Whether you've been struggling with stubborn whiteheads and blackheads or looking to revitalize your dull complexion, you may have seen this one ingredient in many skincare products: salicylic acid. A key player in an acne-fighting skincare routine, it's best known for its exfoliating and bacteria-fighting powers.
Although salicylic acid is common in skincare, especially in acne products, there’s a lot that people are wondering about it — if it can be used every day, what the benefits and side effects are and how to use it, to name a few. Ahead, answers to all the questions you have about salicylic acid directly from dermatologists and experts.
What is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), a type of carbon-based organic compound that naturally occurs in willow bark, fruits and vegetables, according to Caren Campbell, M.D., a San Francisco-based dermatologist. "BHAs are lipid/fat soluble and can penetrate into pores to unclog blackheads," says Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab Senior Chemist Danusia Wnek. Not only does salicylic acid fight bacteria, but it also reduces inflammation and exfoliates the skin, explains Dr. Campbell.
What are the benefits of salicylic acid?
"Salicylic acid is an excellent pore-clearing ingredient because it exfoliates the surface of the skin and penetrates into pores to remove oil," says Hadley King, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. "This helps to prevent pores from becoming clogged and can help remove clogs that have already formed."
As an oil-soluble BHA, salicylic acid has the ability to remove any excess oil and dead skin cells. Dr. Campbell says it works by breaking down the "glue" between the cells to exfoliate and decrease oil secretion.
Key benefits of salicylic acid:
- Fights acne
- Removes dead skin cells
- Decreases oil secretion
- Reduces inflammation and redness
Along with treating pimples, you may have seen salicylic acid in products that "rejuvenate" or "brighten" your skin. That's because it's "used as a milder chemical peel for acne-prone patients or patients wanting a less intense peel," explains Dr. Campbell. "At higher concentrations, it is used to treat warts and other skin growth as it breaks down skin cells."
What does salicylic acid do for your skin?
Salicylic acid "is a great ingredient for people with oily and acne-prone skin, and particularly for treating and preventing comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads)," says Dr. King. So, not only does it treat current breakouts, but it can also help prevent future ones as well.
Similarly to other anti-aging products, it "will help expedite cellular turnover and also can reduce swelling and redness," says Corey L. Hartman, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Birmingham, AL.
At higher concentrations, it can be used to treat cystic acne, but you should always consult your dermatologist first. People with dry or sensitive skin should take extra caution as this ingredient can further dry out and irritate the skin.
How do you use salicylic acid on your face?
Salicylic acid can be applied on your face in various forms, from cleansers to spot treatments to serums. "I like salicylic acid spot treatments, serums and liquids meant to stay on the skin, versus a cleanser that is on the skin briefly and then is washed off," says Dr. Hartman.
A serum may be more effective than others, because it "usually has smaller molecules of an active ingredient, which will penetrate deeper into the skin," he adds. If you have more sensitive skin and you can't tolerate a full face application of salicylic acid serum, a spot treatment may be right for you, advises Dr. Hartman.
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Can you use salicylic acid every day?
Salicylic acid is safe to use every day, but don't run to add it to your daily regimen too quickly. It has the potential to irritate and dry out your skin, so start slowly.
"I would suggest starting once or twice per week, increasing the frequency as tolerated,” says Dr. King. “This will depend on how sensitive your skin is and what other products you are using."
As you build up tolerance, you will be able to apply it more often — Dr. Hartman shares that many patients can use it every day.
What are the side effects of salicylic acid?
If used in high concentrations or too frequently, salicylic acid "can cause skin irritation and dryness," says Divya Shokeen, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist based in Southern California.
Dryness, flaking and irritation aren't the only side effects: "It can also cause skin lightening if used in high concentrations or if left on the skin for too long," Dr. Shokeen adds. It's important to follow the instructions on the product label and to consult with a board-certified dermatologist if you experience any adverse reactions.
Does salicylic acid remove dark spots?
Yes, but don't expect to see immediate changes. "It can help fade dark spots over time, but it should be used in combination with other ingredients like vitamin C, niacinamide and hydroquinone for best results," says Dr. Shokeen.
