salicylic acid

Salicylic Acid: What It Is and Does for Skin

If you have acne, you know it’s a continuous battle against breakouts. However, there are ingredients that can help, including salicylic acid — it’s one of acne’s largest enemies.

You reach for your acne spot treatment as soon as you notice an invading zit and slather it on overnight. Then, when you wake up, you’ll notice that your pimple is much less noticeable.

But how does it work? What is salicylic acid, and what can it do for your skin? Read on to learn all about salicylic acid and its benefits.

Related: Skincare Myths to Scrap

What Is Salicylic Acid?

First, salicylic acid comes from willow bark and is part of the salicylate family. While its structure can be challenging to understand, knowing how it works is the key to learning why it works so well.

There are two acids you’ll commonly find in skincare products: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). Salicylic acid is a BHA, meaning its hydrogen composition is separated from the acid in it by two carbon atoms. In contrast, AHAs only have one carbon atom separating the different compounds.

Understanding this structure is crucial — it means that salicylic acid is more oil-soluble, helping it better penetrate your skin’s pores.

While both AHAs and BHAs act as exfoliants, AHAs are water-soluble rather than oil-soluble. Typically, oil-soluble ingredients can penetrate your skin’s lipid layer more readily and at a deeper level.

AHAs work well on your skin’s surface, loosening dead skin and revealing new skin. However, BHAs, like salicylic acid, work deeper to penetrate and unclog pores.

What Salicylic Acid Does for Your Skin

Salicylic acid is effective because it gets deep into your skin — it’s incredibly potent for targeting black and whiteheads.

After penetrating the skin, salicylic acid can dissolve the debris that clogs your pores, act as an anti-inflammatory, and reduce the redness of pimples, helping them go away faster.

Because salicylic acid can penetrate the skin so deeply, it can break down some connections between your skin cells, allowing them to renew and rejuvenate faster than they could alone.

Want to get the benefits of salicylic acid? Start here.

Salicylic Acid as an Exfoliant

We’ve already mentioned salicylic acid for acne — and we’ll go into more detail in a bit — but it’s also an effective exfoliant, breaking down skin cells to promote exfoliation.

It’s referred to as a “keratolytic medication,” meaning it’s perfect for exfoliation. Keratolytic medications soften the top layer of skin cells.

Salicylic acid can also break apart and loosen desmosomes — the attachment between your skin’s cells in the outer layer. This action encourages the unclogging of pores and exfoliation of the skin.

Because salicylic acid can dissolve the dead skin cells that clog pores to create blackheads and cysts, it’s extremely effective as an exfoliant.

Salicylic Acid for Acne

Salicylic acid works amazingly for mild acne — whiteheads and blackheads — and helps prevent future breakouts.

When your pores get clogged with oil, skin cells, etc., whiteheads, blackheads, and pimples frequently appear.

Salicylic acid can penetrate the skin deeply to dissolve those skin cells that are clogging your pores. However, it can take a few weeks of regular use to see the full effects of your salicylic acid treatment.

Related: Chamomile Skin Benefits

Salicylic Acid: Forms and Doses

If you regularly see a dermatologist or doctor, they’ll likely recommend what you should use based on your skin’s condition and type. Whenever starting a new skincare routine, it’s best to limit your initial applications to small areas for a few days to ensure you don’t have a reaction.

The National Library of Medicine suggests that adults use topical products containing salicylic acid to help clear their acne, especially products with high concentrations of the compound. You can also use these products as a peeling agent to help treat:

  • Acne and acne scars
  • Melasma
  • Age spots

Ready to make your acne disappear? Try these salicylic acid gel peels designed for exfoliation and fighting acne.

Precautions and Side Effects of Salicylic Acid

Generally, salicylic acid is considered safe; however, it may irritate your skin when you first start using a new product. In addition, it could remove too much oil and result in irritation and dryness. Some side effects might include:

  • Tingling or stinging skin
  • Peeling itching skin
  • Hives

Even though you can find salicylic acid in OTC products at almost any store, it’s always good to speak with your dermatologist or doctor before using new skincare products.

Considerations to discuss include topics like:

  • Allergies: Salicylic acid may cause an allergic reaction.
  • Use in children: Young children may have a higher risk of experiencing skin irritation.
  • Drug interactions: Some medications may not interact well with salicylic acid.

Can Salicylic Acid Damage Your Skin?

You can use too much salicylic acid on your skin, drying it out and irritating it. Typically, people only experience these symptoms if they have very sensitive skin or overuse their skincare products.

Depending on frequency of use and the concentration of salicylic acid in the products you use, you may experience irritation, peeling, or redness. So, if you already have dry, sensitive skin, you might want to avoid salicylic acid.

However, the concentration of salicylic acid in most OTC products is quite low, and if you use it appropriately, there is little risk of adverse reactions.

In addition, it’s not recommended to use salicylic acid on large portions of your body — it can lead to salicylic acid poisoning, although it’s extremely rare.

Related: Skin Benefits of Arginine and Glutamine

Is Salicylic Acid Right for Your Skin?

While there’s no magical cure for acne, salicylic acid is effective at clearing up and preventing breakouts for many people.

As long as your skin tolerates salicylic acid well, products containing the ingredient are typically safe to use daily as part of your skincare routine.

If you have oily skin, using salicylic acid daily will likely help improve your acne. However, if you have dry, sensitive skin, you might get some irritation if you use it too often.

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