Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is favoured mainly for its anti-acne benefits.

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Team Software
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Salicylic acid may just be one of our favourite skincare superheroes. It can combat everything from blackheads to whiteheads, inflammation to hyperpigmentation. Plus, it offers exfoliating powers to boot.

Keen to learn more about this star ingredient and just how well it can beat acne? Let's dive in.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a type of beta hydroxy acid or BHA [1]. (If you’re stumped over what a beta hydroxy acid is, don’t fret — we’ll get into that shortly.)

It's a naturally occurring acid that’s taken from white willow bark and wintergreen leaves, but it can also be made synthetically [2].

Salicylic acid is favoured mainly for its anti-acne benefits. This is because it has anti-inflammatory properties, it's a fantastic exfoliant and it's able to help regulate oil production [2].

Salicylic acid is found in all kinds of skin products, including cleansers, toners, moisturisers, serums, acne treatments, masks, peels and more. It’s also used in body washes designed to target areas of the body experiencing acne breakouts.

What’s the difference between AHAs and BHAs?

So, what exactly are BHAs? And how do they differ from AHAs?

AHAs (or alpha hydroxy acids) and BHAs are chemical exfoliants. This means they use acids to get rid of dead skin cells, rather than doing so manually with abrasive particles as physical exfoliants do.

AHAs and BHAs are both very effective but are generally used for different skin concerns. AHAs are water-soluble and ideal for sloughing away the outer layer of skin.

This makes them a good choice for fading mild hyperpigmentation, evening out your skin tone, and targeting fine lines and wrinkles. Examples of AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid and citric acid.

BHAs are oil-soluble, which means they have the ability to get even deeper into your skin. They can travel right into your pores, so they’re great for oily or acne-prone skin.

Salicylic acid is the most common type of BHA, but some citric acid formulations are BHAs, too.

Can salicylic acid help treat acne?

Absolutely! Because it’s a BHA, salicylic acid is a really impressive acne-buster.

First, it helps to understand how acne works. Superficial, or mild, acne happens when things like excess oil (known as sebum), dead skin cells or bacteria block the pores in your skin.

Mild acne can appear as pimples (small bumps filled with pus), papules (small inflamed bumps), blackheads (blocked pores that are open) or whiteheads (blocked pores that are closed) [3].

Salicylic acid is great for treating superficial acne because it has the ability to sink deep into your skin.

This is because — like other BHAs — it’s oil-soluble and can get right into your pores to dissolve those pesky oils and dead skin cells we mentioned earlier [2]. Your pores are then much clearer and less likely to develop certain types of acne.

Salicylic acid has also been found to lower the production of sebum, meaning acne breakouts can be kept even further at bay [4].

When it comes to keeping breakouts at bay, Software's Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash plays an important role in this endeavour.

Our Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash gently exfoliates and sloughs away dead skin cells, unclogs pores and clears away acne-causing bacteria. The beauty of this wash is that it can be used across your face, chest and back to target acne wherever it pops up.

What are some other skin benefits of salicylic acid?

We now know that salicylic acid works wonders when it comes to acne. But what else is it capable of? Let’s find out.

It curbs inflammation

Interestingly, salicylic acid belongs to the same family as aspirin, known as salicylates. Salicylates are used to combat both pain and inflammation, which is why we often reach for aspirin when a headache strikes [5]. 

Similarly, salicylic acid helps reduce pro-inflammatory mediators, which drive inflammation. This allows it to lessen the redness, swelling and tenderness caused by acne.

On that note, if you have an aspirin allergy, you’ll want to avoid using salicylic acid, as you may experience an allergic reaction to it [6].

It can improve the overall appearance of your skin

Salicylic acid is keratolytic, which in simple terms means it can wear down keratin [2]. You probably know keratin as the main protein found in your hair, nails and skin.

Well, when salicylic acid comes into contact with your skin, it has the ability to remove dead skin cells by sloughing off the keratin that makes up the top layer of your skin. As a result, you may notice less dullness and better texture.

