You don’t need to be a skincare or beauty junkie to know that salicylic acid is synonymous with acne treatment. We can bet that if you look at your beauty shelf right now, you’re bound to spot at least one product with salicylic acid on the label. What is this stuff anyway? And why is it so well known to treat acne?
We’ll get behind the science of this miracle acne fighter, how to use it effectively, and any possible side effects.
What is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). If you’re familiar with skincare ingredients, you will see AHA, BHA, and PHA marketed on many labels as these are regarded as safe, and effective chemical exfoliants.
AHAs are different from BHAs in that they are oil-soluble. The structure of salicylic acid is a hydroxy molecule and acid molecule separated by two carbon atoms – this means that salicylic acid penetrates through the lipid layers of the skin more easily. The deeper penetration allows the acid to unclog deeper within the pores. You may have spotted glycolic and lactic acids in your exfoliating products too, which are from the same family of acids as salicylic acid.
Another well-known acne treatment that is often used synonymously with salicylic acid is benzoyl peroxide. Salicylic acid for acne may be more gentle than benzoyl peroxide. Benzoyl peroxide is a type of chemical compound (peroxide) that penetrates deep within pores, and releases oxygen to the skin that destroys acne-causing bacteria. Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, benzoyl peroxide is better suited for inflammatory acne – the painful acne associated with pus-filled pustules.
For salicylic acid, acne that appears on the surface of the skin such as whiteheads and blackheads (comedones) are commonly treated this way. The acid works to chemically exfoliate the surface layer of the skin and remove pore-clogging dead skin cells. This also means that salicylic acid may be suitable for sensitive skin types.
How do you decide if salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide is right for you?
Start off with understanding what type of acne you have and what type of skin type you have. Benzoyl peroxide may not be the best suited to more dry and sensitive skin types as the peroxide can be more intensely drying. People with a drier skin type will benefit from using salicylic acid due to its gentle nature. If you’re more prone to blackheads or whiteheads then treating it with salicylic acid may be a better choice for you as well.
What is Salicylic Acid Used For?
Salicylic acid is naturally derived from willow bark and has been used to treat various skin conditions for over 2000 years. Skin conditions react well to the will bark component of salicylic acid, for warts, melasma, acne, and dyschromias. The acid exfoliates the layers of skin until the issue is gone and simultaneously creates an immune response by building healthy skin cells in the area. Salicylic acid dissolves dead skin cells that clogs pores, and acts as anti-inflammatory that helps reduce redness and inflamed pimples. Salicylic acid is widely available as an over the counter product in different forms. Salicylic acid may be used as a cleanser, applied as cream, or be used as a spot treatment.
How do you decide if salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide is right for you? Start off with understanding what type of acne you have and what type of skin type you have. Benzoyl peroxide may not be the best suited to more dry and sensitive skin types as the peroxide can be more drying. People with a drier skin type will benefit from using salicylic acid due to its gentle nature. If you’re more prone to blackheads or whiteheads then treating it with salicylic acid may be a better choice for you as well.
Did you know? Salicylic acid isn’t only used on those pesky zits but is also effective in treating dandruff. The BHA helps remove scaly hyperkeratotic skin, speeds up the skin-peeling process, while slowing down the process of dead skin cells adhering to each other.
Is Salicylic Acid Safe?
Salicylic acid is highly regarded as safe for most of the different skin types. It is easy to get because it is an over the counter product, but if you’re unsure if it is suitable for you, then we always recommend testing it out on a small patch of skin first for a couple days to ensure it doesn’t irritate your skin. Also, consider talking to a board-certified dermatologist or doctor to help determine if it is right for you. Known side effects are itching, stinging, and peeling skin for sensitive or dry skin types.
When shopping for salicylic acid, concentrations in the product from 0.5-52% are typically safe in any form that you purchase it. It is important to note that higher concentrations of salicylic acid are considered stronger exfoliants and act as a peeling agent to help with more severe acne, acne scars, melasmas and age spots.
An extremely rare condition associated with the use of salicylic acid is called salicylic acid toxicity. Symptoms can include: lethargy, headache, confusion, ringing in the ears, hearing loss, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. To reduce risk, avoid: applying salicylic acid products to large areas of your body, avoid using for long periods of time and do not use under air-tight dressings, like under plastic wrap. Again, we reiterate – this is an extremely rare condition.
Salicylic acid has stood the test of time to help us deal with our breakouts and teenage acne – even until now. It’s effective, easy to get, and relatively gentle compared to other acne fighting ingredients out there. Although considered very safe to use for the general public, there are so many people who will experience irritation so it’s best to test or consult a doctor or dermatologist if you’re unsure on how to begin using salicylic acid on your skin.
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