use salicylic acid every day?

Whether or not you can use salicylic acid daily depends on the product at hand, the percentage of active ingredients in the formula, and how tolerant your skin is to exfoliation. Products like cleansers, toners, and mild serums containing salicylic acid are formulated for daily use. However, if we’re talking about a potent facial peel with 2% salicylic acid, you shouldn’t use it more than three times a week.

Does salicylic acid make your skin sensitive to the sun?

We’re used to chemical exfoliants making the skin more sensitive to the sun, but that’s not the case with salicylic acid. Studies suggest that salicylic acid in OTC products is unlikely to increase the risk to sunburn and make the skin photosensitive like glycolic acid does.[4] As a matter of fact, a study found that salicylic acid protects the skin from UV damage by inhibiting UVB-induced sunburn cell formation.[5]

However, salicylic acid is still an exfoliant that peels off the skin’s top layer and may leave it vulnerable to UV damage until it fully regenerates. So yes, you must follow up with sunscreen when using salicylic acid.

What’s the best time to use salicylic acid?

Although it’s best to apply salicylic acid in your evening routine to avoid exposing your newly exfoliated skin to the sun immediately after, you can safely use it in your morning routine if you wish. But make sure you apply sunscreen even if you stay indoors the whole day.

Should you moisturize after using salicylic acid?

Yes, it’s totally necessary to moisturize after using salicylic acid to replenish your skin moisture, especially if you notice signs of dryness. Besides, when applied after salicylic acid, the moisturizer penetrates more effectively in the skin layers because it’s no longer hindered by the buildup of dead cells and sebum your exfoliant just cleared off.

What to use after salicylic acid

After salicylic acid, it’s best to use a lightweight moisturizer with a non-comedogenic formula that aids in hydrating the skin and supporting regeneration. Look for moisturizers containing hyaluronic acidglycerin, squalane, peptides, fatty acids, and ceramides.

What to avoid while using salicylic acid

Avoid combining salicylic acid with other exfoliating products, like scrubs or peels, as this can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation. It’s also recommended to avoid applying retinol or benzoyl peroxide at the same time as salicylic acid. Instead, consider incorporating them into your routine on different days or at different times of the day. For instance, you can use salicylic acid in the morning and retinol at night to ensure your skin has ample time to benefit from each without overwhelming it.

Also, be mindful of the cleanser you use alongside salicylic acid. Harsh cleansers containing astringents and alcohol can strip your skin of its natural moisture, which can worsen the drying effects of salicylic acid.

Experts’ insights for using salicylic acid

  • Avoid sensitive areas, like the skin under the eyes.
  • Avoid using it on broken or irritated skin.
  • Patch test the product first before applying it all over your face.
  • Tingling is normal and usually subsides quickly.
  • Pair with benzoyl peroxide to fight more severe acne.
  • Consistency is key. Use salicylic acid for at least six weeks. This is the average time of a complete cell cycle and allows your skin enough time to show results. 
  • Minimize sun exposure when using salicylic acid.

Read next: 13 Best Salicylic Acid Serums To Banish Acne


Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

  1. Fox L, Csongradi C, Aucamp M, du Plessis J, Gerber M. Treatment Modalities for Acne. Molecules. 2016 Aug 13;21(8):1063. doi: 10.3390/molecules21081063. PMID: 27529209; PMCID: PMC6273829.
  2. Woodruff, Ja & Appa, Yohini. (2013). A double-blind, placebo-controlled evaluation of a 2% salicylic acid cleanser for improvement of acne vulgaris. AB12-AB12.
  3. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S84765. PMID: 26347269; PMCID: PMC4554394.
  4. Kornhauser A, Wei RR, Yamaguchi Y, Coelho SG, Kaidbey K, Barton C, Takahashi K, Beer JZ, Miller SA, Hearing VJ. The effects of topically applied glycolic acid and salicylic acid on ultraviolet radiation-induced erythema, DNA damage and sunburn cell formation in human skin. J Dermatol Sci. 2009 Jul;55(1):10-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jdermsci.2009.03.011. Epub 2009 May 2. PMID: 19411163; PMCID: PMC2791365.
  5. Mammone T, Gan D, Goyarts E, Maes D. Salicylic acid protects the skin from UV damage. J Cosmet Sci. 2006 Mar-Apr;57(2):203-4. PMID: 16758568.
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu is the founder of Women's Concepts and a certified skincare consultant. She has over five years of experience working in the beauty editorial industry and over a decade as an acne sufferer. With a background in dermatological research, Ana brings a wealth of expertise to a diverse range of topics, from buzzy ingredients to anti-aging and acne advice. She holds a BA in Sociology and Political Sciences. Find her on LinkedIn or Instagram.
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