If you’re interested in maintaining or improving the appearance and health of your skin, you’re most likely to have encountered salicylic acid. Particularly, if you’re “declared war” on dull complexion or on bumps of all kinds — that is to say pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads.

Salicylic acid is a thoroughly researched ingredient that is known to treat acne, but it’s much more universal than you think. It can treat an array of concerns and help your skin in ways that neither lactic nor glycolic acid can’t. Find out what salicylic acid is, how it works, and what it can do for your skin.

So, What Is It And How Does It Work?

For this part, don your lab coat first, because we’re going to be a bit nerdy. Originally, salicylic acid was sourced from plants such as willow bark, fruits, and vegetables. It’s a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), a type of carbon-based organic compound. Technically speaking, it is the only BHA and that’s why you’ll see “salicylic acid” and “BHAs” used interchangeably from now on.

Willow, photo by Zhenya

Know that a few salicylic acid derivatives and associated components that have a similar effect on the skin, such as willow bark extract, betaine salicylate, or salix nigra bark extract. These salicylic acid derivatives belong to a family of compounds called salicylates, the simplest of which is salicylic acid. Salicylic acid itself is the principal metabolite of aspirin.

BHAs are related to AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids) that are often mentioned in the same breath, but they differ by one carbon atom. This one carbon atom makes BHAs oil-soluble whereas AHAs are water-soluble. Both AHAs and BHAs are chemical exfoliants and they work by softening and dissolving keratin.

Keratin is the protein found in our skin, think of it like glue, making the cells stick together. Once the bonds between the dead skin cells are loosened or removed, the skin can more easily shed its topmost layer.

As salicylic acid is oil-soluble, it can cut through the sebum (the natural oil our skin makes). This allows it to penetrate below the skin’s surface into your pores. Inside, it cleans the pore lining. It clears the pores of clogs and blockages, whether these occur in the form of excess oil, dead skin cells, makeup residue, or pollution, allowing oil to flow out more freely.

As a member of the salicylates class, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties. It helps to calm the skin, reduce redness, and minimise irritation. It’s also mildly antibacterial, in all addressing side effects coming with acne.

If you’ve got oily skin or are prone to acne, most probably, you’re already convinced to incorporate salicylic acid into your skincare. If not, BHAs will reduce the appearance of bumps of all kinds.

What Are Its Benefits?

As already seen, BHAs are excellent acne treatments, especially in products with a 1-2% concentration. A product with a low concentration of 0.5% salicylic acid is meant to be used every single day. Such a low dose can dramatically improve your skin, providing as main benefit skin-soothing but also

  • Slow down oil production and so reduce excess oil in the pores
  • This, in turn, reduces the size of pores, since there’s less gunk in them
  • Prevent further outbreak, as it reduces the factors that trigger zits
  • Reduce fine lines and wrinkles, not only by exfoliating but also by stimulating collagen production
  • Lighten dark spots by inhibiting melanin formation

It can even treat skin conditions like warts and dandruff, although it’s mostly combined with other ingredients.

How To Use it?

You’ll find BHAs in skincare products in concentrations up to 2% such as cleansers, toners, serums, lotions, creams, spot treatments, and more. The ideal concentration varies from person to person. As a rule of thumb, you start slow, maybe once or twice a week. When you feel your skin has adjusted, build up to more frequent applications from there.

If your skin is sensitive, you’ll want to exert caution. Try with a cleanser that you’ll wash off. This can help minimise any potential side effects, as you can limit exposure to the skin. You may also want to start with a lower concentration (0.5%) and gauge how your skin reacts. You can then slowly change to a face wash with a higher concentration.

Generally, you can choose a salicylic acid concentration that according to your skin type: Higher concentrations for oily and acne-prone skin and lower concentrations for dry and ageing skin. To prevent any drying, always follow up with a moisturiser.

As with all chemical exfoliators, BHAs encourage the shedding of dead skin cells and oils, bringing new skin to the surface. This newly revealed skin is very sensitive to UV, so, always protect your skin with sunscreen.

Did you know salicylic acid goes beyond clearing up breakouts? Do you want to know more about skincare ingredients? Sign up for our newsletter.

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