A woman washing her face with cleanser containing active ingredient salicylic acid

Ingredient Spotlight: Salicylic Acid

Learn why this beta hydroxy acid is one of Dr. Pimple Popper's all-time favorite active ingredients.


3 minute read

Skin exfoliator. Pore purifier. Wrinkle reducer….we could go on. Salicylic acid (aka the wonder acid) is a multitasking skincare superhero. One of the most commonly used ingredients in skincare, salicylic acid is incredibly effective at treating a range of skin concerns – from acne breakouts to fine lines and dullness. Exactly how does salicylic acid pull off such powerful skincare feats? We’ve got the answers for you.


What is salicylic acid?

Since ancient times, people have used willow bark, which contains the chemical compound salici, to treat pain and inflammation. In the early nineteenth century, European scientists isolated salicin and converted it into salicylic acid. With more research, its many skincare benefits were uncovered.

Salicylic acid is classified as a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which has a slightly different chemical structure than its more commonly known cousin, alpha hydroxy acid (AHA). Stay with us for a science lesson: Unlike water-soluble AHAs (think: glycolic or lactic acid), salicylic acid is oil-soluble – meaning it’s capable of dissolving into the skin’s lipid layers to penetrate deeper into pores.

As an added bonus, studies have shown that beta hydroxy acids like salicylic acid are gentler on skin than alpha hydroxy acids.

What does salicylic acid do?

Studies have shown the many skincare benefits of this beta hydroxy acid. In a nutshell, this wonder acid acts as an:

  • Exfoliant – sloughing off dead skin cells
  • Anti-inflammatory – calming angry skin
  • Anti-bacterial – attacking infection causing microbes
  • Keratolytic – breaking down keratin (the protein that makes up skin’s outer layer)

Next, we’ll take a closer look at how these qualities work together to treat some of your most common complexion concerns.

Dr. Pimple Popper's Salicylic Acid Picks

How does salicylic acid treat acne?

Let’s back it up a second and remember one of the major causes of acne: clogged pores. That “gunk” trapped in your follicles is actually dead skin cells mixed with sebum — the ideal environment for acne-aggravating bacteria to breed. Here’s how salicylic acid zaps acne:

  • Penetrates into pores, clearing out that gunk that causes blackheads and whiteheads
  • Kills bacteria, helping prevent new breakouts from popping up
  • Calms skin, containing acetylsalicylic acid — the same anti-inflammatory ingredient that you find in aspirin

How salicylic acid fights aging

Salicylic acid is excellent for alleviating some of the signs of visible aging – like fine lines and a lackluster complexion. One of the key ways the wonder ingredient does this is through exfoliation: sloughing off dead skin cells that can build up more robustly as we age.

Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant, which means it causes a reaction that detaches old, dead skin cells on the surface from their younger, more vibrant neighbors beneath.

Additional benefits of salicylic acid

Besides treating all sorts of acne, salicylic acid is also an effective remedy for a range of dermatological conditions, including:

Where can I find salicylic acid?

Because it’s such a versatile ingredient, you’ll find salicylic acid in all types of skincare products, including:

Salicylic acid is available in a variety of concentrations. Over-the-counter products to treat acne contain anywhere between 0.5% and 2% salicylic acid.

What are the best salicylic acid products?

Dr. Lee always advises patients to choose an effective concentration of an active ingredient to do the job (no more, no less) – rather than automatically reaching for the strongest product on the shelf. Here are Dr. Lee’s top recommendations from her SLMD Skincare line:

  • Salicylic Acid Cleanser: treats and prevents breakouts, while exfoliating without leaving skin feeling dry or stripped
  • AHA/BHA Swipes: also features glycolic and lactic acids, along with skin brighteners, clears away dead skin and oil buildup
  • SA Acne Spot Treatment: contains maximum-strength salicylic acid to treat pimples and help prevent dark spots
  • Salicylic Acid Pimple Patches: thin, transparent adhesive patches that treat and protect pimples while absorbing excess oil and pus
  • Salicylic Acid Body Spray: maximum-strength spray reduces dead cell buildup and bacteria to treat and prevent clogged pores and acne

Dr Sandra Lee

Dr. Lee's Last Word

You'll hear me mention salicylic acid often, because it has so many skincare benefits. We use it in the office for chemical peels, and you can use it in lower concentrations to exfoliate imperfections and unclog pores to keep skin clean and healthy.


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