Why salicylic acid is effective against acne

Compared to how my skin was around 6 to 8 years ago, I don’t break out as much anymore. When I do, it’s usually during that time of the month or when I’m stressed and not getting enough sleep. During those times, I have an emergency go-to skincare routine which always includes a product with Salicylic Acid.

Salicylic acid is said to be the most common type of Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), which is an oil-soluble ingredient that can easily enter clogged pores and remove dead skin cells. For the record, salicylic acid is technically not a real BHA because it's structurally different, but most cosmetic companies and even dermatologists consider it as a BHA because it has the same ability to either dissolve into or break down sebum. For us oily folk, this is great news, because it can swim into our sebum-filled pores and “degunk” it!

Aside from that, salicylic acid is also anti-inflammatory. If you’ve ever gotten a pimple, you'd know how awful the swelling and redness around a clogged pore looks and feels like. Salicylic acid suppresses this inflammation and helps the affected skin to heal faster. That's why it's no surprise that it’s the active ingredient in many acne spot treatment products, like the Estee Lauder Clear Difference Targeted Blemish Treatment. It's also what makes my recent favorite, the Etude House AC Clinic Intense Pink Powder Spot, effective at dealing with nasty breakouts. I personally prefer salicylic acid-based spot-targeting products because in my experience, they don’t leave behind dark marks as benzoyl peroxide products do on my skin.

Aside from its anti-inflammatory properties, salicylic acid is also antibacterial. Apparently, it reduces the factors necessary for bacteria to multiply. Acne is caused by Propionibacterium Acne or P. Acne. If you have severe acne, stronger antibiotics might be needed to keep these bacteria in check so it's best to consult a dermatologist.

Caution: not all salicylic acid products are created equal. Having salicylic acid on the label doesn't ensure that a product will be effective. There are two things to check when buying a salicylic acid product:

  1. The product should at least have a concentration of 1 to 2%, and;
  2. It has to be formulated in the right pH level.The formula should be acidic, ideally pH level 3 to 4, for the product to break through the skin and actually do its job.

The amount or percentage of salicylic acid in a product is usually found on the label, but the pH level is commonly not indicated. One way to know if the pH level is low enough to penetrate skin is when it stings a little (emphasis on little!). A good example would be Bioderma Sebium Global Creamwhich causes a slight tingling sensation upon application. Stinging is usually considered ‘bad’, but in salicylic acid’s case, it’s preferable.

Another thing to consider for salicylic acid to be effective is the length of time it is left on the skin. Most chemists and dermatologists agree that salicylic acid is not as effective in cleansers because you wash it off. In addition, many cleansers doesn’t have low enough pH levels for salicylic acid to penetrate. Your best bet is to use toners, gel, and cream products that are designed to be left on the skin so the salicylic acid has enough time to do its job.

Since salicylic acid can exfoliate the skin, make sure to avoid or limit sun exposure while you're undergoing treatment. If you must go outdoors, use a sunscreen with high SPF to keep your skin protected.

Is salicylic acid part of your pimple treatment plan? What products have made it to your tried and tested list?


  • FDA: Beta Hyrdoxy Acid / Future Derm: Common Misconceptions of HAs
  • Future Derm: What are hydroxy acids?
  • Paula’s Choice: Salicylic Acid
  • https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/meds/a607072.html
  • http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/aiaamc/2007/00000006/00000004/art00005 
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC164295/?tool=pubmed
  • http://www.labmuffin.com/2014/05/fact-check-friday-why-does-ph-matter-for-ahas-and-bhas/ 
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2791365/
  • http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1675856