What is Salicylic Acid?

In the battle against acne breakouts, salicylic acid is the skincare ingredient you must know about. Simply speaking, salicylic acid is one of the biggest enemies of acne. When you apply a salicylic acid skincare product, you can see a pimple drying up and becoming much less noticeable. But what does it do? How does it do what it does? Read on to find out.

What is Salicylic Acid?

When it comes to skincare products, you will often see two kinds of acids: alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs).

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHAs), which means it binds to oil, not water. Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark and belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates. Its structure makes it more oil-soluble so that it can penetrate the pores of the skin.

Both AHAs and BHAs work to exfoliate the skin, but AHAs are water-soluble, while BHAs are oil-soluble. Generally, oil-soluble ingredients like salicylic acid penetrate through the lipid layers of the skin cells more easily. This means it can penetrate the skin deeper than water-soluble ingredients.

While AHAs work well to loosen dead skin cells and reveal fresher skin, salicylic acid works deeper to penetrate into the pores to unclog them.

What Can Salicylic Acid Do for the Skin?

Because salicylic acid is potent and can get deep into the skin, it makes for such a potent ingredient that can target acne, especially whiteheads and blackheads. Once it penetrates the skin, it dissolves the debris that clogs pores and helps red, inflamed pimples to go away faster. It breaks down the connection between skin cells, and once it has penetrated the skin, the acid part of the molecule dissolves some of the “glue” that holds skin cells together.

  • It exfoliates the skin.

The breaking down of skin cells also promotes exfoliation. Salicylic acid is a keratolytic medication, which means it’s highly effective for exfoliation. It can cause softening and sloughing of the top layer of skin cells to remove dead skin cells that cause dullness. With exfoliators like salicylic acid, you can reveal healthy, smooth, and radiant skin.

Salicylic acid also encourages unclogging of pores. When pores are clogged, it creates blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and cysts.

  • It fights acne.

When pores and hair follicles get plugged with dead skin cells and oils, blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples often appear. Acne can also be caused by abnormal sloughing off of skin cells, the P. acnes bacteria, or excessive oiliness. Salicylic acid aids in the first cause by dissolving skin debris that clogs the pores and causes acne. It penetrates the skin as it does so, and it may take several weeks of continued use for you to see its full effect.

  • It helps remove whiteheads and blackheads.

As mentioned earlier, the exfoliating action of salicylic acid can promote the removal of blackheads and whiteheads. It can directly dissolve the keratin plugs that clog the pores and regulate skin cells.

Forms of Salicylic Acid

Here are the forms of topical products that contain salicylic acid:

  • Cleansers
  • Facial washes
  • Serums
  • Gel
  • Lotion
  • Solution
  • Ointment
  • Soap
  • Pads
  • Cleansers

Potential Side Effects of Salicylic Acid

Although salicylic acid is considered safe to use, it may cause skin irritation when you’re first starting to use it. Before using the product for the first time, check if you’re allergic to the product. Put a small amount on one or two small areas with acne for three days. If you develop an allergic reaction, stop using the product.

Potential side effects include:

  • Stinging or tingling of the skin
  • Itching
  • Feeling dry
  • Peeling skin
  • Hives

Precautions When Using Salicylic Acid

Though salicylic acid is available in OTC preparations and you can pick up salicylic acid products at your local grocery store, it’s best to talk with your dermatologist before using it. You can use too much salicylic acid, and when it happens, it can irritate and dry your skin, especially if you overuse it or if you have sensitive skin.

Depending on the concentration and the number of applications, some users experience peeling, dryness, redness, and skin irritation. Those with already dry or sensitive skin must avoid salicylic acid altogether.

Do not use salicylic acid in children, for they may be more at risk of skin irritation. Children’s skin also absorbs it at a higher rate than adults, so it may harm their delicate skin prematurely. Never use it for babies under the age of 2 since they do not need it. Be careful in handling infants and babies after applying salicylic acid products, especially if you’re using topical products with higher concentrations.

Topical salicylic acid is safe to use when pregnant, so you can continue using it if it’s part of your existing skincare routine. However, you should talk to your doctor if you’re considering using it if you are pregnant or breastfeeding, especially regarding other medications you are taking or other medical conditions you may have.

People using certain medications must think twice before using products with salicylic acid. Some medications do not interact well with it. Let your dermatologist know what medications you’re taking, as it may affect their decision to prescribe salicylic acid to deal with your skin condition. Tell your doctor if you have any of the following conditions:

  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Blood vessel disease
  • Chickenpox
  • Flu

Applying salicylic acid or any salicylate to a large portion of your body can lead to salicylate poisoning. This happens rarely, but it can happen from topical application of the ingredient. To reduce your risk, follow these instructions:

Do not use for long periods of time

Do not apply salicylic acid products to large areas of the body

Do not use when you have to wear air-tight dressings

Stop using salicylic acid and consult your doctor if you experience any of these signs and symptoms after use:

  • Headache
  • Lethargy
  • Confusion
  • Buzzing or ringing in the ears
  • Nausea
  • Hearing loss
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increase in breathing depth