If you have adult acne, you’ve probably seen salicylic acid on the labels of cleansers and face washes, or you’ve heard dermatologists recommend that you choose products with salicylic acid in them. But do you know what it actually is and why it’s supposed to be such a skin savior?
Basically, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which means it is oil-soluble and can clean deep in your pores. It’s also what’s known as a keratolytic agent, meaning it facilitates the shedding or exfoliation of the skin.
“Because of this property, products with salicylic acid can be useful for a multitude of skin issues,” such as acne, warts, dandruff, or psoriasis, says Dr. Sonia Batra, MD, a dermatologist in California and co-host of The Doctors. To treat acne, “the exfoliating action opens clogged pores and allows the salicylic acid to kill bacteria, which may be deeper inside the skin.”
Why Is Salicylic Acid So Awesome?
While you’ve probably heard more about benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is a little different. “Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are effective treatments for acne, but salicylic acid removes pore-clogging dead skin cells, while benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria in pores,” Batra explains.
There are also a few benefits to choosing salicylic acid over benzoyl peroxide, particularly if you’re prone to sensitive or dry skin: “benzoyl peroxide can be drying and irritating, and it can cause skin redness and peeling, particularly if over-applied,” she says. “Salicylic acid is gentler on skin and since it contains the same anti-inflammatory ingredients as aspirin, it can soothe and calm redness and help relieve the pain of cystic acne.”
How To Use It
If you are using a non-prescription-strength facial cleanser that includes salicylic acid as an ingredient, it’s best to add the cleanser to your nighttime regimen (FYI, you should be washing your face every night before hopping into bed, particularly if you’ve clocked a few hours at the gym).
“When treating acne, it is best to use products containing salicylic acid nightly after cleansing. This is because the salicylic acid will work best when it has time to completely absorb into the skin,” Batra says.
While it’s safe to use products with salicylic acid daily or until the affected area has returned to normal, it can cause dryness and flaking, so if you start to notice side effects, reduce usage to every other day or use a reduced-strength product, says Batra.
The Best Facial Cleansers With Salicylic Acid
Batra recommends the Glyone Acne Self-Foaming Cleanser (left, $40). “This cleanser exfoliates gently with salicylic acid to brighten skin and keep pores unclogged. I like that it works alongside other acne products without being too drying,” she says.
A slightly less expensive option? Neutrogena’s Oil-Free Face Acne Wash with Salicylic Acid (right, $19.68), which prevents breakouts without being overly drying.
Neutrogena’s Oil-Free Face Acne Wash with Salicylic Acid ($19.68), buy it here