What is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is one of the major players in the acid-for-skincare game. A beta hydroxy acid (or BHA), it's a chemical exfoliator that works wonders to break down excess sebum (the skin's natural oils), dirt and dead skin cells that clog pores and lead to breakouts. For this reason, it's a hero ingredient in so many anti-acne products, from face washes to spot treatments and scrubs.
"Salicylic acid is a natural plant hormone to help them fend off environmental nasties," Mark Curry, co-founder of skincare company The Inkey List, tells Marie Clarie UK. "However, we can use this to remove dead skin cells and sebum from our skin and pores. It’s effectively an exfoliant, removing old skin cells and debris (like sebum and oil) ensuring new skin cells can thrive. It therefore supports acne-prone skin and helps it look more evenly toned."
How do I use salicylic products?
Thanks to its ability to dissolve in oils, meaning it can penetrate deeper into the skin than alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), salicylic acid is a star ingredient for those with oilier skin types – but anyone can use salicylic acid products. If you have oily and acne-prone skin, choose products with a higher concentration, or for dry and ageing skin, opt for lower concentrations.
According to Halo Cosmeceuticals, salicylic acid cleansers in concentrations of up to 3% can be used twice daily, but it's important to moisturise afterwards (as with acid peels). Water-based lotions are best for hydrating oily skin without adding extra oil.
It's not just for breakouts...
While there's no question salicylic acid is the golden child of anti-acne potions, you won't just find it in targeted treatments. In fact, BHAs appear in moisturisers, body care and even hair products. Thanks to its exfoliating properties, salicylic acid can help other ingredients penetrate deeper into the skin, and with anti-inflammatory benefits, the result is a smooth, fresh finish. "Salicylic acid is also able to calm our skin, as it kick-starts cells to produce anti-inflammatory products at the same time," adds Mark.
Here, 16 top-rated salicylic acid products to stock your beauty shelves...
Paula's Choice Clear Acne Body Spray with 2% Salicylic Acid, $39 from Paula's Choice
This handy salicylic acid spray makes it easier to treat hard-to-reach areas like your back (did somebody say bacne?), and is not only suitable for use on cystic acne, but makes light work of it, according to lovers of this product.
"I had pretty bad stubborn bacne for a while (I'd call it cystic) and even tried some prescription products on it without getting anywhere," one fan wrote in their review of the product.
"This was super easy to use and doesn't bleach clothing. It took a long time for my previous breakouts to heal but after a few months of using it every day, my skin was super clear."
Buy it here.
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque, $21.90 from Adore Beauty
Salicylic acid, charcoal and clays work together in this all-over face mask to target skin texture, sloughing away dead skin cells to reveal clearer, refreshed, more radiant skin.
"My skin is sensitive, combination, and hormonal acne-prone, with lots of large pores and bad texture," says one user. "I've had bad reactions to salicylic acid in the past (burning, redness), and haven't noticed much difference with clay masks except just being super dried out. But when I washed this off after 10 minutes my skin looked better than it has in ages – bright, even, reduced redness, smooth, tiny pores."
Buy it here.
asap Clearskin Bodygel, $65 from Adore Beauty
Banish breakouts and bumps anywhere on your body with this mix of glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid, which work together to break down and remove dead skin cells, oil build-up and bacteria. Bilberry and white tea extracts provide skin with an antioxidant boost to help prevefnt scarring.
"I get terrible in-growns and shaving bumps, this is the only product that has helped with that," writes one reviewer. "By exfoliating the skin and getting rid of the dead skin cells, it is easier to remove the in-growns and get a closer shave."
Buy it here.
Paula's Choice BHA 9 Treatment, $7 from Paula's Choice
With 9% salicylic acid, this is one of the stronger options out there, and is a potent treatment for clogged or enlarged pores, bumps, breakouts and even milia (those little white bumps on the skin caused by trapped keratin that looks like tiny whiteheads). Many users claim to see results are just one use – and at $7, you can't go wrong.
"This is a product I keep at hand to spot treat and it doesn't disappoint," says one user. "Milia, clogged pores, deep eruptions, sebaceous hyperplasia, ingrown hairs, blackheads, it slays them all. No redness, no peeling. My 19-year-old son is very fair and product sensitive, this however he tolerates well."
Find it here.
Mario Badescu Anti Acne Serum, $31 from Mecca
The salicylic acid works to break down dead skin cells and pore-clogging gunk that causes pimples, while thyme extract offers antiseptic and antibacterial properties – and it doesn't dry out your skin the way some other spot treatments do.
"After just one week there has been a massive improvement with my skin," says one fan in their review. "I use either all over my face or as a spot treatment and my breakouts have almost disappeared! I love this product."
Find it here at Mecca.
Kiehl's Blue Herbal Moisturizer, $44 from Kiehl's
We know it sounds crazy – an ingredient for drying spots in a moisturiser? But this oil-free lotion is a great way to deliver all-over hydration to acne-prone skin. It absorbs quickly and has a mattifying effect, reducing the appearance of pores and evening skin tone.
