If you have oily or combination skin, or had to deal with acne at some point in your life, you’ve probably heard of salicylic acid. It’s an ingredient that’s commonly used in everything from pore purifying face washes to exfoliating serums, masks, spot treatments and even oils for congestion-prone skin. But what makes this ingredient so effective when it comes to tackling clogged pores and dealing with acne? We break it down for you.
What is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is derived from the willow bark tree and is considered an organic exfoliant. It is also known as a beta hydroxy acid or BHA and its unique molecular structure makes it oil-soluble. This means it’s able to sink deep within the pores and dissolve any clogged sebum or dead skin cells that may be lodged there.
Here’s exactly how salicylic acid helps your skin
Salicylic acid is ideal for oily, blemish—or congestion—prone skin. It could also work for some dry skin types that have slow skin cell turnover that leads to clogged pores. The BHA works to keep skin clear by tackling congestion on different levels. It also helps to minimise sebum.
On the surface, it helps to loosen the “inter cellular glue” that sticks dead skin cells together and then sloughs off these cells, allowing new skin to surface for more even-toned skin. With the dead skin out of the way, your pores are less likely to get congested and turn into blackheads, whiteheads or pimples.
Unlike alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids to name a few, salicylic acid is oil soluble, and able to seep deep within the pores and dislodge all the dirt and dead skin cells that may have gotten stuck in your pores. Think of it as the drain cleaner for your pores: it goes in, cleans it out all the gunk. This helps keep pores clear and refined, and minimises the look of them.
It is also anti-inflammatory, and helps calm skin and soothe redness which would explain why it is a key ingredient in spot treatments for acne.
But for all its benefits, salicylic acid can be a bit drying on the skin and needs to be used in moderation.
Which salicylic acid product is right for you?
Picking the right product for you would depend on the skincare issues you looking to tackle. Generally, products with 0.5 per cent to two percent salicylic acid will do the trick. First time users should start with lower potency while those who have built up a tolerance to acids can opt for stronger formulas.
If you’re looking to tackle “period skin”, keep your pores clear and generally maintain blemish-free skin, a salicylic acid based cleanser will do the job. You need to ensure that you massage it into your skin for at least 30 seconds to get the full benefits.
Congested skin that has a lot of clogged pores will get better results from using a serum that can be left on to sink into the pores and do the job. Peel pads that are soaked in salicylic acid are another way to tackle congestion, while masks are a great way to give the skin a weekly deep cleanse.
Salicylic acid can also help clear your scalp of dead skin and product build up so look for it in scalp treatments as well.
We’ve rounded up some salicylic acid based products to help you get started on your blemish-free skin journey.
Caudalie Vinopure Purifying Gel Cleanser, $33
Powered by 100 percent natural salicylic acid, you need to massage this oil-free gel-to-foam cleanser into skin for at least 30 seconds to give it a chance to go into pores and do its job of minimising sebum and pores.
Peter Thomas Roth Peptide 21 Amino Acid Exfoliating Peel Pads, $89
Salicylic acid exfoliates skin while vitamins A and E provide antioxidant benefits, and green tea and chamomile help calm and soothe skin. When used one to three times a week, skin is brighter and glowing and pores look smaller. And isn’t that what we all want?
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA (Salicylic Acid) Liquid Exfoliator, $45
This leave on exfoliator tackles dead skin cells, blemishes and uneven texture to give you brighter, smoother clearer skin. It’s best used alone and is ideal for normal, combination or oily skin types that struggle with congestion.
Kate Somerville EradiKate Overnight Lotion, $85
If you’re looking to minimise pores, this lotion does it with a two pronged approach: two percent salicylic acid purifies pores, while retinol helps strengthen the pore walls so they appear tighter and smaller. A blend of soothing ingredients helps balance the skin’s microbiome while sodium PCA and sodium hyaluronate minimise chances of dryness or flaking commonly associated with a BHA and/or retinol.
Votary Blemish Rescue Oil – Tamanu and Salicyilc, $69
Often salicylic acid products can be too drying for dry skin types, but this oil combines all the benefits of two percent salicylic acid to soothe and speed up healing, along with anti-inflammatory tamanu oil and purifying rosemary essential oil. It can be used as a spot treatment or all over the face while your skin starts to feel bumpy.
Indie Lee Clearing Mask, $88
A combination of salicylic and glycolic acids help to exfoliate and keep pores clear, while bentonite clay and colloidal sulfur draw out impurities to minimise the chances of breakouts. A cocktail of soothing and hydrating ingredients ensure skin doesn’t feel dry or uncomfortable after you use the mask.
Sachajuan Scalp Treatment, $62
Treat your scalp to a deep cleanse with this treatment that features salicylic acid along with rosemary oil, ginger extract and menthol to soothe, calm irritation and maintain the scalps moisture balance.