If you want to lighten dark spots, Dr. Hartman recommends opting for a salicylic acid serum or daily toner.
What are the best salicylic acid products?
You can get salicylic acid over-the-counter, but not at prescription strength. "Salicylic acid is OTC at lower concentrations, usually 1 to 5%," says Dr. Campbell. These OTC salicylic acid products are used for gently exfoliating the skin and treating breakouts. If you have super sensitive skin, look for a lower percentage salicylic acid treatment (1% or lower).
"Salicylic acid peels are closer to 10 to 30% and should be applied by a board-certified dermatologist or plastic surgeon or under their supervision by a certified aesthetician," adds Dr. Campbell. These higher strength prescriptions offer the same benefits as the lower strength products, but they are more potent, producing greater results.
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Tatiana Velasco is a New York City-based beauty writer who joined Good Housekeeping in 2020 as a Beauty Intern and continues to produce stories for the brand as a freelancer. She received a Bachelor of Arts in journalism at New York University where she also worked as a writer and editor for the student newspaper, Washington Square News. She is passionate about skincare, hair care, health and fitness. When she’s not researching and sampling beauty products, you can find her working out at the gym, hiking on the Appalachian Trail or relaxing with a good book.
Catharine (she/her) is the beauty assistant at Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day and Prevention, working closely with the Good Housekeeping Institute Beauty Lab to write science-backed beauty content. She was previously an assistant beauty editor at Group Nine Media and returned to Hearst in 2022 after having held editorial internships at Harper’s Bazaar and CR Fashion Book. Catharine received a B.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Say Goodbye to Zits with this All-Star Acne-Fighting Ingredient? ›
Salicylic acid "is a great ingredient for people with oily and acne-prone skin, and particularly for treating and preventing comedonal acne (blackheads and whiteheads)," says Dr. King. So, not only does it treat current breakouts, but it can also help prevent future ones as well.What is the best ingredient for acne? ›
The Ingredient: Salicylic Acid/BHA
Why It Works: Salicylic acid is one of the best acne ingredients, thanks to its efficiency and relative gentleness on skin. Chemically, salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA.
How Are Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide Different? The major difference between benzoyl peroxide vs salicylic acid is in their approach: Salicylic acid clears out whatever's lurking in your pores, while benzoyl peroxide actually kills the acne-causing bacteria itself.Is benzoyl peroxide stronger than salicylic acid? ›
Salicylic acid is milder and may not aggravate sensitive skin as much as benzoyl peroxide.Can I use salicylic acid everyday? ›
Salicylic acid is generally considered to be an ingredient that is suitable for daily use, and when applied correctly, can be used in combination with other skincare ingredients.What clears acne the most? ›
Isotretinoin: This is a potent medicine that attacks all four causes of acne—bacteria, clogged pores, excess oil, and inflammation (redness and swelling). About 85% of patients see permanent clearing after one course of isotretinoin.What is the #1 way to get rid of acne? ›
- Wash your face twice a day and after sweating. ...
- Stop scrubbing your face and other acne-prone skin. ...
- Use skin care products and cosmetics that don't cause acne. ...
- Resist touching, picking, and popping your acne.
This ingredient kills bacteria that cause acne, helps remove excess oil from the skin and removes dead skin cells, which can clog pores. Benzoyl peroxide products that you can buy without a prescription are available in strengths from 2.5% to 10%.
Retinoids or retinol and salicylic acid
Generally, it's recommended you don't mix retinol and salicylic acid in your skincare routine due to the risk of redness or potentially irritating side effects.
Benzoyl peroxide will usually start to work within 4 weeks, but once your acne is under control you may want to keep using it to stop your acne coming back. You may find that using it less often, such as every other day, is enough to stop acne coming back.