"It is a great light-weight lotion leaves your skin feeling soft and not greasy feeling," writes one fan in an online review. "I really like it for mornings as it makes for an excellent base – if you wear liquid foundation [it] goes on more evenly."
Buy it here.
Alpha-H Clear Skin Face and Body Wash, $45 from Adore Beauty
If you like your beauty routine to be as simple as possible, an all-in-one face and body wash is a winner. This salicylic acid gel cleanser works to decongest blocked pores without stripping skin of its natural moisture, while thyme, tea tree and eucalyptus minimise bacteria production, and vitamin B3 and willowbark to control oil.
"Great to use when my skin is playing up, my hormones means lots of pimples on my chin. This cleanser helps heal them and also calm the skin down too."
Buy it here.
Clear Skincare 2% Salicylic Toner, $29 from Priceline
A great option for teens or anyone with congested skin, you can use this peel daily to help break the cycle of acne. The 2 percent salicylic acid dissolves excess oil that blocks pores and can help fade acne scars.
"It's the only product that treated my cystic acne, the only one that has prevented the acne from returning and the only product that does not dry out my skin," reads one review. "I could use it on my face, back and neck without problem. I highly recommend this range.
Buy it at Priceline.
Sukin Blemish Control Spot Banishing Gel, $5.99 from Priceline
When just one or two pesky pimples pop up, a spot treatment will be your best friend. This gel, with willowherb, quince, aloe vera, coconut extract and – of course – salicylic acid fights breakouts while simultaneously soothing and hydrating skin.
"I gave this a try, applying just before bed," says one reviewer. "I found the next day the small spots practically gone and the larger ones dramatically reduced in size."
Find this natural buy here.
SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense Serum, $100 from Adore Beauty
This clever potion does double duty, tackling adult acne and ageing skin at the same time. Salicylic acid works to unclog and refine pores as well as reducing acne, while glycolic and citric acids boost exfoliation, and dioic acid inhibits sebum production and fights acne-causing bacteria. A true all-rounder.
"I’m so impressed with this little serum," says one fan. "I’m able to combat age and breakouts in one hit. It’s very light and non-greasy, and a little goes a long way. Can dry out your skin if used every day, so moisturise well or use every 1-2 days. Pricey but worth it."
Find this serum here.
Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant, $86.50 from Adore Beauty
This cult product is one of the skincare powerhouse's bestsellers, and for good reason. As well as the chemical exfoliation of the salicylic acid, rice powder provides an extremely gentle manual scrub, while papaya and rice enzymes do away with dead skin cells.
"Although it is expensive, this stuff has literally changed the tone and clarity of my skin," states one review on Adore Beauty. "You don't need a lot, therefore it will last you a really long time. Helped to clear my acne-prone skin and keep it looking bright and glowy."
Find it at Adore Beauty.
Medik8 Blemish Control Pads, $59 from Adore Beauty
We love these salicylic-soaked cotton pads for doing away with and preventing blackheads, whiteheads and blemishes. They're great for treating larger areas like the arms or back, and are super-handy to take when you travel, but be warned – some reviewers find them quite drying, so they may not be best for ultra-sensitive skin.
"Onto my second tub of these and think they are great for oily skin. Even after washing my face it amazing to see the extra dirt that these get off. Can be a little drying so I wouldn't use every day."
Get them here.
Murad Replenishing Multi-Acid Peel, $95 from Sephora
If your skin is crying out for a peel, try this Murad offering for a smoother, brighter complexion without dryness. A blend of different types of acid (including salicylic) resurfaces the skin, while antioxidant-packed ingredients and omega-rich oils help to strengthen
"I have occasional acne and some acne scarring. I’ve used this product every night for a month now and I see a clear diminishment in acne scarring," reports one happy customer. "I also feel that my pores are smaller."
Find this peel at Sephora.
Sephora Collection Anti Blemish Patches, $6 from Sephora
Spot treatments don't come cuter – or less messy! – than these overnight stick-on patches from Sephora. Imbued with salicylic acid and green tea extract, they aim to deal with individual blemishes while you sleep (although you can use them during the day too, if you like).
"What I like most about the product is that it stays on while you sleep," says one reviewer. "Standard pimple cream is bad smelling and hardly stays on during the night. Not sure about reducing blemishes but I find it has worked for new pimples."
Buy these patches here.
COSRX Low-pH Good Morning Gel Cleanser, $18 from Nudie Glow
Korean skincare is an obsession we've all been getting behind lately, and COSRX is one of the heavy hitters in the K-beauty game. Their gel cleanser is mildly acidic to give skin a thorough but gentle clean, and despite its name, is perfect to use morning and night to remove light makeup. It's touted as the perfect cleanser for even dry and sensitive skin.
"This is a really nice, gentle cleanser that doesn't leave your skin feeling overly dry or tight after using. I would recommend this!" reads one of many five-star reviews for this morning cleanser.
Find it here.