In this article you'll learn a lot about salicylic acid, like:
- What is salicylic acid?
- Is it good for acne, pimples, and blackheads?
- Can it help with acne marks?
- Whether it works in tandem with hyaluronic acid
- If it's safe to use for your skin
- The percentage of salicylic acid you need to deal with zits. How much is too much?
- Whether it helps knock out closed comedones
Dr. Steve, our founding dermatologist, formulated the Everyday Face Wash with salicylic acid because it's a master exfoliator and cleans pores like it's swabbing the deck of a ship.
And we get plenty of questions about salicylic acid: how to use it, what percentages are adequate, its safety, etc. So we asked Dr. Steve to chime in:
What is Salicylic Acid?
Derived from the bark of certain willow trees — the bark contains an aspirin-like chemical called salicin — salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA. That means the hydroxy part of the molecule — where the oxygen is bonded to hydrogen — is separated from the acid part by two carbon atoms.
All that means is this particular molecular structure makes salicylic acid oil-soluble, as opposed to being water-soluble, which allows it to penetrate deeper into the pores of your skin. The acid part of the molecule does the heavy lifting, dissolving some of the intracellular “glue” that holds skin cells together. This acid breaks down skin debris and oil that clogs the pores.
One effect of the breaking down of skin cells is exfoliation — the softening and then sloughing of the top layer of skin cells, which in turn helps to dissolve blackheads.
There’s more: salicylic acid also acts as an anti-inflammatory — shooing away red pimples and pustules.
Is salicylic acid good for acne?
Dr. Steve: Acne forms when excess oil and dead skin cells block pores within the skin. Bacteria can also become trapped inside the pore, causing inflammation and pus-filled pimples.
Salicylic acid works to treat acne by breaking down the bonds between dead skin cells, so they can be released and unclog blocked pores. Salicylic acid also decreases the skin’s sebum production, leading to fewer breakouts.
Is salicylic acid good for acne scars?
Dr. Steve: Not so much. Acne marks have various levels of depth, so with the deeper acne scars, what’s called ice pick or boxcar scars, salicylic acid is not going to help you that much. But for superficial scarring or superficial roughness, salicylic acid can give you a smoothing effect. But I'm muted in my enthusiasm. I wouldn’t say ‘here’s salicylic acid, a scar treatment for acne.’ I would say it can be helpful, but modestly.
One thing that might work maybe a little bit better is adapalene, which operates a little bit deeper. But aside from that, there's not that many personal care skincare products that really have much efficacy against scarring. That's the truth.
Beware, though, there are a lot of products trying to make that case — vitamin E oil, Mederma scar cream are among them. But the evidence is shaky that they really make a difference for true scar removal. It really requires a visit to your doctor, who can do microneedling, also known as collagen induction therapy; or laser treatments, which target blood vessels and can help flatten raised scars — those are the more aggressive but effective treatments out there.
How do hyaluronic acid and salicylic acid work together?
Dr. Steve: Even though hyaluronic acid and salicylic acid share the word “acid,” they are totally different mechanisms. Acid just means a pH less than seven. Salicylic acid is more or less a surface level acid that gently removes dead layers of skin and is antibacterial in nature, so it's kind of like a cleaning agent.
Hyaluronic acid, even though it's an acid, is actually a moisturizer and the unique property is it’s very hydrophilic — it attracts a lot of water.
So in terms of working together, Hyaluronic acid is a skin hydrator that pulls water to your skin and holds it there. Salicylic acid is an exfoliator that can dry out your skin. Using them together works because they balance out their effects on your skin.
Is salicylic acid good for your skin?
Dr. Steve: “Good” is a loaded term because anything could be good or bad depending on how often or how you use it. Salicylic acid is in general a very well accepted and well tolerated active ingredient. We know it’s got anti-acne properties, it's a great cleanser, and it does brighten the skin — all good things.
It's also a very safe ingredient, but if you use it too often and you use too high a percentage, it can be irritating, it can cause redness and burning and dryness, as any cleanser. But it doesn’t go too deep, so it won’t impact the elasticity of your skin, long term. Overall I'd say salicylic acid is good for your skin — if used in the right amounts.
How much percentage of salicylic acid is good for acne?
Dr. Steve: 2% is a solid level, but for over the counter products 5% seems to be a common formulation. There are creams with even higher percentages, all the way up to 10%, but that’s clinical-grade treatment and can be a little bit more irritating. (For more on irritation and retinol, check this blog post on retinol burn.)
Speaking of clinical-grade treatment, salicylic acid is not the first line of attack against acne when you go to a dermatologist. It's best when used alongside retinoids when tackling acne.
Is salicylic acid good for closed comedones?
Dr. Steve: Closed comedones form when oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria build up and plug a hair follicle. They’re covered by a layer of skin cells, which gives them a slightly white or fleshy color. Salicylic acid can be helpful by breaking up these dead skin cells and cleaning the pores.
Got sensitive skin? Some acne issues you want to take care of? Take our diagnostic and let's get started. We'll be with you every step of the way.