Willow bark, used to make salicylic acid like that found in SLMD Skincare

Ingredient Spotlight: Salicylic Acid

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. Here's everything you need to know about this beta hydroxy acid.


4 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?

Derived from the chemical compound salicin, salicylic acid is found naturally in willow tree bark. The ingredient 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?

So what’s salicylic acid actually doing once it meets your skin cells? 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.

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 ingredients that you find in aspirin
A young woman washing her face

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:

Over-the-counter products 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. SLMD’s skincare solutions eliminate the guesswork by providing optimal, dermatologist-approved concentrations formulated for all skin types.

Here are Dr. Lee’s salicylic acid all-stars:

For acne on the face

  • Salicylic Acid Cleanser — great for treating and preventing breakouts, while exfoliating without leaving skin feeling dry or stripped. It also comes in a 2 oz. size - perfect if you're on the go and still want to upkeep your regimen.
  • AHA/BHA Swipes — formulated with a cocktail of 3 skincare acids, making it the perfect concoction for clearing away the dead skin buildup and gunk that turns into acne.

For acne on the body

  • Salicylic Acid Body Spray — a fan favorite, formulated with 2% salicylic acid, because body skin is stronger and can handle heavier concentrations. Simply spray away buildup and bacteria that could clog pores and cause acne.

For spot treating anywhere

  • Clear Out — a treatment mask for face and body that also contains acne-inhibiting sulfur and soothing zinc oxide.
  • Salicylic Acid Spot Treatment — also contains 2% salicylic acid, ideal for strongly targeting a specific pimple or lightening/improving a dark spot.
  • Spot Check — ultra-transparent acne patches that help heal and protect pimples.

Dr. Lee’s last word

"You’ll hear me mention salicylic acid often, because it’s a fantastic and effective skincare ingredient that most people can benefit from. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is used in many chemical peels, and it’s very effective at exfoliating away imperfections on the skin as well as unclogging pores to keep them clean and healthy."

—Dr. Sandra Lee


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