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Salicylic Acid as an Exfoliant and Acne Treatment

Dr. Morrell
Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Morrell, MD

Salicylic Acid is a powerful beta-hydroxy acid. But where does it come from, you ask? Naturally derived, you can find it in willow bark, wintergreen leaves, and even sweet birch. It is commonly known within the skincare industry for its ability to assist with acne, acne scarring, hyperpigmentation, and skin texture. It is most frequently associated with dermatology for its exfoliating effects on the skin and its use as an anti-inflammatory.

What is Salicylic Acid and how does it work?

You can find Salicylic Acid in many cosmetic exfoliants and acne treatments. It falls into the beta-hydroxy acid group. This is a less-intensive form of acid compared to most of the other acids dermatologists use. However, due to its penetrative and lipophilic (it can bypass fatty or oily barriers in cells) nature, it can quickly enter the epidermis and restore active acne lesions.

The use of Salicylic Acid functions through a restructuring process where it resurfaces the skin. It also stimulates the production of collagen and elastin in the dermis. Moreover, Salicyclic Acid dissolves the intercellular oils that normally prevent the entrance of acids to your skin cells.

The controlled destruction of epidermal cells allows Salicylic Acid to assist with a decrease in follicular openings. When infected with bacteria, those follicular openings become acne. This restructuring is what allows Salicylic Acid such efficacy in removing oil from pores, dissolving pigment, and smoothing scarred areas.

Another purpose of Salicylic Acid is as an anti-inflammatory. Fun fact, Hippocrates prescribed willow bark as a natural aspirin to people back in the third century BCE. How cool is that? Inflammation can be induced by the immune system and requires the creation of certain proteins. These proteins act to mobilize inflammatory cells to damaged areas of the body. The ingredient works by inhibiting those proteins from forming by binding to them during development.

What conditions does Salicylic Acid help to treat?

People love Salicylic Acid because of its use in treating multiple types of acne. Specifically, it reduces blackheads because it can penetrate and remove excess oil or dead skin within the pores. Through the same penetrating mechanism, it also helps to reduce oily skin and enlarged pores.

Salicylic Acid’s effect as an anti-inflammatory and its ability to resurface the skin makes it a common ingredient for addressing post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH) and other major skin-texture issues like melasma. Salicyclic Acid reduces observable melanin content because of its resurfacing effect. It also destroys malignant melanocytes. As inflammation can also be responsible for uneven pigment, applying Salicylic Acid also serves as an effective preventative measure for those who may suffer from future issues with PIH.

What are the benefits of Salicylic Acid?

The primary benefit of Salicylic Acid is its overall effects on skin health. Other benefits include anti-inflammatory effects, the ability to reduce and prevent blackheads, the restoration of collagen and elasticity in the skin, and the capacity to provide an even skin tone and texture. Obviously, this powerful ingredient is well justified for treating a variety of skin disorders.

It has very low side effects or adverse reactions and is safe for use on all types of skin. While exfoliating, Salicylic Acid does not cause any other inflammatory response within the epidermis.

Other benefits of Salicylic Acid include its ability to only target inflammatory-cell production rather than also stopping the mobility of other necessary immune responses, the reduction of oily skin and large pores due to its inhibition of follicular opening, and positive changes to pigment without resulting in over-pigmentation of the affected areas.

How often should it be used?

The frequency of use for Salicylic Acid products is dependent on the level of concentration and the type of application. In the case of chemical peels (administered by professionals in a clinical environment), it was studied to be highly efficacious when applied fortnightly at a 30% concentration over a period of 12 weeks.

What are the results and how long do they take to see?


The results for Salicylic Acid have been studied extensively on a variety of skin conditions, but the overall effects of the ingredient tend to improve or prevent multiple disorders simultaneously.

Curious about acne treatments? The use of Salicylic Acid results in a significant decrease in the prevalence and recurrence of blackheads due to its exfoliation effect. It can also remove oil and dead cells from pores or follicles in the epidermis. This reduces instances of oily skin and prevents the formation of new blackheads or sources of bacterial infection that result in acne.

The timeline for results of these treatments can depend on the type of treatment used, and the condition it is treating. For facial lesions, acne-scarring, pigmentation, and other primary skin disorders, results are usually visible within four weeks of application. When used for chemical peeling, the ingredient demonstrated significantly improved results for blackheads and other forms of acne within 1 week of application, and a full disappearance of blackheads by around three months. Although, due to the number of different varieties of Salicylic Acid application, the effects are dependent on the product and condition of the skin.

Is it safe to use?

Salicylic Acid has one of the longest histories of all skincare ingredients. Why? Because of its lack of side effects or adverse issues. When used in intensive forms, such as chemical peeling, it does not have any inflammatory effects. No participants of multiple studies experienced any type of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, scarring, or allergic reactions following its application. Because of its lack of issues regarding post-treatment pigmentation or scarring issues, it is available to treat anyone of any pigment or colour.

When used too intensely, or in extremely rare cases, it can cause moderate redness of the skin or dryness. A lightweight moisturizer or SPF 35 Sunscreen protection following exfoliation can help prevent the likelihood of these effects.

How is it different from Glycolic Acid?

Glycolic Acid is another ingredient commonly used for exfoliation and assisting with acne, skin lesions, and pigmentary issues within the skin. The primary difference between Glycolic Acid and Salicylic Acid is the inherent property of each ingredient. Glycolic Acid is hydrophilic. This prevents it from penetrating the deeper fatty tissues that Salicylic Acid can reach due to its lipophilic nature. This lipophilic property allows the acid a significant advantage in treating comedones and other noninflammatory lesions within the skin, as there is a layer of oil protecting the infected follicles.

Discover for yourself the power of Salicylic Acid by trying our simple but effective Clear Skin Solution. Ideal for all skin types, it clears and prevents acne, controls excess oil and reduces blackheads.


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