Salicylic acid is one of the most important ingredients in a proactive skincare regimen, especially for people with oily and acne-prone skin. It is what’s called a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), and is revered for its ability to seep into the pores and flush them of any clogging (like dead skin, excess sebum), while simultaneously tempering production of sebum. This can help prevent blemishes, as well as temper oil production (to keep skin looking matte, while still producing enough sebum to nourish).
The ingredient also aids in surface-level exfoliation, though that superficial function is more commonly assigned to alpha hydroxy acids, like glycolic and lactic acids. (They have larger molecules and don’t penetrate as deeply as salicylic acid.)
Naturally derived from willow bark extract, salicylic acid is delivered in a 2% or less formula, with that 2% benchmark being the gold standard in the aforementioned functions — even when targeting the most shiny and pimply of us. Because it can leave skin slightly reddened, heavier treatments (typically those 2% remedies) are best used in the evening so that skin can rebound overnight.
However, some SA products are designed for daytime or dual day/night use. (Even if there is a standard, a handful of brands will always buck the rule.) Regardless, it’s important not to overdo things: If you use a topical salicylic acid product that is applied to your entire face (and is intended to stay there, unlike a rinse-away cleanser), then limit use to 2-3x weekly, or as directed by the brand.
You can use salicylic acid as a spot treatment on any early-stage blemishes to prevent their full realization, or to reduce them and prevent a volcanic eruption. Or, you can use it as an all-over application via different means, in an effort to continuously regulate oil, reduce acne, and disappear dead skin.
Different ways to use salicylic acid
Here are the most common ways to incorporate salicylic acid into your regimen. You don’t need to do them all; rather one or two means is sufficient, even for oily and acne-prone individuals. What’s most important is that you have something in your arsenal for the “if and when,” even if you aren’t prone to either situation. You never know when a one-off cystic pimple will bubble up…
In a treatment serum
Treatment serums are the most common way to deploy salicylic acid. You can use a drop of it as a targeted spot treatment, apply it uniformly to skin before bed, or mix a drop or two into your evening moisturizer for the same effect.
In a spot-treatment gel
Spot treatment gels are typically concentrated with ingredients besides just salicylic acid, to help calm skin and reduce inflammation. They aren’t intended for uniform application, and can be applied 2x daily to help reduce budding blemishes or to prevent big ones from bursting.
In a detox mask
Deep cleansing masks vacuum out your pores, so a small addition of salicylic acid in the recipe can also add an oil-balancing and dead skin-dissolving benefit.
In your daily cleanser
These products can usually be used safely twice a day, even in 2% formulas, since they don’t stay long on the face. Still, let them set for a minute or so before rinsing away, so that the ingredient can work its magic instead of barely getting going.
In a daily face wipe
Face wipes are similar to cleansers, and a salicylic acid wipe can serve as a terrific twice weekly exfoliation effort. Just know that intense sweat + salicylic acid can be a skin-irritating duo, especially if you were out in the sun. So maybe save these for evening use and not as an on-the-go/post-workout face wipe.
In a body cream
If you ever experience body blemishes, then you might consider a body cream with salicylic acid, in addition to one for your face. (Usually, face products can be used on the body and not the other way around; but still, face products are usually smaller in volume and more concentrated with expensive ingredients, so it’s best to get a separate, dedicated set for the body).
In your nightly moisturizer
Night creams work with your body’s regenerative cycle to give you your brightest, clearest, firmest complexion come morning, and salicylic acid is a perfect ingredient to sprinkle in the mix for that very reason.
In a spot-targeting pimple patch
Pimple patches are one of the most popular ways to disappear acne, especially at first sign of a blemish (you know, when you can feel it in the skin?). They have tiny microneedles’ on their undersides (don’t worry, they don’t hurt at all), which penetrate the skin’s surface and send a SA fix straight into the belly of the beast. Wear them for as little as 2 hours or as long as overnight, and you might spare yourself a week of agony sporting that volcano — not to mention, months of healing.
In an anti-dandruff shampoo
Salicylic acid can be used on your scalp for the very same reason you use it on the face: Oil balance! And by tempering oil production on your dome, it can prevent fungal proliferation and dandruff/itching. In some shampoo formulas, it’s likely a higher grade of salicylic acid, too — like the 3% in this one compared to 2% standard in skincare.
In a peeling mask
You’ll find the highest concentration of salicylic acid in peeling masks, which combine with alpha hydroxy acids to force a “reset” on skin cells (so that the younger, more youthful ones surface while the older and nearly dead ones disappear at the surface). Use them as directed; some like this can be weekly, others are more intense and should be used monthly at most.
Read up on how glycolic acid is just as healing as salicylic acid, and how you can fit your choices into a low budget but high performance skincare regimen.
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