Salicylic acid benefits: can it help with acne?

If you’ve given any thought or research about your skin, you’ve probably heard of salicylic acid. It’s a common ingredient used in a variety of different skin care treatments, and most effectively used to treat milder forms of acne to help prevent breakouts from occurring in the future. 

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring, bitter compound found in some plants, most commonly willow trees. It belongs to a group of chemicals called phenolic acid and beta hydroxy acid. 


It is commonly used as a fungicide due to its antimicrobial properties, as well as in the production of aspirin. However, in layman’s terms, salicylic acid is simply a gentle exfoliant. As such, salicylic acid is widely known for helping to reduce the appearance of acne by keeping the pores clean through proper exfoliation. 


This compound is used to treat blackheads and whiteheads, as well as other forms of mild acne. Salicylic acid is commonly found in many over-the-counter medicines in concentrations of 0.5 up to 2%. However, if you require a higher concentration, you’d have to see your dermatologist for a prescription strength formula.


How Does it Work?

Salicylic acid penetrates deep into the skin to clean it from the inside out. In people with acne-prone and oily skin, the cells in the lining of the hair follicles multiply much faster than average. These cells also tend to stick to each other, not allowing anything to pass through. 


Salicylic acid dissolves the glue that holds the cells together in these pores. This results in an unclogging of the hair follicle pores, consequently decreasing the appearance of acne and blackheads.


Salicylic acid is oil soluble as well, which is why it's the perfect weapon to penetrate oil glands. Due to its unique structure, the hydroxy part of the molecule is separated from the acid with two carbon atoms, and is more soluble than alpha hydroxy acids with only one carbon atom separating the hydroxy and acid. 


This chemical structure comparison is done between AHAs and BHAs. Once the BHA penetrates into the skin, the acid part of the molecule starts to dissolve the glue that holds the cells together. Moreover, by unsticking the cells from each other, it allows the dead skin cells to slough off, instead of accumulating on the skin. 


Remember that prescription strength formulas can only be obtained by a licensed healthcare practitioner, but you can still find an abundance of OTC formulas on the shelves. These salicylic acid treatments come in a variety of concentrations, ranging from 0.5% to 2%. You can find these formulas as cleansers, lotions, creams, body washes, and spot treatments, to suit your individual needs.


Benefits of Salicylic Acid For Acne 

Salicylic acid has been famous in the acne world for a long time. Largely because, when it comes to treating acne effectively, it's better than most other ingredients out there. Keep reading below to discover the many benefits of salicylic acid in the battle for healthy, vibrant, and glowing skin.


Fights Acne 

According to research, in cases of acne, the skin cells behave abnormally and band together, resulting in clogged pores, blackheads, and pimples. Whereas, healthy cells go through a normal cell cycle, with the old skin cells coming off the skin easily. This abnormal sloughing off of dead skin cells is one of the three main factors that contribute to acne. Salicylic acid essentially disbands the cells that stick together, which effectively targets the root cause behind the formation of acne. 


Regulates Sebum Production

We already know that excess sebum production is not our friend! Salicylic acid is known to reduce and regulate the production of the oil known as sebum on the skin. Excess sebum production is caused by dehydrated and dry skin as a way to help make up for a lack of moisture. 


Excessive oiliness due to the overproduction of sebum is the second major contributing factor to acne. This is because over saturation of sebum in your skin can lead to the clogging of pores and ergo—frustrating acne. 


Increases Cell Turnover 

Salicylic acid is also known to help stimulate cell turnover. This is due to the fact that it's a BHA. Thanks to its increase in cell turnover rates, it can help to remove marks and blemishes from your skin. 


Be it a long-lasting zit scar or spot, acne spots, or just dark spots in general, salicylic acid may just be your new best friend. It has the ability to break up old cell formations and encourages new cells to form, which helps to lighten the dark spot and acne scars left by old pimples. 


Soothes the Skin 

Though it sounds a bit unlikely given it’s an exfoliant, salicylic acid actually has major anti-inflammatory properties. This is to be expected, since it’s used in the manufacturing of aspirin, a well-known and proven anti-inflammatory medicine. Therefore, when it comes to acne, salicylic acid can help soothe the skin and prevent the formation of acne, and even potentially calm already inflamed acne. 


Treats White and Blackheads

Out of all the different types of acne, salicylic acid is best suited to treat blackheads and whiteheads. Whitehead and blackheads are formed after hair follicles are clogged from dirt, debris, oil, and dead skin cells. 


The bump formed is known as a whitehead. Once the bump opens up and is exposed to the air, it becomes dark in color, turning the bump into what’s known as a blackhead. 


Salicylic acid works by dissolving the keratin from the dead skin cells that plug the follicles and pores and regulating the skin cells. Once the keratin is dissolved, there will be no more clogging, no whiteheads, and no more blackheads. 


Excellent Exfoliant 

Salicylic acid is included in a group of medications called keratolytics. Keratolytic medications soften the skin and help to remove the top layer of dead skin cells. This detachment and removal of skin layers works as an excellent exfoliation session, resulting in unclogged pores and the revelation of fresh, dewy, radiant skin. Salicylic acid is also lipophilic, meaning it can penetrate clogged pores and oily skin to do its best work! 


How to Use Salicylic Acid for Acne

Before starting the use of salicylic acid to treat your acne, it's essential to know a few tips and tricks for maximizing the benefits of the acid. 


How to Apply Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is available in many forms. You can find it in facial masks and cleansers, creams and lotions, and of course, spot treatments. Depending on the skin care product of your choice, that will dictate how you should apply it. 


For instance, creams, spot treatments, and lotions would typically be applied after cleaning and drying your face. Cleansers would be used during the cleansing process and facial masks are designed to be applied and then removed. 


How Often to Use Salicylic Acid

Much like any other exfoliant, overusing salicylic acid can cause excessive drying, especially on sensitive skin. It should be slowly incorporated into your skincare routine, just like any other acid to make sure your skin doesn’t react negatively. Since it has a low pH, it's also not commercially available in more than 2% concentration formula, because of its ability to irritate if used incorrectly. 


Additionally and even more importantly, you should be aware that applying large amounts of salicylic acid on large portions of your body can potentially induce salicylate poisoning. You should only do this under the supervision and care of your doctor.


Try a Spot Test First 

Before applying salicylic acid on say, your face—spot test on a small inconspicuous area of your body first. That way if your skin does have a reaction, it won’t be on a visible, more sensitive area like your face. Your facial skin is very delicate and could potentially react even more strongly than other areas of your body.


At the end of the day, yes, salicylic acid may be used by many to successfully treat milder forms of acne, including whiteheads and blackheads. However, caution should be used and you should never go overboard, because you don’t want the treatment to have the opposite effect. Salicylic acid will also not likely be as beneficial for severe cases of acne, so always seek out professional care first.