What is salicylic acid?

Everything you need to know about the powerhouse ingredient

Beauty Crew Contributing Editor / March 01 2023

If you get breakouts, there’s a good chance you and salicylic acid are well acquainted, possibly even the best of friends. As you should be, because this beta hydroxy acid has got your back. In fact, it’s one of THE best ingredients for treating acne-prone skin. But in the case you're not yet aware of salicylic's superpowers, allow us to break them down for you, with a little help from the experts...

What is salicylic acid?

“Salicylic acid is considered the gold standard for blemish prevention as it is able to penetrate deep into oily pores and break down clogged skin cells and sebum to clear blockages,” says Daniel Isaacs, Director of Research at Medik8. “Derived from the bark of the willow tree, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid exfoliator, also known as a BHA,” he adds. ”It is similar to alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid, however its difference in structure allows it to be oil-soluble.”

Emma Hobson, Education Manager for the International Dermal Institute and Dermalogica, explains that salicylic acid’s oil-loving nature makes it ideal for congested skin as it can enter a congested pore (such as a blackhead) and loosen the impaction to leave skin decongested. “This is why it’s a key player in products that are targeted at clearing congestion and preventing future breakouts,” she notes.

Other salicylic acid benefits include reducing redness and calming skin. “It is also closely related to aspirin [also known as acetylsalicylic acid], and has similar anti-inflammatory properties,” says Isaacs. “This means it can not only help to stop the formation of blemishes, but also take down any red, inflamed imperfections for a clearer complexion.”

Who should be using salicylic acid

“Salicylic acid is best suited to blemish-prone skin types, particularly for oily or whitehead-prone skin,” says Isaacs. It also delivers anti-ageing benefits by softening the look of wrinkles and improving skin tone and texture, so it’s great for mature skin as well as those wanting to take preventative measures against the signs of ageing. When used in the right concentrations, salicylic acid is safe for most skin types.

Who shouldn’t use it?

“Exceptionally sensitive skins should be careful with stronger salicylic acid products, as they may cause irritation,” warns Isaacs. “ It’s a good idea with any skin type to ease it into your skin care routine gently; using it every few days before using it every day or even twice a day,” he adds. Hobson also advises against using salicylic acid during pregnancy, when breastfeeding and if allergic to aspirin.

What is the best strength of salicylic acid to use?

Like all good things, salicylic acid is best enjoyed in moderation. “Salicylic acid performs optimally at a concentration of one to two per cent, and at a pH of 3.0 to 4.0,” says Hobson.

What other ingredients work well with salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a powerhouse ingredient, and when combined with other ingredients, it can deliver even better results. Hobson notes it can be ideal for treating the signs of ageing when blended with other hydroxy acids. “Salicylic acid works really well with other hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid and phytic acid. It also works well with niacinamide and zinc gluconate in products for breakouts,” shares Hobson.

While we've warned you in the past about mixing  retinol with salicylic acid (read: irritation overload!), retinol’s more-gentle cousin - retinaldehyde - is another story. “Salicylic acid used in combination with a vitamin A such as retinaldehyde can be a useful way of keeping blemishes at bay,” says Isaacs. “The salicylic acid de-clogs blocked pores while vitamin A helps to regulate the skin so that blockages are less likely. Retinaldehyde is also the only form of vitamin A with antibacterial properties so it is ideal for minimising blemish-causing bacteria for a clearer complexion.” 

What else can salicylic acid help with?

According to our skin experts, this wonder ingredient can relieve irritated scalps, too. “Salicylic acid is amazing for use on the scalp as it is antibacterial and able to tackle an itchy and flaking scalp. It can help to dislodge dead skin cells and clogged oils to remove build-up and refresh the scalp. This can help to support natural hair growth and maintain a healthy head of hair,” says Isaacs.

The cons of salicylic acid

“Salicylic acid isn’t very water soluble, therefore many products containing salicylic acid are heavy on the alcohol which helps to dissolve the acid,” says Isaacs. “This alcohol can leave the skin dry and compromised after prolonged use.” His tip? Seek salicylic acid formulas that are alcohol-free.

