Acne, blackheads, breakouts, and clogged pores are undeniably pesky, but the best salicylic acid products tackle them all. After all, salicylic acid maintains a consistent presence in ingredients lists for its ability to dissolve dead, pore-clogging skin tissue, speed up cell turnover, reduce the chances of future breakouts forming, and even soothe/treat conditions like scalp psoriasis.
Allow Yunyoung Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City, to break it down for you. “Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble beta hydroxy acid (or BHA) that goes deep into the pores to clear out dirt, oil, and other impurities,” she explains. “It exfoliates and reduces clogged pores, leading to clearer and brighter skin.” Salicylic acid also plays an important role in the acne-healing process (both in the short and long term), acting as “an anti-inflammatory ingredient that helps red, inflamed pimples and pustules go away faster,” Naissan O. Wesley, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles, previously said.
Now, you might be wondering about the differences between alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic and lactic acid and their counterparts, BHAs. “Generally, oil-soluble ingredients [like salicylic acid] penetrate through the lipid layers between the skin cells more readily,” New York City-based board-certified dermatologist Sejal Shah, MD, previously explained to Allure. In comparison, their water-soluble counterparts (AHAs) stick to the skin’s surface.
That’s also why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a higher maximum percent for over-the-counter (OTC) products for alpha hydroxy acids — 10% for leave-on products and 30% for rinse-off treatments — but, more on that in the next section.
It’s important not to overdo the salicylic acid-spiked treatments, especially for those with dry, sensitive, and generally irritable skin. “I recommend starting with a lower concentration of salicylic acid, like 0.5 or 1%, to see if you tolerate it before jumping to 2% [the maximum amount the FDA allows in OTC products],” Dr. Chang tells us. She also endorses kicking off with salicylic acid once a day or once every other day and monitoring your skin — before you work your way up to twice daily (morning and night).