Salicylic Acid Is the Oil Dissolving and Acne Conquering Ingredient You Need in Your Skincare Routine

As a highly effective chemical exfoliant, salicylic acid is easily one of the most important ingredients for oily and acne-prone skin—and even helpful for people with combination skin, dandruff, and one-off blemishes. In fact, we’d posit that everyone should have some sort of salicylic acid product ready, depending on how oily their skin is. (After all, it’s the best blackhead buster out there…)

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA, and is naturally found in willow bark extract. BHAs are oil-soluble and can clear out excess oil buildup, balance oil production, and also break down dead skin cells trapped inside those pores. This behavior differs from the other common type of chemical exfoliant, alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, which are water-soluble and can only work at the surface layer of the skin to break down dead skin cells. (The most common AHAs in skincare are lactic acid and glycolic acid.) So, while AHAs and BHAs are each effective as exfoliators, you will more commonly see AHAs in anti-aging and brightening formulas and BHAs in products targeting oil and acne. Sometimes, though, products will combine both for a comprehensive clearing out since both play an important role.

Some salicylic acid products use low-grade concentrations (around 0.5%), often in pimple patches and daily-use products. On the other hand, you’ll find stronger formulations in spot treatments for, say, cystic acne or in exfoliating serums and peeling products (2% is most standard, but some OTC peels might up this dosage to 5% or so). These higher-grade options have greater potential to irritate your skin, so it’s always best to test a drop of the product on the backside of your hand and see how it reacts. Then do the same on a corner of your face, maybe under the jawline so it’s out of sight, just in case it reacts inversely. (If you follow the product’s instructions, you should be fine.)

Below are the most common ways to incorporate salicylic acid into your regimen, along with our favorite products in each category.

Face and Body Cleansers

Cleanser is a nice way to “microdose” salicylic acid twice every day, especially for the entire body (in a body wash or bar soap). These products won’t be on your skin for more than 30 seconds or so, but will still have time to temper those oil levels and attack blackheads. Truth be told, you may still need a go-to serum and spot treatment, but this should be an imperative ingredient for oily and acne-prone skin. These cleanser formulas may be too much for dry and sensitive skin, though so make sure to rotate them with more hydrating face or body cleansers if you find that you need one for a stint.


Face Wash With Salicylic Acid (2 pack)

Face Peels

While all salicylic acid products can be understood to “peel” away dead skin cells, the ones labeled with the word do so in high-grade concentrations. You can feel these working as soon as you apply or swipe them across your face. You need to read the instructions carefully in case they require you to wash them away after a certain amount of time. This promotes smoothness and a clear complexion and is often best done before bed, just in case your skin needs a buffer period to clear out any light redness. Follow it with a nourishing moisturizer.


Prism 12% AHA + 3% BHA Exfoliating Glow Serum

Spot Treatments

We all get that one-off pimple, whether it’s a whitehead, a blackhead, or a deep-seated bastard of a blemish. Apply a targeted salicylic acid spot treatment or pimple patch to the area since it helps soak up and dry out the gunk inside that crater. This will also expedite healing and ensure that you don’t have to deal with a dark spot on your face for the next five months.

Peace Out

Salicylic Acid Treatment Serum


Salicylic Acid Pimple Patches (96 count)


There are all kinds of masks that help cleanse, hydrate, and exfoliate the skin. If you get one with salicylic acid, then you’re making a doubly proactive play at unclogging pores. Whereas a deep-cleansing mask will soak up impurities and prevent blockage, a salicylic acid-inclusive mask will also dissolve debris and help tone the oil levels. Similar to peeling products, it’s best to use a mask like this before bed and then follow it with a soothing, replenishing moisturizer.

Exfoliating Serums

Salicylic acid serums can act as rinse-away peels or as leave-on correctors, though typically they’re the latter since they quickly soak into the skin. You might apply these more broadly to the entire face or problem areas instead of one-off spot treatments. Many combine AHA and BHA powers to also buff away surface-level signs of aging or blemishes. But dedicated low-grade BHA serums are a staple for acne-prone skin. These exfoliating serums are also best used before bed since they tend to use higher concentrations.


Another way to get a daily, low-grade form of salicylic acid is through an everyday moisturizer. These are less common than gentle BHA cleansers, but numerous reputable options exist. They’re a terrific way to mitigate gradual oil buildup, prevent acne, and bust through blackheads.

Paula’s Choice

Salicylic Acid Body Moisturizer

Dandruff Shampoo

Salicylic acid’s ability to balance oil levels and break down dead skin cells makes it a terrific ingredient in dandruff shampoos. While it’s a less common active ingredient than more clinical-grade options, it’s a perfect way to prevent acne and oil buildup. Don’t rely on it as your regular-use shampoo, though, since it can be drying on strands. Instead, when using it as a preventative measure, try to bring it into rotation every few weeks and always follow it with a nourishing, reviving conditioner.


Salicylic Acid Anti-Dandruff Shampoo

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