What can you not mix with benzoyl peroxide? ›
Don't mix: As previously mentioned, benzoyl peroxide should not be used with retinol products as this can cause irritation. Additionally, benzoyl peroxide should not be mixed with other acne treatments such as tretinoin, as they can deactivate each other.What is the strongest antibiotic for acne? ›
Though there are many different families of antibiotic acne treatments, we most often recommend tetracyclines, which tend to be the most effective at treating acne with fewer side effects. The most commonly prescribed medications are doxycycline, minocycline, and sarecycline.What type of acne is benzoyl peroxide best for? ›
Benzoyl peroxide works particularly well for inflammatory acne, which is characterized by red bumps that contain pus — pustules, papules, cysts, and nodules — instead of whiteheads and blackheads.How long should you leave salicylic acid on your face? ›
How long should I leave salicylic acid cleanser on my face? This can vary depending on how much time you take to cleanse your skin. For many, the 60 second rule has proven to be the most effective.Does salicylic acid clear dark spots? ›
Yes. Salicylic acid for skin is considered one of the best treatments for acne scars and marks. It is an excellent exfoliant that helps to remove acne-causing bacteria, slough dead skin cells and fade dark spots or marks. In addition, it evens the skin tone and treats skin discoloration.How long does it take for salicylic acid to work? ›
When using salicylic acid or other acne treatments, it may take 6-8 weeks to start noticing results. Anyone who does not see an improvement in their acne after this time may wish to contact a doctor or dermatologist for advice on alternative treatment options.What is the hardest acne to get rid of? ›
Nodules and cysts are the most severe form of acne. You have to see a dermatologist to clear up severe acne. Picking or popping nodules and cysts can lead to scars.What do dermatologists recommend for acne? ›
Adapalene: A retinoid, this active ingredient helps to clear blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples. Azelaic acid: It fights acne and can also fade the dark spots that appear when an acne spot clears. Benzoyl peroxide: This acne-fighter is especially effective at treating mild pimples.How do I know if my acne is bacterial or hormonal? ›
One way to tell if acne is hormonal or bacterial is to pay attention to your skin. If you do not experience a flare up during periods of hormonal imbalance, and topical treatments are not improving your breakouts, you may instead be dealing with bacterial acne.How do you shrink a cystic pimple overnight? ›
- Use an Acne Patch. Hydrocolloid acne patches are an easy way to reduce inflammation and reduce the size of a cystic pimple overnight. ...
- Apply an Ice Treatment. ...
- Use an Acne Facewash. ...
- Apply Aspirin to the Affected Area. ...
- Don't Pick It. ...
- Thoroughly Clean the Area. ...
- Try Topical Spot Treatment.
What helps a cystic pimple? ›
- Antibiotic creams, gels solutions and lotions to kill bacteria and decrease inflammation.
- Azelaic acid (Azelex®, Finacea®) or salicylic acid to kill bacteria and get rid of excess dead skin cells.
- Benzoyl peroxide to reduce the number of bacteria on the skin.
Is witch hazel good for acne? Yes, research suggests that the anti-inflammatory and astringent properties in witch hazel can minimize acne breakouts. The anti-inflammatory properties calm the skin, while the astringent properties reduce excess oil on the skin that can lead to clogged pores and breakouts.How do you get rid of acne when nothing works? ›
Incorporate benzoyl peroxide into your skincare routine
Benzoyl peroxide is ideal for treating acne as it not only dries out any active spots, but it also kills acne-causing bacteria on the surface of the skin.
Mix 1 part apple cider vinegar and 3 parts water (use more water for sensitive skin). After cleansing, gently apply the mixture to the skin using a cotton ball. Let it sit for 5 to 20 seconds, rinse with water and pat dry. Repeat this process 1 to 2 times per day, as needed.What happens if you use salicylic acid too often? ›
So while salicylic acid doesn't directly age your skin, it's important to realise what it does do. Overuse of the ingredient can cause skin irritation and sensitivity, and in particular photosensitivity. In other words, it makes it more likely for your skin to be damaged by the sun's rays.Should you moisturize after salicylic acid? ›
Salicylic acid will unblock pores, so you need to hydrate your skin with a layer of moisturizer. Thus, it is suggested to use moisturizing or hydrating ingredients such as hyaluronic acid. It will leave your skin feeling fresh and smooth.Should you apply anything after salicylic acid? ›
Usually, it's recommended that you use hyaluronic acid after salicylic acid to prevent dryness. However, if your hyaluronic acid is in your cleanser and your salicylic acid is in your serum, then you would apply your hyaluronic acid first. Just be sure to use a moisturizer after your salicylic product.How do you pop a cystic pimple with no head? ›
Soak a clean washcloth in water that is hot, but not too hot to touch. Apply the warm compress. Hold the warm compress on the blind pimple for 10 to 15 minutes. Repeat the application three to four times a day until the blind pimple comes to a head and releases the pus.How do you shrink a pimple with no head? ›
- Apply warm compresses: Place a warm, wet washcloth over the area and hold it there for about 10 minutes, several times a day. ...
