One of the most commonly used dermatological skincare ingredients, salicylic acid is incredibly effective at treating a range of skin concerns – from blemishes to fine lines and dullness.
Exactly how does salicylic acid pull off such powerful skincare feats? We asked Dr. Sandra Lee (aka Dr. Pimple Popper) to explain.
What is salicylic acid?
Derived from the chemical compound salicin, salicylic acid is found naturally in willow tree bark. The ingredient is classified as a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which has a slightly different chemical structure than its more commonly known cousin, alpha hydroxy acid (AHA).
Stay with us for a science lesson: Unlike water-soluble AHAs (think: glycolic or lactic acid), Dr. Lee explains that salicylic acid is oil-soluble – meaning it’s capable of dissolving into the skin’s lipid layers to penetrate deeper into pores.
As an added bonus, studies have shown that beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid are gentler on skin than alpha hydroxy acids.
What does salicylic acid do?
So what’s salicylic acid actually doing once it meets your skin cells? In a nutshell, this wonder acid acts as an:
- Exfoliant: sloughing off dead skin cells
- Anti-inflammatory: calming angry skin
- Anti-bacterial: attacking infection causing microbes
- Keratolytic: breaking down keratin (the protein that makes up skin’s outer layer)
Next, we’ll take a closer look at how these qualities work together to treat some of your most common complexion concerns.
How does salicylic acid treat blemishes?
Let’s back it up a second and remember one of the major causes of blemishes: clogged pores. That “gunk” trapped in your follicles is actually dead skin cells mixed with sebum — the ideal environment for blemish-aggravating bacteria to breed. Here’s how salicylic acid zaps blemishes:
- Penetrates into pores, clearing out that gunk that causes blackheads and whiteheads
- Kills bacteria, helping prevent new breakouts from popping up
- Calms skin, containing acetylsalicylic acid — the same anti-inflammatory ingredient that you find in aspirin
Salicylic acid fights ageing
Salicylic acid is excellent for alleviating some of the signs of visible ageing – like fine lines and a lackluster complexion. One of the key ways the wonder ingredient does this is through exfoliation: sloughing off dead skin cells that can build up more robustly as we age.
Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, which means it causes a reaction that detaches old, dead skin cells on the surface from their younger, more vibrant neighbors beneath.
Additional benefits of salicylic acid
Besides treating all sorts of blemishes, salicylic acid is also an effective remedy for a range of dermatological conditions, including:
- seborrheic dermatitis
- keratosis pilaris
Are there any side effects of salicylic acid?
Generally speaking, says Dr. Lee, most skin types can tolerate salicylic acid — it just depends on a few factors:
- Product concentration
- Your skin type
- Frequency of application
- Other products in your routine
Where can I find salicylic acid?
Because it’s such a versatile ingredient, you’ll find salicylic acid in all types of skincare products, including:
- blemish cleansers
- body washes
- treatment sprays
- spot treatments
What are the best salicylic acid products?
Dr. Lee always advises patients to choose an effective concentration of an active ingredient to do the job (no more, no less) – rather than automatically reaching for the strongest product on the shelf. SLMD Skincare solutions eliminate the guesswork by providing optimal, dermatologist-approved concentrations formulated for all skin types.
Here are Dr. Lee’s salicylic acid all-stars:
- For face: SLMD Skincare Salicylic Acid Cleanser — this potent but gentle face wash exfoliates without leaving skin feeling dry or stripped.
- For body: SLMD Skincare Salicylic Acid Body Wash — an everyday body wash formulated with maximum-strength salicylic acid to help minimise body blemishes
Dr. Lee’s last word
"You’ll hear me mention salicylic acid often, because it’s a fantastic and effective skincare ingredient that most people can benefit from. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is used in many chemical peels, and it’s very effective at exfoliating away imperfections on the skin as well as unclogging pores to keep them clean and healthy."
—Dr. Sandra Lee