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Everything to Know About Salicylic Acid, a Must-Have for Breakout-Prone Skin

Like our weekly Target runs, salicylic acid is one of those skincare ingredients where you go in for one thing (acne), but end up coming home with a whole lot more (brighter tone, less oil, tightened pores…)

While this BHA is a tried-and-true, dermatologist-recommended ingredient for acne, few people realize the many other benefits it can bring to the skin. With the help of dermatologist Dr. Ciraldo MD, FAAD, we dig deep into the benefits of salicylic acid (plus how and when to use it) below.

WHAT IS SALICYLIC ACID?

Sourced from willow tree bark, salicylic acid is the most common beta hydroxy acid (BHA) in the skincare world. “All hydroxy acids work by un-gluing dead cells from each other, an action that makes them keratolytic since they break down the keratin content of the dead cells,” explains Ciraldo. Essentially, salicylic acid works as a chemical exfoliant, which helps unclog pores, fade dark spots, brighten dullness, and smooth out rough, bumpy skin texture.

HOW DOES SALICYLIC ACID BENEFIT THE SKIN?

This BHA isn’t your average exfoliant, however. Salicylic acid is oil-soluble and can penetrate skin’s layers deeper than alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) can, extruding debris and oily buildup from the pores. It’s also uber gentle and exhibits both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Put all of this together and you have one effective treatment for nipping acne in the bud. “It can improve whiteheads and blackheads, lessen skin oiliness, and help to prevent pimples,” agrees Ciraldo. That’s what helps our salicylic acid-based Acne-Calming Cream Cleanser soothe breakouts without the risk of irritation.

Because it’s still a form of exfoliation, salicylic acid is also beneficial for treating uneven pigmentation, melasma, and dark spots left over from acne breakouts.

Use salicylic acid if any of these are on your list of skin goals:

  • Clear skin and fewer breakouts
  • Unclogged, tightened pores
  • More oil-control
  • Fewer dark spots and acne scars
  • Even, glowing skin tone
  • Less inflammation 

HOW AND WHEN TO USE SALICYLIC ACID 

Salicylic acid can be found in all forms of skincare, from cleansers and solutions to body care and masks. Got body acne? Reap its benefits by spritzing on our Acne-Control Body Mist. For best results, apply your salicylic acid daily, AM and/or PM.

When present at levels of 0.5% to 2%, salicylic acid is classified as an over-the-counter anti-acne drug by the FDA. Ciraldo suggests avoiding salicylic acid if you have “considerable facial redness, broken vessels, or rosacea since the acidic pH may worsen these conditions.” If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, we always recommend checking with a physician before applying salicylic acid topically.

CAN I MIX SALICYLIC ACID WITH OTHER INGREDIENTS?

Despite the term ‘acid’ having a scary connotation, salicylic acid is quite gentle and can be combined with a majority of the other products in your skincare routine. It can be especially effective at boosting clarity and renewing skin tone when formulated with other acids, such as lactic or glycolic acid. That’s why it stars in the AHA-BHA complex that you’ll find in the Instant Resurfacing Mask, which simultaneously addresses various skin concerns. If your skin is on the sensitive side, pair salicylic acid with ultra-soothing ingredients like niacinamide or the polyglutamic acid found in Moisture Maker


Unless it’s already formulated together, we don’t suggest layering salicylic acid and retinol in your routine in order to avoid irritation. Save these for separate nights instead. 

Shop salicylic acid below.

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