- Place an acne sticker on the area: An acne sticker has medication (such as salicylic acid, which treats pimples).
Warm compresses can help ease pain. They're also beneficial once a whitehead begins to form. Apply the warm compress 10 to 15 minutes three to four times a day. This allows the pimple to release pus and heal.
Is it OK not to use moisturizer after benzoyl peroxide? ›
"I always advise my patients to use a well-tolerated moisturizer after applying benzoyl peroxide, as well as sunscreen during the day as the skin is more susceptible to UV damage when using an acne treatment like [benzoyl peroxide]." It's also worth noting that benzoyl peroxide may bleach the skin.Is it bad to put benzoyl peroxide all over your face? ›
Do You Put Benzoyl Peroxide All Over Your Face? Dermatologists recommend using benzoyl peroxide all over the face. This is the only way to clear up the pimples and prevent further development of acne.Can benzoyl peroxide make acne worse? ›
During the first 3 weeks you are using benzoyl peroxide, your skin may become irritated. Also, your acne may seem to get worse before it gets better. If your skin problem has not improved within 4 to 6 weeks, check with your doctor.What bacteria causes acne? ›
The anaerobic bacterium Propionibacterium acnes is believed to play an important role in the pathophysiology of the common skin disease acne vulgaris.What works better than doxycycline for acne? ›
A variety of doxycycline alternatives are available for use. Benzoyl peroxide and Differin Gel are OTC alternatives for acne; antibiotics like minocycline and clindamycin are prescription alternatives for acne and/or rosacea. And ceftriaxone is a first-choice option for treating uncomplicated gonorrhea.How do you know if you have fungal acne? ›
How do I know if I have fungal acne? The most common symptom that you'll notice is itchiness of the bumps. Fungal acne is itchy but never painful, as typical acne can be when a blemish becomes inflamed. Fungal acne can be persistent, worsen with sweating, and flare in hot and humid temperatures.What do Koreans use for acne? ›
A consistent Korean skincare routine with active ingredients like AHAs and BHAs to clear out clogged pores, and healing anti-inflammatory ingredients like snail mucin and centella asiatica to soothe and calm, can go a long way towards preventing acne and shortening recovery time, while also addressing any scarring that ...What medication is good for acne and dark spots? ›
Usually the first choice for treating acne is a tetracycline (minocycline, doxycycline) or a macrolide (erythromycin, azithromycin). A macrolide might be an option for people who can't take tetracyclines, including pregnant women and children under 8 years old.Can I leave benzoyl peroxide gel on my face overnight? ›
You can leave BENZOYL PEROXIDE overnight on the skin if you are using cream/gel/lotion formulations. However, if any irritation occurs, please stop usage and consult your doctor.What happens if I leave salicylic acid on my face overnight? ›
It is advised by some skincare experts that using a salicylic acid product overnight enables the ingredient to work without being disturbed with the exposure to free radicals, such as pollution or UV rays.
Do you wash off salicylic acid or leave it on? ›
Wipe the pad over the affected areas. Do not rinse off medicine after treatment.Should I use salicylic acid at night or morning? ›
Use Salicylic Acid in the morning and Retinol at night. Those with more sensitive skin may need to use these products on alternate days, or reduce Salicylic Acid use to once a week or as and when needed.What's better for acne retinol or salicylic acid? ›
If you're dealing with the ups and downs of adult acne, you want the most effective ingredients in your skincare arsenal. Retinol is well known for being the gold standard in terms of reducing the appearance of ageing, while salicylic acid is one of acne's greatest enemies.Which acid is best for clogged pores? ›
Like glycolic acid, salicylic acid has an exfoliating effect on the skin. It can also remove excess sebum (oil) and reduce sebum production, making it an excellent ingredient for unclogging pores.How do you know if salicylic is working? ›
Salicylic acid penetrates your skin and works to dissolve the dead skin cells clogging your pores. It can take several weeks of use for you to see its full effect. Check with your dermatologist if you aren't seeing results after 6 weeks .How do you know if salicylic acid is working? ›
With wart medications, such as salicylic acid, the wart should peel away in stages until it is as flat as the skin. If this does not happen, the treatment may not be working. Warts are harmless growths that often appear on the hands and feet.What not to use with salicylic acid? ›
Retinoids or retinol and salicylic acid
Generally, it's recommended you don't mix retinol and salicylic acid in your skincare routine due to the risk of redness or potentially irritating side effects.
