Salicylic Acid for Skin: The Complete Guide

Salicylic Acid
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Salicylic Acid for Skin: The Complete Guide

While skincare is a second language for some, others get intimidated, especially by the "acids" word. When, in reality, salicylic acid is a friendly ingredient as long as it's used to address the right concerns, aka blackheads, excess sebum, and acne. Yes, salicylic acid is the MVP in the battle against breakouts and is a key ingredient in acne treatments, lauded by everyone in the know.

Since it works to unveil a pimples-free complexion and reduce the chances of breakouts, salicylic acid is present in more and more skincare products especially in the period when maskne is a thing. Hence, we've figured it's time to delve into the benefits of salicylic acid for skin, who can use it, and who should stay away from it. But let's start with the very basics.

What are the health benefits of Salicylic Acid? 

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) extracted from willow tree bark or lab-made. Unlike alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) that are water-soluble (act on the skin's surface), salicylic acid is soluble in oil, meaning it works on a deeper level, penetrating beneath the skin surface and clogged pores. So, salicylic acid acts both on the skin's surface and in-depth, exfoliating dead cells buildup and regulating sebum levels — the culprits that lead to breakouts. 

But the skin benefits of salicylic acid don't stop here. Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties, making it a go-to for those struggling with inflamed pimples. Also, since it's a keratolytic agent, salicylic acid breaks down and sheds the outer superficial skin layer, revealing evener, smoother skin.1

Translation: salicylic acid is an exfoliant that removes bacteria and dirt on the skin's outer layer, purifying and peeling dead skin cells for smoother skin.

What Does Salicylic Acid Do for Your Skin?

Salicylic acid takes things up a notch thanks to its small molecular weight that allows it to enter the skin, keratolytic, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.2

Due to these abilities, salicylic acid benefits for skin go from clearing excess debris and sebum, evening skin tone, to softening, smoothening skin's surface, and most importantly, helping prevent breakouts apparition. 

Salicylic Acid Benefits for Skin

  • Unclogs pores
  • Clears dirt
  • Antimicrobial
  • Prevents breakouts
  • Anti-inflammatory 
  • Sheds dead cells buildup
  • Speeds up breakouts healing
  • Smooth's skin surface

Common Uses for Salicylic Acid Skin Care Products

Depending on the product at hand, salicylic acid can be used in different strengths in topical products to help clear acne, from cleansers, serums, gels, or spot treatments. However, the maximum concentration approved by the FDA in over-the-counter products is 2% salicylic acid. 3

The most common use of salicylic acid to tackle acne is in serums and gels — they can sink in the skin and deliver a powerful shot of salicylic acid to decongest pores and control breakouts. You can use a salicylic acid serum once daily and gradually go up to twice a day use if you're not experiencing any irritation. If you're a salicylic acid newbie, you want to start with a low concentrated product; a 0.5% would do and gradually increase to 2%, allowing your skin to adjust to it.

Also, when using a salicylic acid-infused product, skip other aggressive ingredients, such as vitamin C, retinol, AHAs, or other BHAs. Mixing salicylic acid with one of these may dry the skin or lead to irritations.

Equally important is the use of sunscreen when applying a salicylic acid product. Even if salicylic acid doesn't increase the chances of sunburn the way glycolic acid does, according to CIR Director Alan Andersen, "products containing salicylic acid should either contain sunscreen or bear directions advising consumers to use other sun protection." 4, 5

Pro Tip: Like most acne fighters, salicylic acid is a dehydrating ingredient. You wouldn't want your skin to dry, as this may cause the sebaceous glands to go into overdrive and end up producing more oil. So while you're using salicylic acid, add to your skincare regimen hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, ceramides, peptides — you know, those gentle ingredients that counteract dryness. 

What are the Potential Side Effects of Salicylic Acid?

Many people wonder if salicylic acid is bad for skin. Welp, as long as it's not overused, salicylic acid is safe and doesn't have side effects. Yet, in some cases, especially for sensitive skin types, salicylic acid may cause redness, itching, peeling, and irritation. 6 "The primary negative side effect of salicylic acid is its ability to irritate and dry skin in those who are very sensitive or those who overuse it," reveals Rachel Nazarian, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist in New York City for Allure.7 With this in mind, salicylic acid is a no-no for dry and mature skin types, irritated, infected skin, or eczema.

Find the Best Salicylic Acid Products for You

At Exponent, results come first. We're happy to announce that, coming soon, you'll have access to the first self-activated skincare line inspired by our Full Of Standard. Until then, use our Product Recommendation List to find the best salicylic acid skincare, clinically proven products that are active, not acting, and contribute to clearer skin.

Words By: Ana Vasilescu


  • Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015. Source
  • Antimicrobial, analgesic, antioxidant and in silico study of synthesized salicylic acid congeners and their structural interpretation, Egyptian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences. 2015. Source
  • Topical Acne Drug Products for Over-the-Counter Human Use — Revision of Labeling. FDA. Source
  • Kornhauser A, Wei RR, Yamaguchi Y, et al. The effects of topically applied glycolic acid and salicylic acid on ultraviolet radiation-induced erythema, DNA damage and sunburn cell formation in human skin. 2009. Source
  • Beta Hydroxy Acids. FDA. Source
  • Salicylic Acid Topical. Source
  • Renee Jacques and Rebecca Dancer. What Is Salicylic Acid and How Exactly Does It Benefit Skin? Allure. December 2021. Source


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