salicylic acid best exfoliant for oily skin

I wish I had known about salicylic acid when I were a teen. Back then, I spent hours irritating scrubbing my face and drying out pimples with toothpaste (I read in a mag it worked 🙄 ) and then wondered why my skin looked like a mess.

Salicylic acid is the skincare hero every woman (and man) with oily skin needs. It kicks pimples off your face. Soothes the redness. Brightens your complexion. What are its superpowers? How can it do all this – and without irritating skin like so many other acne treatments do? Here’s everything you need to know about salicylic acid for oily and acne-prone skin:

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is the only member of the Beta Hydroxy Acid family used in skincare products. For this reason, it’s often called BHA, too. Salicylic acid is naturally found in the bark of the willow tree, but the type used in your lotions and potions is usually made in a lab. Nothing wrong with that. It keeps the costs down without hurting your skin.

Struggling to put together a skincare routine that banishes shine, pimples, and blackheads? Download your FREE “Best Skincare Routine For Oily Skin” cheatsheet to get started (it features product recommendations + right application order):

Salicylic Acid Benefits

Salicylic acid is a multitasker. Here’s everything it does for your skin:

1. Salicylic Acid Exfoliates Skin

Salicylic acid is a powerful, if gentle, exfoliant. Like all types of chemical exfoliants, it works by dissolving the “glue” that holds skin cells together. Dermatologist Ellen Murmur explains: “It works by increasing the amount of moisture in the skin and dissolving the substance that causes the skin cells to stick together. This makes it easier to shed the skin cells.”

Want to know what happens when you exfoliate the surface of your skin? As old, damaged dead cells leave way to new, brighter ones, your complexion feels softer to the touch. Light better reflects onto your skin, making you glow. And even your wrinkles look smaller. Regular exfoliation is a quick way to look younger and healthier.

Plus, when you remove dead cells from your skin, they can’t get stuck in your pores and cause clogs that lead to acne. If you have oily or acne-prone skin, using salicylic acid as part of your routine helps to keep breakouts at bay.

2. Salicylic Acid Treats Acne

I know all of you want to use glycolic acid because it’s an anti-aging superstar, but if you have oily skin, salicylic acid is the better option. Before I tell you why, here’s a reminder of how acne forms.

When your skin produces too much oil, the excess gets stuck in your pores, where it mixes with dead skin cells and other debris. This mixture gets stuck in the pores, causing clogs that lead to blackheads, whiteheads, and (if the mixture gets inflamed with bacteria) pimples.

So what makes salicylic acid better than glycolic acid to treat acne? Salicylic acid is oil soluble. While glycolic acid (and all its AHAs siblings) only exfoliates the surface of your skin, salicylic acid is able to get through your skin’s lipid barrier and into your pores. Once in there, salicylic acid quickly removes all the crap, like excess sebum and dead cells, that are clogging them before they erupt in pimples. 

Its ability to exfoliate the pores from within also makes it a pro at both preventing and treating blackheads (and whiteheads). While pore strips only remove the black tip of the blackheads, salicylic acid also gets rid of their tail too. If you don’t get rid of that, it’s only a matter of time before the blackheads pop up onto your face again.

Related: AHAs Vs BHA: Which One Is Right For You?

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3. Salicylic Acid Reduces Pore Size

Bad news first: the size of your pores is genetically determined. You can’t make it smaller.

Good news: clogs in your pores stretch your pores, so they look bigger to the naked eye. Remove these clogs and your pores go back to their natural size.

This is a job for salicylic acid. The only exfoliant that gets deep into your pores, it can remove all the clogs that are stretching your pores. In the process, it removes pimples and blackheads, too. Hello, clear skin! Goodbye pore craters!

4. Salicylic Acid Has Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Salicylic acid belongs to the same family has aspirin, so it has anti-inflammatory properties. This means it can reduce the redness that always tags along with pimple, calm down inflamed acne, and soothe stressed and irritated skin. This makes it ideal for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.

Related: 9 Ways To Soothe Irritated Skin

5. Salicylic Acid Has Anti-Bacterial Properties

Salicylic acid also has antibacterial properties that weaken P. Acnes, the bacteria that causes acne. It’s just not as good as killing it as benzoyl peroxide. I wouldn’t rely on salicylic acid alone to make your acne disappear, but it should definitely be part of your anti-acne toolkit. Every little bit helps.

