As a teenager, long before I became a beauty-obsessed editor, I used to dab toothpaste on my breakouts each night thinking it would work wonders to clear them up. Unsurprisingly, this old wives' tale didn’t work any miracles. Now that I’m older and wiser, I know that toothpaste is not (and never was) the correct answer for diminishing spots. Instead, I should have been reaching for the gold standard of acne treatments — salicylic acid.
When it comes to battling breakouts, salicylic acid-based products can be really effective. And while many of us have a general idea of what the ingredient is, you may not know how it works or the best ways to use it. That’s why Shop TODAY spoke with two experts to break down what you should know about the ingredient and which salicylic acid-based products may be worth trying.
What is salicylic acid?
To understand this, let’s take a quick trip back to chemistry class. There are two classes of acids in skin care products: alpha hydroxy acids and beta hydroxy acids. AHAs (such as glycolic and lactic acids) are water-soluble compounds, while BHAs are oil-soluble.
“Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid,” explained Dr. Papri Sarkar, a board-certified dermatologist in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Salicylic acid is more oil-soluble than its alpha hydroxy counterparts, so it does a better job of penetrating into oil glands and skin in general.” This increased penetration is especially useful if you have clogged pores or acne lesions, and is one of the reasons why salicylic acid is so good at clearing acne.
What does salicylic acid do?
According to Dr. Neda Mehr, a board-certified dermatologist in Newport Beach, California, salicylic acid breaks down the “glue” that holds skin cells together. “By dissolving the protein that holds the sticky skin cells together, salicylic acid helps unclog pores, [making it] an excellent option for acne [and] clogged pores from whiteheads or blackheads,” she explained. By breaking down that skin "glue," salicylic acid allows the skin to be exfoliated away easier and helps other products penetrate deeper into the skin, "instead of sitting on top of a cellophane-like layer of clogged skin cells,” she said.
How should you use salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid products come in many forms, from cleansers to creams, and the ideal formula will vary from person to person. Generally speaking, you should start by using salicylic acid sparingly (and in only one product form) to see how your skin reacts to the exfoliator. If your skin can tolerate it, salicylic acid products can be used daily. Just make sure you’re not using another exfoliator in addition to your salicylic acid product, or else you can over-exfoliate and damage the skin barrier.
That said, you should speak to your dermatologist to determine the best course of treatment for your acne. While over-the-counter salicylic acid products can be a good place to start when choosing to treat your breakouts, sometimes prescription medications are needed.
Below are popular and expert-recommended products that contain salicylic acid to help with acne and clogged pores.
Salicylic acid products
The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Solution
This salicylic acid solution was out of stock for two years — and during that time it racked up a waitlist of more than 400,000 people. Now, The Ordinary has finally brought back its “most loved” product with a “new and improved” formula. Made for all skin types, the lightweight solution uses salicylic to help remove dead skin cells and improve skin clarity over time. As a bonus, it’s less than $6, so it’s a great steal for anyone on a budget.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
“Paula's Choice makes a toner that's not irritating and, over time, helps to prevent those pesky clogged pores that many patients complain of,” Sarkar said. “One thing to keep in mind with this product, and other salicylic acid products, is that it often takes three to four weeks to notice a difference in your skin.” This solution is liquid, so you can apply it with your fingertips or cotton squares twice daily after cleansing.
Replenix Topix Replenix Gly-Sal 5-2 Pads
“Although salicylic acid preparations come in many different forms, including creams, gels, lotions, pads, plasters, shampoos, cleansers and topical peeling solutions, my favorite form is with pads,” Mehr said. “These pads promote skin renewal while helping heal current blemishes and prevent future breakouts.” Made of equal parts glycolic and salicylic acid, these pads gently exfoliate the skin to help prevent future breakouts and diminish acne-causing impurities.
Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Extra Strength Daily Peel Pads
These peel pads have a combination of glycolic acid and salicylic acid, making them a strong exfoliator. “I recommend swiping your face, neck, chest and underarms,” said Sarkar. “If they irritate your skin you can rinse it off 20 minutes after applying it.” Since this product comes in individual sachets, they're also a great travel option. “These also have plenty of liquid, [so they] don't dry out quickly,” she added.
Differin Acne Clearing Body Scrub
Anyone with acne knows that it doesn’t just present itself along the face. Oftentimes, breakouts will pop up on your body, too — especially along the back, shoulders and chest. This beloved scrub from popular brand Differin, which was designed by dermatologists, promises to help remove pore-clogging impurities from the skin to both treat existing acne and prevent future breakouts.
Kate Somerville EradiKate Acne Mark Fading Gel
Need a spot treatment instead of an all-over formula? Try this pick from Kate Somerville. The maximum-strength gel is formulated with two percent salicylic acid to slough away impurities and dead skin. Plus, it features niacinamide which may help brighten up dark marks from previous acne breakouts. Talk about a win-win.
ZitSticka Killa Kit Deep Zit Microdart Patch
These tiny patches are a major game-changer. Each patch has attached microdarts filled with hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid and niacinamide, which dissolve over time on the skin to help stop early-stage zits in their tracks. The brand says to simply swipe the targeted area with the provided cleaning swab, apply the patch for a minimum of two hours, and you’ll be good to go.
CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser
Thoroughly cleansing the skin every day is an important skin care step for people with acne. This particular cleanser from popular drugstore-brand CeraVe may help keep breakouts at bay thanks to its salicylic acid-infused formula. But that’s not all — it also contains ceramides to help strengthen the skin barrier and keep the skin hydrated.
For more stories like this, check out:
- 20 hydrating moisturizers that won’t add extra shine to oily skin
- Why is activated charcoal good for your skin? Derms explain its benefits
- 13 effective ways to treat and reduce puffy eyes
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