Isaacs also warns that one of salicylic acid’s side effects is sun sensitivity, so it’s imperative that you wear a high-strength sunscreen every day.

Salicylic acid uses

There are plenty of great salicylic acid products you can buy - in fact, the sheer number of products with this ingredient in it can be overwhelming. So we’ve created a list of some of our favourites - just note, you don’t need to use salicylic acid in *every* step of your routine (remember, you can have too much of it!).

#1 / The cleanser

“If you’re looking for a more lightweight form of salicylic acid, using it in cleanser form is ideal,” advises Isaacs. His recommendation for a gentle face wash is Medik8 Pore Cleanse Gel Intense ($52 at Adore Beauty)  which he says can be used “daily to gently exfoliate, or [left] on for a few minutes for a slightly deeper exfoliation”.

Medik8 Pore Cleanse Gel Intense

#2 / The peel

Philosophy The Microdelivery Resurfacing Peel ($99 at Myer) has a five-star rating on our website. Delivering the results of a chemical peel at home, it is a two-step treatment for skin that’s in need of resurfacing and rejuvenating. It works to minimise the appearance of pores, fine lines and wrinkles while also exfoliating skin to reveal a brighter and more even toned complexion.

Philosophy The Microdelivery Resurfacing Peel

#3 / The skin treatment

Great for blackheads and clearing skin of excess oil and blemish-causing bacteria, Murad Outsmart Blemish Clarifying Treatment ($70 at Sephora) helps to reduce the appearance of breakouts in as little time as one week. This lightweight gel serum minimises dryness and irritation and the formula is alcohol-free and contains no parabens, sulphates or animal-derived ingredients.

Murad Outsmart Blemish Clarifying Treatment

#4 / The toner

SkinCeuticals LHA Solution Priming Toner ($61 at Skin Boost) uses a powerful combination of exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid, glycolic acid and salicylic acid to unclog pores for a clearer and more refined complexion. Used after cleansing, it helps remove stubborn surface debris and improve skin tone and texture.

SkinCeuticals LHA Solution Priming Toner

#5/ The serum

etat pur Salicylic Acid 2% ($22.50 at RY) is an active-charged serum that exfoliates, unblocks pores and refines skin texture to minimise blemishes and future breakouts. Use it as a localised acne treatment for pimples and blackheads, and apply to affected areas as needed. Just make sure you don’t use it at the same time as any products that contain AHAs — they do not play well with salicylic acid. 

etat pur Salicylic Acid 2%

#6 / The moisturiser

Ole Henriksen Cold Plunge Pore remedy Moisturiser ($68 at Sephora) is a lightweight salicylic acid hydrator that nourishes skin while keeping excess oil under control. Salicylic acid works to clear congested follicles, green tea helps to calm inflammation; and algae aims to polish the appearance of pores.

OLE HENRIKSEN Cold Plunge™ Pore Remedy Moisturizer

#7 / The foundation

Salicylic acid can also be found in your makeup. We love salicylic acid-enriched foundations like Clinique’s Anti-Blemish Solutions Liquid Makeup ($59 at Adore Beauty). This formula delivers a natural-looking medium coverage to conceal blemishes, while simultaneously treating them with its skin-clearing formula.

Clinique Anti-Blemish Solutions Liquid Makeup

#8 / The shampoo

If dandruff or an itchy scalp is giving you grief, try Oribe Serene Scalp Balancing Shampoo ($68 at Oz Hair & Beauty). The salicylic acid in the formula helps shift dead skin cells from the scalp while also soothing redness and dryness. Plus, a mix of other extracts like sugarcane extract replenish the healthy moisture balance in hair.

Oribe Serene Scalp Balancing Shampoo

Do you suffer from bacne? Kendall Jenner has this genius trick. Spoiler: You’re using your body wash all wrong.

Main image credit: @shaninamshaik

Chelsea is BEAUTYcrew’s Contributing Editor. She has a sweet spot for anything that claims to make skin glow and won’t leave the house without a slick of mascara. Chelsea has 10 years of experience as a beauty editor and her words can be found on BEAUTYcrew, Women’s Health, Daily Addict, The Joye and Primped.