Related: Salicylic Acid VS Benzoyl Peroxide: Which One Should You Use?

6. Salicylic Acid Treats Hyperpigmentation

Hyperpigmentation is a fancy way for dark spots. Any dark spots, from melasma to the darker discolourations pimples sometimes leave behind after they heal. Any exfoliant can lighten dark spots by removing the uppermost (most damaged!) layers of skin and exposing those more even-toned layers underneath.

On its own, Salicylic Acid isn’t the best at treating hyperpigmentation. If you want to fade away dark spots, I wouldn’t recommend it as your first course of action. But that doesn’t mean it’s not up for the job. According to a study published in the Journal of drugs in dermatology, shows that the combination of 0.5% ellagic acid and 0.1% salicylic acid produces similar results to 4% hydroquinone, the gold standard for treating hyperpigmentation.

It’s also more suitable for people of colour. While Glycolic acid, an exfoliant that belongs to the AHAs family, is more effective at fading away hyperpigmentation, it could also cause erythema and worsen dark spots in some circumstances. Salicylic acid is safer for darker skin tones.

What Skin Conditions Can Salicylic Acid Treat?

Here are all the skin conditions Salicylic Acid can treat:

  • Acne (including blackheads and whiteheads)
  • Calluses
  • Dandruff
  • Large pores
  • Psoriasis
  • Sun damage
  • Warts

If you’re experiencing any of them, salicylic acid is a precious ally in your skincare routine.

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How To Use It

I recommend using Salicylic Acid every other night, right after cleansing. The closer to your skin you use it, the better results you’ll get. And then note how your skin reacts to it. “The key is to listen to your skin,” dermatologist Adarsh Vijay Mudgil recommends. “If it’s getting irritated, you’ll need to take a day or two off and perhaps be a bit more vigilant with moisturizing.”

Can You Use Salicylic Acid As A Spot Treatment?

Yes, you can. But Salicylic Acid is such a wonderful exfoliant, why wouldn’t you want to use it all over your face? If you have acne pimples, you could use Salicylic acid all over your face every other nights. On the nights in between, you could apply it as a spot treatment. This way, you get rid of the pimples faster without irritating the rest of your face.

Can You Use Salicylic Acid Daily?

Unless prescribed by a dermatologist, using salicylic acid daily is too drying and irritating for skin. The exception? Salicylic acid cleansers. They’re gentle enough to be used ONCE a day. The catch? Salicylic acid works a lot better when left on the skin for several hours. In a cleanser, it just ends up down the drain together with grime. I recommend you use a salicylic acid cleanser only if you have sensitive skin that can’t tolerate the acid on your skin for several hours.

Who Should Use Salicylic Acid?

All skin types can use salicylic acid. But, as it’s the ONLY exfoliant that can unclog pores, it’s ideal for oily and acne-prone skin (including dry AND acne-prone skin). If you have pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, clogged pores, a propensity to acne, or oily skin, you need Salicylic Acid. No other exfoliant will work as well for you. Period.

Who Shouldn’t Use Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is awesome, but it’s NOT for everyone. You shouldn’t use it if:

  • You don’t have acne or oily skin: Glycolic or Lactic acid may be better exfoliating options for you.
  • You want to fade away dark spots: While salicylic acid can help fade away dark spots, it does so very slowly. If you don’t have acne and fading dark spots is your main concern, go with Glycolic acid instead.
  • Are on certain medications: It can interfere with certain drugs, like blood thinners.
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding: Taken orally in low doses can cause birth defects. Small doses ( <2% ) applied topically to the skin are safe for mum and baby, but just to be on the safe side, avoid salicylic acid peels.

Related: Which Skincare Ingredients Should You Avoid During Pregnancy?

How Often Should You Use It?

The ideal frequency is every other night. It provides enough exfoliation to treat and prevent blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples without irritating skin. If your acne is very severe and your skin very oily, you may get away with using salicylic acid every day or even twice a day, morning and night. But I only recommend this in severe cases until the acne has healed. To keep skin clear after that, every other night is more than enough. As a rule, if you’re experiencing dryness, irritation, and redness, cut back usage.

