It cannot be denied: Salicylic acid is one of the most hyped up words in the world of skin care. ‘The gold standard in acne treatments‘, ‘bad for mature skin‘, ‘the secret to clear skin‘. We’ve heard it all – the good, the bad, and the speculative. So what’s the real deal behind this so-called genie in a bottle?
If you’re one of many who want to get in on the fun but still confused about what to expect, you’ve come to the right place. In this article, we talk about all things salicylic acid! How it works, what products to use, and the best ways to incorporate it into your skin care. Grab the popcorn, and let’s dive right in!
What is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a skin care ingredient most known as an acne treatment. Its hardworking properties help in thoroughly cleaning, exfoliating, and unclogging pores. It is one of several hydroxy acids that gained popularity in recent decades, along with glycolic acid and lactic acid. The beauty community branded them as miracle ingredients for a myriad of skin benefits like anti-acne, anti-aging, even skin tone, radiant skin complexion, and many more. Although all these face acids are potent and worthy of praise, each offers a distinct set of abilities that deserve our attention.
Difference between Salicylic Acid and Glycolic Acid
We’ll start by stating the obvious: Salicylic Acid is a BHA or beta hydroxy acid, while glycolic acid is an AHA or a alpha hydroxy acid. While these may sound like boring scientific terms to us, it’s actually this ‘beta’ structure that makes all the difference. It gives salicylic acid the unique property of being oil-soluble. This means it is able to get up close and personal with our clogged pores and deep skin layers. With this great ability under its belt, salicylic acid offers a wide slew of benefits for our skin.
Benefits of Salicylic Acid
Because of its oil-soluble nature, salicylic acid is able to penetrate deeper into the skin compared to its AHA counterparts. It makes its way to our gunk-filled pores and dissolves all the oil, dirt, and product build-up. In doing, it aids with another crucial process for our skin:
As we all know by now, exfoliation is important for our skin’s health. It is the process of removing our dead skin cells to continuously encourage skin renewal and rejuvenation. Salicylic acid works towards the same goal. It loosens the ‘glue’ that keeps our dead skin cells together. Without its help, these cells could eventually lead to blemishes, dull skin, and a rough skin texture.
Blackheads and whiteheads
In the process of clearing our faces of these unwanted skin cells, salicylic acid also targets blackheads and whiteheads in its list for general cleaning. It’s as simple as this: Unclogged pores means dirt-free pores!
Skin discolouration, melasma and psoriasis
At higher concentrations, salicylic acid is a go-to treatment for dark spots, skin discolouration, and uneven skin tone. Some people even claim it helped with their melasma and psoriasis. If you have these skin conditions, make sure to let your dermatologist or skin therapist know that you’re looking into salicylic acid as a treatment.
And lastly, the biggest reason behind salicylic acid’s cult following. It’s safe to assume that this powerhouse can do just about anything, and that includes the very taxing task of acne breakouts. It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that make it a good acne treatment. Professional chemical peel treatments and a handful of derma-positioned products use high concentrations of salicylic acid to target acne, dark spots, and acne scarring.
Salicylic Acid in Your Skin Care Routine
The brightest cherry on top of this mountain of benefits is the fact that salicylic acid is easily formulated into any skin care product. Washes, scrubs, masks, creams – you name it, salicylic acid’s got it! These products are usually available in concentrations ranging from 0.5% to 2% salicylic acid, making it convenient for people with different preferences, skin types, and skin concerns to incorporate salicylic acid into their skincare routine. Just make sure to read the product details and choose a product type, acid concentration, and frequency of use suitable for you.
Here are the most common salicylic acid products in the market and the skin types we think they’d be best for.
Face Wash or Cleanser
This is a safe and conservative way to introduce acids into your skincare routine, especially for newbies and the sensitive skin type.
Since facial washes and cleansers are rinse-off products, salicylic acid only stays on your skin long enough to clean and unclog pores without causing irritation. Its oil-solubility also makes it effective in removing makeup. As an added bonus, starting your skincare routine with this chemical exfoliator will remove your dead skin cells and allow the rest of your skincare products to effectively penetrate the skin.
- Good for: All skin types, especially those with sensitive skin or new to salicylic acid
While toners with salicylic acid are hard to come by, this unlikely tandem actually makes a lot of sense. They are similar in the way they address pores. Salicylic acid gets deep inside our pores, while toners have a reputation of tightening and minimizing them. A match made in heaven! If you do find a product with this combination, try to get an alcohol-free toner to avoid over-drying your skin.
