There are a few key players in acne and acne products that you should be aware of, and salicylic acid is at the top of that list. To put it simply, salicylic acid is one of acne’s biggest enemies. But, what exactly does salicylic acid do, and what are the best ways to reap its benefits? To find out, we consulted dermatologists to help figure out exactly how salicylic acid works on the skin, who should (and shouldn’t) use it, and why it’s such a popular choice for preventing acne.
What is salicylic acid?
First of all, let’s establish what salicylic acid is. It’s a bit complicated, but the exact structure of salicylic acid is important in explaining why (and how) it works so well. When it comes to skin care products, there are two classes of acids that you will often see: beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs).
In addition, salicylic acid is actually derived from willow bark and belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates. This structure is important because it makes salicylic acid more oil soluble so it can penetrate the skin’s pores.
Both alpha and beta hydroxy acids exfoliate the skin, but AHAs are water soluble while BHAs are oil soluble. Examples of AHAs, for reference, include glycolic and lactic acids.
As a rule, oil-soluble ingredients penetrate the lipid layers between skin cells more easily. Oil-soluble ingredients can penetrate the skin at a deeper level than their water-soluble counterparts.
AHAs work well on the surface of the skin to loosen old, dead skin and bring out new fresh skin. Salicylic acid works deeper and is able to penetrate pores to unclog them.
The benefits and harms of salicylic acid for the face
Prevention of comedones
Comedones are usually the precursor to acne. They appear as small bumps that contain debris, sebum, and (sometimes) bacteria inside the expanded hair follicle. As comedones develop, they can either remain open (blackheads) or closed (whiteheads). When these clogged pores continue to fill under the surface of the skin, pus, inflammation, infection, or even cell rupture can occur. The use of salicylic acid not only treats existing blackheads, but it can also prevent the formation of comedones by penetrating deep into the pores and loosening the particles in them.
Salicylic acid penetrates deep into the skin of the face
All of this means that salicylic acid can get deep into your skin to do its job. It is this quality that makes salicylic acid such a powerful acne-fighting ingredient—especially for blackheads and whiteheads.
Once it penetrates the skin, salicylic acid “dissolves skin debris that clogs pores, acts as an anti-inflammatory agent, and also helps clear red, inflamed pimples and pustules faster.
This ingredient can penetrate so deep into the skin that it actually breaks the bonds between skin cells. Once it has penetrated the skin, the acidic part of the molecule can dissolve some of the intracellular “glue” that holds the skin cells together.
Anti-inflammatory properties of salicylic acid
Salicylic acid contains the same anti-inflammatory ingredients as aspirin, which explains why some (wrongly!) suggest making face masks with painkillers. Don’t: Aspirin was not formulated for the skin and may irritate your skin, but salicylic acid is formulated for the skin. It can reduce swollen, red, and inflamed pores due to its soothing effect, resulting in a more balanced skin tone. Those with post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation can use the anti-inflammatory properties of salicylic acid to correct sun spots, age spots, and inflamed acne.
Salicylic acid exfoliates the skin
This destruction of skin cells also promotes exfoliation. Salicylic acid is considered a keratolytic drug, which means it is ideal for superior exfoliation. Keratolytic drugs cause softening and exfoliation of the top layer of skin cells.
Salicylic acid also loosens and breaks down desmosomes (nozzles between cells in the outer layer of the skin). This desmolytic action stimulates skin exfoliation and unclogs pores.
One of the ideas behind the etiology of acne is that skin cells don’t behave normally, and instead of being shed through the healthy cycle of skin cells, they stick together and clog pores, creating cysts and blackheads. Salicylic acid helps in removing and loosening these skin cells and helps to dissolve blackheads.
Salicylic acid helps with pimples and blackheads
There are three factors that contribute to acne: abnormal shedding of skin cells, excessive oiliness, and bacterial action. Salicylic acid helps with the first cause by dissolving hard skin particles that clog pores and cause breakouts.
Salicylic acid can directly dissolve keratin plugs and regulate skin cells. It does have some effectiveness against cystic acne due to its antibacterial activity, but less than classic acne and whiteheads.
The harm of salicylic acid
The main negative side effect of salicylic acid is its ability to irritate and dry out the skin in those who are highly sensitive or abuse it.
Depending on the concentration and number of applications, some people may experience dryness, flaking, redness and some skin irritation. For this reason, those with already severely dry or sensitive skin should avoid SA entirely. It’s also not the best choice if you’re pregnant or taking certain medications, including blood thinners.
More seriously: “Applying salicylic acid or any salicylate to very large parts of your body can lead to salicylate poisoning. So just don’t layer all over your body – stick to acne-prone areas only.”
How to use salicylic acid on face
If you are using acids for the first time, your skin may feel a slight tingle, but over time it will get used to salicylic acid and its benefits.
Remember that if you use exfoliating acids in the morning, you should always keep an eye on the SPF.
You will probably see results in four to six weeks after which you should continue to use it for long term…