When I was a teenager and first started to get those little tiny bumps along my forehead and jaw, one of the first things my dermatologist told me was to go to the drugstore and find some salicylic acid products—specifically, Stridex pads. I dutifully went along with it, and found that even with my (at the time) questionable skincare habits, it did clear up my skin. I never questioned why, or what it did, but hey—it worked!
Fast forward a few years and by the time I was in my late 20s, early 30s, I was having full-on hormonal acne breakouts. Nothing was working. But after one late night at CVS, I picked up some Stridex pads on a whim and what do you know? Again, my skin cleared up. It was then that I knew salicylic acid and I were BFFs.
But just what is salicylic acid? Why is it so effective on breakouts? Let’s get all the 411 on one of my favorite skincare ingredients.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (or BHA for short). It’s a type of chemical exfoliant, so it’s main function is to remove dead skin cells, dirt, sweat, oil, and debris from your pores. BHA is unique because it is oil-soluble. Instead of simply sweeping away the debris, it penetrates the surface of your skin to “degunk” your pores. I always like to think of salicylic acid like a skin vacuum: Put it on and it just sucks all the gross stuff out. Because of its exceptional degunking qualities, it’s a wonderful ingredient to use on clogged pores, blackheads, and whiteheads.
What Does It Do to Your Skin?
As I mentioned earlier, salicylic acid “degunks” your pores. How? Well, let’s say you have a smattering of whiteheads and blackheads. You apply some salicylic acid to your face, and it penetrates your skin. Once that’s happened, it works by dissolving all of the built-up nastiness in your pores and helps your acne and blackheads go away more quickly. And in an interview with Allure magazine, dermatologist Sue Ann Wee from New York City said, “Salicylic acid also loosens and breaks apart desmosomes (attachments between cells in the outer layer of skin). This ‘desmolytic’ action encourages exfoliation of skin and unclogging of pores.”
How Should I Use Salicylic Acid?
The great thing about salicylic acid is that it can be used in a variety of different skincare products. It’s formulated into cleansers, serums, essences, ampoules, moisturizers, or even used on its own in a concentrated formula. I’m not a licensed esthetician, but I do have to say that I feel like salicylic acid cleansers are the least effective, as cleansers don’t really stay on your skin long enough to really make a difference.
My favorite way to use salicylic acid is to use it as a concentrated spot treatment, something like the Origins Acne Blemish Treatment Gel. I take a little bit on a cotton pad or cotton swab and apply directly to my blemishes. I personally avoid using salicylic acid as an all-over, everyday treatment, as it can potentially irritate dry skin.
But with every skincare ingredient, the adage remains true—YMMV or Your Mileage May Vary. You should always spot test any new skincare product behind your ears or underneath your jawline to weed out any potential sensitivities, and from there, use at most three times a week for the best results.
How do you feel about salicylic acid? Let me know in the comments!