Using both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together can help increase their effectiveness. Many OTC products contain both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. You could even use a cleanser containing salicylic acid, followed by a benzoyl peroxide lotion.Which is better for hormonal acne benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid? ›
For example, if you suffer from hormonal acne, salicylic acid tends to be effective, while benzoyl peroxide might be all you need if you have garden-variety whiteheads.What goes first salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide? ›
It is considered safe to use salicylic acid before benzoyl peroxide, ensuring you are confident in applying them the correct way and have built a skin tolerance. If you have any concerns, you aren't sure of the best way of using your products, consult with a doctor or dermatologist.
Can I use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid every other day? ›
Your treatment plan could include salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time, but it is best to space them out to decrease your risk for peeling, redness, dermatitis and drying. Doctors suggests switching between products every night, or using one in the AM and the other in the night.What should you not use with benzoyl peroxide? ›
Hair products that are irritating, such as permanents or hair removal products; Skin products that cause sensitivity to the sun, such as those containing lime or spices; Skin products containing a large amount of alcohol, such as astringents, shaving creams, or after-shave lotions; or.What does benzoyl peroxide not mix with? ›
Don't Mix: Benzoyl peroxide with retinol, acne prescription tretinoin with caution. As previously mentioned, benzoyl peroxide and retinol can deactivate one another when used together.How long to leave salicylic acid on face? ›
How long should I leave salicylic acid cleanser on my face? This can vary depending on how much time you take to cleanse your skin. For many, the 60 second rule has proven to be the most effective.What chemical is best for hormonal acne? ›
"Benzoyl peroxide is perhaps the most effective ingredient we have for red, angry pimples," says Dr. Zeichner. So, if this is what your hormonal acne looks like, keeping a benzoyl peroxide product in your rotation may be your best bet.What acid is best for hormonal acne? ›
Use Salicylic Acid
Alongside benzoyl peroxide, you should make salicylic acid an essential part of your skincare routine to keep hormonal acne under control. This active ingredient is great at unclogging the pores and reducing inflammation.
Products that contain certain components—including lactic acid, salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and retinoids—are likely the culprits of your acne breakout. That is because they are designed to speed up cell turnover.Should I use salicylic acid in the morning or night? ›
Should you use Salicylic Acid in the morning or night? Salicylic Acid in skincare can be used daily in both morning and in the night. However, when salicylic acid is being used as a part of the AM skincare routine, it is important to end with sunscreen application as the last step of the process.Does salicylic acid work on cystic acne? ›
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that helps fight acne by targeting excessive oil production and removing dead skin cells. This ingredient “can be effective in treating cystic acne by targeting and addressing some of the underlying causes of acne,” Weiss said.What happens if you use benzoyl peroxide too often? ›
acnes (the bacteria will always return after treatment). Unfortunately regular use of Benzoyl Peroxide also leads to an increase in the number of blocked pores which provide the breeding ground for more bacteria.
Can I leave benzoyl peroxide on my face overnight? ›
Can I leave Benzac on overnight? Yes, you can. When you first start using Benzac AC treatment gels it's recommended that for the first three days, you only leave the treatment on for a couple of hours and wash it off. This ensures that you are getting your skin used to benzoyl peroxide.Can benzoyl peroxide remove dark spots? ›
But benzoyl peroxide can help you get rid of the dark spot quicker. It has the ability to slough off dead skin cells, making dark spots and scars appear less prominent.