Salicylic acid is one of the most important ingredients in over-the-counter products aimed at preventing breakouts. In layman's terms, salicylic acid is a formidable opponent to acne. When you first notice a zit on your face, you quickly reach for a spot treatment. If you put some on a pimple before bed, you may find that it has dried up and faded in the morning. But what exactly is the benefit of salicylic acid for the skin, and how should it be applied?

Read on to learn why salicylic acid is such a crucial ingredient in the fight against breakouts, how it works on the skin, and who should (and should not) use it.

Salicylic Acid: what is it, exactly?

To begin, let's define salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is a component of salicylates and is obtained from willow bark. It has a somewhat convoluted structure, but understanding that structure is crucial to grasping why (and how) it works so well.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are two types of acids commonly found in skin care products (AHAs). To put it simply, salicylic acid belongs to the family of beta hydroxy acids. In contrast to an alpha hydroxy acid, where the hydroxy and acid parts of the molecule are only separated by a single carbon atom, the hydroxy group in this case is separated from the acid group by two carbon atoms.

Is there anyone still there? Yes, finally we get to the enjoyable part. Because of its structure, salicylic acid is more oil-soluble and thus better able to enter the skin via the pores.

While both AHAs and BHAs can exfoliate the skin, the former are more water- and the latter more oil-soluble. Glycolic and lactic acids are two types of AHAs that can be used as examples.

In general, ingredients that are oil-soluble can more easily cross the lipid barrier between skin cells. To rephrase, ingredients that are oil-soluble tend to be absorbed more deeply into the skin than those that are water-soluble.

Robinson provides a concise summary of the main points of contention: AHAs are effective in removing the top layer of dead skin and revealing the healthier skin underneath. In order to effectively unclog pores, salicylic acid is able to penetrate deeper into the skin.

What effect does salicylic acid have on skin?

To do its job, salicylic acid can penetrate deeply into the skin. Because of this property, it is a powerful ingredient for treating acne, especially blackheads and whiteheads.
Salicylic acid, once absorbed, dissolves dead skin that blocks pores, [acts] as an anti-inflammatory, and hastens the healing of red, inflamed zits and pustules.

Because of how deeply the ingredient can penetrate the skin, it can actually cause the bonds between skin cells to dissolve. Once inside the skin, the acidic portion of the molecule can break down some of the intracellular "glue" that keeps skin cells together.

Is Salicylic Acid An Exfoliant?

Exfoliation is aided by the shedding of dead skin cells. Because of its keratolytic properties, salicylic acid provides superior exfoliation. The outermost layer of skin is loosened and shed with the help of keratolytic drugs.

Desmosomes can also be loosened and broken apart by salicylic acid (attachments between cells in the outer layer of skin). Because of this "desmolytic" effect, dead skin cells are shed and pores are cleared out.

Acne may have its roots in abnormal skin cell behaviour, in which dead skin cells accumulate in the pore-blocking cysts and blackheads characteristic of the condition rather than sloughing off as they normally would during the skin's normal cell cycle. In addition to dissolving the blackheads, salicylic acid helps remove and loosen these skin cells.

Does Salicylic Acid Cause Skin Damage?

Too much salicylic acid can be harmful. Some people, especially those with sensitive skin or who use too much salicylic acid, may experience irritation and dryness.
Some users may experience skin dryness, peeling, redness, and irritation depending on the concentration and number of applications. Thus, those who have extremely dry or sensitive skin should think twice before using SA. If you are pregnant or taking any kind of medication, especially blood thinners, it is not recommended.

In spite of this, the concentration of salicylic acid in most OTC cleansers and creams is low, typically around 2%. When used properly, it has a low intolerance level. Patients should start using a salicylic acid product every other day (or half as often as the product directs) to see how their skin reacts to the ingredient before increasing usage to once per day.

In terms of what can be fatal, consider: Salicylate poisoning can occur if large amounts of salicylic acid or any salicylate are applied to large areas of the body. Avoid spreading it all over your face and instead focus on your acne.

Is Salicylic acid safe enough to use daily?

Products containing salicylic acid can be used daily if they do not cause irritation to the skin. Salicylic acid twice a day works great for my oily skin, and I use it every day," he says. If you have dry or sensitive skin, you should test the product on your skin once every other day before committing to using it every day because salicylic acid can irritate these skin types.

Was this helpful?

Kingerlon collects & utilizes cookies from third-parties & affiliate networks to improve user experience. If you buy a product or service after clicking on one of our links, we may get a commission.