It can help with certain skin conditions

Because salicylic acid is such a good exfoliant, it’s also used as a key ingredient in psoriasis and dandruff treatments [7].

It works by softening and getting rid of dry skin flakes, and it can soothe the inflammation often associated with these conditions.

The anti-inflammatory and exfoliating properties of salicylic acid make it effective at fading hyperpigmentation and acne scarring, too [8].

Usually, though, these are treated using high-strength salicylic acid products, such as chemical peels, rather than topical salicylic acid preparations like serums.

It may fight the signs of ageing

Also thanks to its exfoliating properties, many anti-ageing products often include salicylic acid [9].

By getting rid of the dead skin cells that sit on the top layer of the skin, these products may help to lessen the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines and make skin appear brighter.

What skin types should use salicylic acid?

Generally speaking, salicylic acid works really well if you’ve got oily or acne-prone skin. In saying that, almost any skin type can use it.

However, you may want to steer clear of salicylic acid if you’ve got very sensitive or dry skin, as it could be too harsh and result in further sensitivity or dryness. Doing a patch test first can help you work out whether or not your skin can handle it.

Can you use salicylic acid every day?

Even though salicylic acid is a gentle exfoliator, it's best to not use it every day.

We recommend using our Salicylic Acid Foaming Wash 2-3 times a week for best results. This allows you to reap the exfoliating benefits without irritating your skin.

Keep in mind that there is such a thing as too much salicylic acid. Even though it may be tempting to attack acne flare-ups with everything you've got, avoid using multiple salicylic acid products at once.

You might find that if you’re layering a salicylic acid cleanser, toner, serum and moisturiser, your skin will become dry and irritated, and your acne may indeed get worse.

Instead, try to stick to one salicylic acid product in your routine — especially if your skin is on the sensitive side.

Can salicylic acid damage skin?

Most topical salicylic acid products are pretty gentle. But you may notice a bit of irritation when you first use salicylic acid or if you have particularly sensitive skin. 

Here are some of the potential side effects of using salicylic acid:

  • Dryness
  • Peeling
  • Stinging
  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Irritation

These side effects are usually mild and tend to disappear once your skin adjusts.

However, if they don’t go away, or you notice more serious symptoms like ongoing skin irritation, stinging, hives or swelling, discontinue use [10].

Can you use salicylic acid with vitamin C?

Unfortunately, salicylic acid and vitamin C aren’t a great mix. When layered on top of one another, they can lead to irritation [2]. The same goes for other AHAs and BHAs combined with vitamin C.

If you're using vitamin C in your skincare regimen, you should apply it at a different time of day from your salicylic acid products, or even alternate the two each day.

For example, you could apply a vitamin C serum in the morning and a salicylic acid one in the evening, or a vitamin C serum one day and a salicylic acid serum the next.

What’s the difference between benzoyl peroxide vs salicylic acid?

Benzoyl peroxide is another powerful anti-acne ingredient that’s widely available in OTC products. Like salicylic acid, it’s generally used to treat mild acne and prevent breakouts.

It’s also great at getting rid of excess oil and dead skin cells but may cause irritation when you first start using it.

However, despite both being used in acne treatments, the two have quite a few differences.

First of all, benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial agent that kills the bacteria that can cause acne [11]. Salicylic acid works by penetrating the pores and clearing away oils and dead skin cells.

The ingredients also differ in their acne-fighting abilities. Salicylic acid is often better at targeting whiteheads and blackheads, while benzoyl peroxide is more effective for pus-filled pimples.

Benzoyl peroxide tends to be more drying, too, making it even less ideal if you’ve got sensitive skin. 

What about glycolic acid vs salicylic acid?

Glycolic acid is a type of AHA that’s also a popular exfoliant. Both glycolic and salicylic acids have anti-inflammatory and anti-acne properties and can reduce fine lines, wrinkles and hyperpigmentation.

However, salicylic acid is considered the better choice for dealing with acne, as it has the power to curb sebum production. Glycolic acid, on the other hand, is great if your main concerns are hyperpigmentation, fine lines and wrinkles, and you’re not particularly prone to breakouts.

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