Salicylic Acid at a Glance
- Also known as beta hydroxy acid (BHA)
- Best known for exfoliating/anti-acne properties
- Helps skin shed in a manner that mimics youthful skin
- Works most effectively in leave-on formulas with a pH range between 3-4
- Oil solubility lets it exfoliate inside the pore to alleviate breakouts, congestion, and blackheads
Salicylic Acid Description
Salicylic acid (also called beta hydroxy acid or BHA) is a desmolytic ingredient, which means it is able to exfoliate by dissolving the bonds that hold the dead cells to skin's surface. Because salicylic acid is oil soluble, it also has the ability to penetrate into the pore lining and exfoliate inside the pore. This makes it especially effective for reducing breakouts, including blackheads and whiteheads.
Salicylic acid is recognized as an over-the-counter topical acne product by the U.S. FDA, when used in concentrations of 0.5-2%. Even though salicylic acid is best known for its ability to address acne-prone skin concerns, it offers many additional properties that any skin type can benefit from. Case in point, by exfoliating the buildup of dead skin on the surface, it also helps reverse the appearance of dull, uneven skin tone, as well as other visible signs of aging skin.
Unlike physical exfoliants (such as a rough facial scrub), salicylic acid offers hydrating properties that enhance the result of smooth, soft skin. Another unique advantage is salicylic acid’s ability to gently soothe aggravated skin thanks to its inherent calming properties.
Salicylic acids works most effectively as a leave-on treatment, ideally within a pH range between 3 and 4. Rinse-off salicylic acid cleansers typically have a higher pH, which likely won’t offer much of an exfoliation benefit—not to mention the contact time with skin is very brief—but the salicylic acid may at least offer skin-calming benefits in this form and can be included in amounts as low as 0.5% to achieve this benefit.
Research shows using salicylic acid starting at a 1-2% concentration is recommended for regular exfoliation within a skin care routine. For more stubborn concerns, higher concentrations can make a dramatic difference.
In dermatologic practices, salicylic acid has been safely used in as high as 50% concentrations for removal of warts, corns, pigmented lesions, and other advanced concerns.
Salicylic acid has been found to be safe on all skin tones and ethnicities.
Salicylic Acid References
Experimental Dermatology, July 2019, pages 786-794
European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, June 2019, pages 1-70
Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, April 2018, pages 245-251
Journal of Cosmetic Science, January-February 2017, pages 55-58
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, August 2015, pages 455-461
Clinical, Cosmetic, and Investigational Dermatology, November 2010, pages 135-142
Seminars in Cutaneous Medicine and Surgery, September 2008, pages 170-176
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, April 2007, pages 651-663
International Journal of Cosmetic Science, February 2000, pages 21-52
Seminars in Dermatology, December 1990, pages 305-308
See salicylic acid
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About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!