From adult acne to maskne, hormonal breakouts and blackheads to excess oil, if any of these are familiar and ongoing skin woes then salicylic acid will be your go-to for a clearer, clarified complexion. Loved by dermatologists for its ability to cut through oil and clear pores of any unwanted, acne-causing gunk, this stand-out beta hydroxy acid (BHA) is an essential ingredient in your acne-fighting toolkit, as well as boosting skin smoothness and preventing further breakouts.
“Salicylic acid is a must for cleaning and clearing skin,” explains Dr. Nina Desai, board-certified dermatologist. “It’s a BHA which not only exfoliates the surface of the skin, but also goes deep into the pores and cleans out any bacterial build-up.”
Unsure whether salicylic acid is right for your skin? Read on to discover everything you need to know about salicylic acid with our expert guide…
OK, so first up, what actually is salicylic acid? If you know Glo, you know we love our alpha hydroxy acids—such as glycolic or lactic acid. AHAs are commonly extracted from fruit, plants, and sugar cane. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid—a cousin of AHAs, and is extracted from willow tree bark. Actually the only BHA used in skincare, it’s considered a chemical exfoliant.
AHA vs BHA: What’s the difference? Well, AHAs are water soluble only, while BHA is lipid-soluble, meaning it will dissolve in oil and therefore is able to penetrate into pores which contain that oily sebum that can lead to breakouts and blemishes. By diving deep into the pores salicylic acid can exfoliate dead skin cells that build up inside the pore as well as on the surface.
“Because of its molecular structure and the fact it’s oil soluble, salicylic acid can get in deep, tackling black and white heads, and even preventing spots before they hit the surface,” adds Dr. Nina.
“This is why we recommend salicylic acid for oily or combination skin as it’s so effective for tackling white or blackheads, plus other blemishes. AHAs are great for textural concerns, sun damage, hyperpigmentation, and overall brightening.”
Think of salicylic acid as ungluing those dead skin cells, allowing them to be sloughed off, smoothing skin and promoting the growth of new cells.
“Salicylic acid has multiple benefits, which makes it a great ingredient to add to your skincare ritual, even if it’s just to spot treat,” explains Dr. Nina.
Salicylic acid boosts cell turnover by removing those stubborn dead skin cells that build up in pores and on skin’s surface that can lead to breakouts or general dullness. Refining and smoothing, it improves overall complexion clarity.
By clearing out pores, salicylic acid prevents breakouts from hitting the surface, decongesting and declogging the skin. As an astringent, it also reduces the appearance of pores too for a smoother effect.
Balancing excess oil or sebum, salicylic acid clarifies the complexion, reducing shine for a more mattified effect.
Thanks to its lipid-soluble nature, salicylic acid gets deep into pores and prevents future breakouts.
How you use any active ingredient largely depends on your skin’s needs. If you’re extra sensitive, you may want to start with wash off products like cleansers or spot treatments to reduce excess dryness and irritation. If you’ve built up more of a tolerance, try incorporating a targeted serum or leave on toner to allow the ingredient to really work its magic.
“I love salicylic acid delivered in a serum like Beta-Clarity BHA Drops as it’s a targeted, concentrated treatment in balancing and clearing the complexion. This serum combines the dream team of salicylic acid with retinol, perfect for clarifying and smoothing, tackling blemishes and breakouts,” advises Dr. Nina.
For on-the-go clarifying—perfect for touch-ups at work, and helping reduce likelihood of maskne, try Clear Complexion Pads. These pads work quickly and efficiently to reduce excess oil.
To boost your daily salicylic acid treatments, add in a pro-strength leave-on exfoliant up to three times weekly. Step forward our Beta-Clarity Pro 5 Liquid Exfoliant. Powered by five hydroxy acids at 10% concentration, this exfoliant clarifies and refines, brightening post-blemish pigmentation, and boosts the efficacy of serums and moisturizers to reveal refined complexion clarity.
Take your at-home balancing and blemish-banishing treatments to a new level with the Beta-Clarity AHA Clarifying Peel. Targeting blemishes, excess oil, and visible pores with a powerhouse blend of hydroxy acids, this level 2 elevated exfoliation treatment detoxes and decongests, brightening the appearance of post-breakout pigmentation, for clear, radiant skin in just 20 minutes. Perform monthly to keep the glow going.
Salicylic acid is best combined with other ingredients that support its clarifying and balancing such as retinol for that dual-action smoothing and firming power. It’s also perfectly partnered with niacinamide too, as niacinamide helps clear pores, tightening them up, and minimizing their appearance. It also helps balance oil production too, reducing breakouts. All three can be found in our Beta-Clarity BHA Drops.
For a more concentrated and robust spot treating combination, pair salicylic acid with benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is a powerful antibacterial ingredient that targets acne-causing bacteria inside the pores. When teamed up with salicylic acid in a topical spot treatment like our Clear Skin Spot Treatment, it makes a potent pairing for localized blemishes and acne.
And, as salicylic acid can be a on the drying side; “Try pairing it with a hydrating serum like HA-Revive Hyaluronic Drops to replenish and boost moisture levels,” advises Dr. Nina.
Nothing that can’t be managed through careful application over time. The main side effects are dryness and sun sensitivity. “Try out different combinations of salicylic acid powered products to see what suits your skin best,” explains Dr. Nina. “If you have sensitive skin or have never tried salicylic acid before, don’t try everything at once. It’s important to build up your tolerance slowly and add more products over time.”
Always apply your moisturizer after using salicylic acid. Wait 20 minutes after applying the acid to ensure it penetrates the skin. And as always, use a SPF daily. But, to be extra safe, save salicylic acid products for nighttime use only.