Salicylic acid: What does salicylic acid do and why is it so good for acne?

10th January 2022 | Author: Jenny Tai

There is a whole host of acids, antioxidants, molecules, and more to be found in skincare, and many have their names plastered all over the packaging.

As if knowing which skincare to buy isn’t confusing enough, these ingredients with long, technical names can be overwhelming.

In an attempt to demystify the whole process, we recently launched our Ingredient Spotlight series, and today we’re shining this light on salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is part of a family of acids known as beta hydroxy acids, of BHAs.

While alpha hydroxy acids, of AHAs, penetrate the upper layers of the skin, BHAs delve a little deeper. This is because their molecules are smaller, so they can get further into the structure of your skin and its layers.  You can read more about AHAs and BHAs in our The truth about the acids lurking in your skincare guide.

Derived from willow bark, the structure of salicylic acid is oil-soluble. This also allows it to reach deeper into your pores, unlike water-soluble counterparts (glycolic acid) which only exfoliate and touch the surface of the skin. 

Note: If you’re allergic to aspirin, do not use this product as salicylic acid because it has the same properties as aspirin.

FURTHER READING: The truth about the acids lurking in your skincare – from hyaluronic, to glycolic, lactic and salicylic

What does salicylic acid do? 

Due to the fact salicylic acid works deep within the skin, it makes it ideal for clearing pores, which helps get rid of breakouts and tackle acne. 

Once it penetrates the skin, it works to dissolve the debris (dead skin cells, dirt, leftover product) that clogs pores and, because it’s derived from willow bark, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory.

This further helps get rid of red inflamed pimples and spots.

All of this is why it’s known as a super exfoliant, because it softens the top layer of the skin cells, loosens and breaks the outer layer of the skin cells, and helps get rid of blackheads

How to use salicylic acid exfoliant

Due to the deep exfoliating nature of salicylic acid, it can cause mild stinging, irritation, and peeling skin. It can also cause skin purging. These are normal reactions, but not if they become painful or excessive.

If they do cause pain or the irritation lasts a long time, discontinue use. 

We suggest introducing any new ingredient to your skincare routine gradually, and this particularly applies to BHAs. If you have sensitive skin we recommend using salicylic once a week, to begin with.

FURTHER READING: Best face exfoliator: How to get smoother skin

For other skin types, you can likely get away with using it a couple of days a week at first, before building up to more regular use. 

Bear in mind that the type of salicylic acid product you use may dictate how often it should be used.

As you can read in our How to layer your skincare guide, you only really need to exfoliate your face weekly and it is possible to over-exfoliate your skin if you do it too much.

If you’re using a more gentle exfoliant, or the concentrations of the acids in the product are lower, it may be possible to use salicylic acid daily. Read the instructions, and let your skin be your guide. If you find it reacting negatively, reduce usage.

What’s more, because salicylic acid strips the skin, you may notice your face errs on the side of being dry and flaky after use. Get ahead of this by using a hydrating moisturiser on the days you use salicylic acid.

We recommend the fragrance-free version of the CeraVe Moisturising Lotion (£9.49).

And, as with all skincare routines, make sure you use SPF every day!

Best salicylic acid products

There are different concentrations of salicylic acid ranging from 0.5-3.6%. The higher, 3.6% concentration tends to found in ointments prescribed by GPs. 

You can buy all sorts of products containing salicylic acid including (but not limited to):

  • Salicylic acid cleansers
  • Salicylic acid toners
  • Salicylic acid creams
  • Salicylic acid serums

Below we’ve explained how to use each of these and highlighted the best salicylic acid for skin products in each category.

Salicylic acid cleanser 

These are typically gentle enough to use daily morning and night and tend to be the best way to introduce the BHA into your skincare routine.

♥︎ CeraVe Salicylic Acid Smoothing Cleanser

£12 | Buy now

This Salicylic Acid Smoothing Cleanser from one of our favourite skincare brands, CeraVe, helps to smooth rough, bumpy, and dry skin.

It does this by removing oil, dirt, and makeup and all while helping reinforce the skin’s natural barrier.

This cleanser contains 0.5% salicylic acid that will exfoliate and dissolve dead skin and de-clog pores in a gentle, yet effective way.

With the help of hyaluronic acid, this cleanser also binds moisture to the skin to reduce the drying effect of the acid.

Buy now from Lookfantastic


SA serums range from 1.5 – 2% and should be used in small amounts in affected areas only. They can be used morning and night but introduce them slowly, and use them two to three times a week, max. Serums are used after cleansing and toning but before moisturiser and should be followed by at least SPF30 if used in the morning. 

♥︎ Revolution Skincare Targeted Blemish Serum 2% SA

£8 | Buy now

This SA serum is much loved by users – so much so, Revolution Skincare recently created a super-sized version.

It helps target blemished areas, reduces redness, and encourages a clearer complexion.

It also contains Witch Hazel to soothe the skin, and reduce excess oil, while the 2% salicylic acid will help target breakouts, enlarged pores, and blackheads.

This is a lightweight serum that doesn’t feel heavy. Plus it’s super affordable! 

Buy now from Boots


These products are known as salicylic acid treatments because they contain a higher dose of salicylic acid, between 2-2.5%, than serums and cleansers. This akes them a little more heavy-duty. These should be used on affected areas only, and only used once a day. If used in the morning, follow with SPF after moisturising.

♥︎ Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

£10 | Buy now

This salicylic acid exfoliant recently swept through TikTok and as a result, sold out almost everywhere. Thankfully, many stores are getting stock back in. Just in time for you to give it a try!

This isn’t quite a toner or a serum, it is a liquid formula, and once applied to the skin, it leaves a slightly oily texture.

Use after cleansing and toning, soak a cotton pad, or reusable face cloth, and wipe over your problem areas before leaving for 10 minutes. We love this liquid exfoliant because after using it at night, we noticed a big difference in our skin tone and texture the next morning.

Our skin was smoother, less bumpy and blemishes reduced. This exfoliant is available in two sizes. The 30ml size is a tenner, which makes it perfect for trying the product out before you invest in the £28, 100ml bottle. 

mamabella tip: If you have time, avoid using serum or moisturiser straight after using this exfoliant and let it rest on the skin for a while. This is because the mixture of products can cause skin pilling. Once it’s been on for 10 minutes, gently wipe away any excess and carry on. 

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