- Good for: All skin types, but be cautious if you have sensitive skin
Quite the opposite of washes, serums are leave-on products that sit on your skin throughout the day. In the case of salicylic acid, it is usually recommended for night time use, as it allows the potent actives to work without interference from UV rays, pollution, and free radicals. Given that salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, make sure to wear a high-SPF sunscreen as part of your morning routine.
- Good for: Normal to combination skin, and oily skin
Masks are a great way of getting salicylic acid into your routine, without the risk of over-drying your skin. They deliver potent ingredients in a hydrating and refreshing manner. Plus, they are a good balance between wash-offs and leave-ons, staying on your skin long enough to clear dead cells and penetrate the pores, but not too long that it causes you irritation.
- Good for: Normal to combination skin, and dry skin
Skincare products like chemical exfoliants and spot treatments were among the first to introduce salicylic acid as a way to clear acne spots on specific problematic areas. These products usually contain a 2% concentration and should be well-researched before purchasing. Expect side effects like flaking, dryness, and redness – but this just means the product is working! Follow it up with a hyaluronic acid serum or a nourishing moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated throughout the purging process.
- Good for: Acne-prone skin, or anyone with occasional acne breakouts
Chemical Peel Treatments
Those with severe, problematic skin should not expect much from over-the-counter products with salicylic acid. We recommend venturing out into professional cosmetic treatments, which can be adjusted according to your skin type. Take chemical peels for example.
Dermatologists or beauty therapists use chemical peel solutions customised for your skin concern or skin type. It is made of AHAs, BHAs, or a combination of both, at higher concentrations. The solution is meant to deeply exfoliate your skin and induce peeling. It may sound scary for newbies, but chemical peel advocates swear by this treatment! Apart from acne and dead skin cells, it also helps with aging skin and wrinkles. If you’re interested in learning more about its benefits, head on over to our complete guide on chemical peels.
- Good for: Acne-prone skin, especially those with mild to severe acne problems
Can I use Salicylic Acid in all my products?
Now that you know how salicylic acid can help your skin, it may be tempting to use all these skincare products together. But allow us to stop you there! Salicylic acid is a very potent ingredient, so a little goes a long way. Start with one product first, then see how your skin improves. Also, have faith that your other non-salicylic acid products are capable of magic too. You may already have a good skincare routine going – don’t drop it all just because you’re obsessed with salicylic acid (although trust us, we’re obsessed too!).
Who Can Use Salicylic Acid?
This is important to know, especially if you’re new to salicylic acid or hydroxy acids in general. Although they pose an impressive list of benefits, it may cause more harm than good for some skin types. Proceed with caution, and follow our tips at the end of this article.
No explanation needed. Those prone to acne breakouts, dark spots, and acne scars have the most to gain from a salicylic acid treatment or product. Just be patient while waiting for the results, and don’t overdo it.
It is also worth noting that salicylic acid does not work as well on cystic acne. This type is usually hormone-related, and for that reason, is best treated by prescription meds.
Apart from being a chemical exfoliator and oil-soluble, salicylic acid also helps regulate sebum secretion. It is an all-around help for those with oily skin.
Before you celebrate making the list, first keep this in mind: Salicylic acid generally causes dry skin due its ability to dissolve oil. For that reason, people with both dry and sensitive skin are generally advised to stay away from AHAs and BHAs. However, for mature, sun-damaged or weathered skin on the dry side, there are a few workarounds!
- Use a moisturizing facial wash with a small dose of salicylic acid.
- Use a spot treatment during acne breakouts only.
- Pair your salicylic acid product with a rich and hydrating moisturizer afterwards.
Like dry skin, people with sensitive skin should be very cautious when using salicylic acid. Because it is very potent, you should avoid products with high concentrations. We recommend performing a skin patch test first, and if your body reacts well, start by using it every other week to once a week at most.
Do not use salicylic acid if:
- You are pregnant.
- You are taking blood thinners.
- You have an aspirin allergy.
Tips When Using Salicylic Acid
Before you go on your salicylic shopping spree, here’s a quick roundup of tips to remember:
- A skin therapist here at Lovoir can help you choose a product or treatment based on your skin type. Book for a consult to take out the guess work!
- Follow product instructions.
- Don’t feel pressured (or excited) to use it every day. Introduce salicylic acid into your skincare regimen slowly and surely. For example, start with a 0.5% product once a week. See how your body reacts to it, then work your way up if needed. Some people are able to use it once daily, while others aren’t. Do what works for you!
- Anticipate possible side effects like drying and some irritation, especially for sensitive skin.
- If you’re becoming uncomfortable with the tingling sensation, splash your skin with water to mellow down its effect.
- Use a high-SPF sunscreen as your face will be more sensitive to UV exposure.
- And lastly, be patient. As long as you’re using it properly, impressive results are on its way to you!