What Should You NOT Use It With?

Although you could use salicylic acid with other exfoliants, it’s NOT a good idea to do so. Too much exfoliation irritates skin and dries it out. The only exception? If you use a product, like Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Glycolic Night Serum, formulated with a mixture different exfoliating acids. They’re designed to give you the right amount of exfoliation you need – and a lot safer to use than you mixing several bottles or using a different exfoliant every day. This also means you shouldn’t use salicylic acid with scrubs, konjac sponges, sonic cleansers and anything else that could exfoliate skin.

It’s also not a good idea to use salicylic acid at the same time as retinoids. This combination is too harsh. Instead, alternate them. Use salicylic acid one night and retinol or tretinoin the next. You’ll get the best of both world without irritating your skin.

How Much Salicylic Acid Do You Need?

You know how I always say that if you only add a sprinkle of an ingredient in a cream or lotion, it’s not gonna do much for you? Salicylic acid is the exception to the rule. It works well even at 1 or 2% concentrations. In fact, here in the EU, you can’t use more than 2%.

Acids are awesome, but if you abuse them, they can wreak some serious havoc on your skin. And you know human nature. When something is good, you want to use a ton of it to get better results and then wonder why your skin looks like a mess. If you can’t use more than 2%, you can enjoy its benefits without any nasty side effects.

Related: 5 Skincare Treatments That Can Damage Skin IF Abused

Is Salicylic Acid pH Dependant?

Some of the best skincare actives, including Glycolic acid and Vitamin C, are pH dependant. What does this mean? Simple. They work only at a certain, usually low, pH. If it’s too high, you may just as well splash water on your skin.

Rumour has it, salicylic acid is pH dependant too. If it’s higher than 4, it won’t work. This is NOT true! Studies show that it’s an effective exfoliant even with a higher pH. This is great news for sensitive skin. Low pH = higher chance of irritation. By keeping the pH at a skin-friendly level, you get the benefits of exfoliation without the irritation.

Salicylic Acid VS Benzoyl Peroxide: Which One Is Right For You?

Like Salicylic Acid, Benzoyl Peroxide is a popular acne treatment. So which one should you use?

Benzoyl Peroxide works differently. While it has a mild peeling action, it mostly works by killing P.Acne, the bacteria that causes acne. The best part? The bacteria doesn’t grow resistant to it. But, it’s much harsher on the skin and causes dryness and irritation.

According to a review in Clinical Therapeutics, “Comparative studies of salicylic acid have shown it to be superior to benzoyl peroxide in reducing the total number of acne lesions,” and it’s gentler on the skin to boot. FYI, this is true even when it comes to cleansers. A salicylic acid face wash works better at treating acne than one with benzoyl peroxide, according to a study published in Clinical Therapeutics.

I recommend you start with Salicylic Acid and, if you want helping hand, use Benzoyl Peroxide as spot treatment only.

Salicylic Acid VS Glycolic Acid: Which One Is Right For You?

Glycolic acid is part of the Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHAs) exfoliating family. Like Salicylic Acid, it dissolves the “glue” that holds skin cells together, so they can slough off and reveal the brighter skin underneath. But Glycolic acid doesn’t get inside your pores, so it can’t do anything for your acne.

Instead, glycolic acid has two different superpowers: it hydrates skin and fades away dark spots. If you have dry skin or you’re more concerned about fading away dark spots than getting rid of the off blackhead, glycolic acid is for you. But if you have any type of acne, doesn’t matter what your skin type is, salicylic acid will you give you the best results.

Side Effects Of Salicylic Acid

Although Salicylic acid is gentler than other exfoliants (*cough* Glycolic Acid *cough*), it can still dry out and irritate skin if you use too much. Overexfoliation is never good. Dead cells are there for a reason. To protect the newer skin underneath that’s not fully developed and ready to come to the surface yet. A little exfoliation brightens skin. Too much exposes raw skin – it’s ugly and painful.

Like all exfoliants, Salicylic Acid can also increase skin sensitivity to the sun. For this reason, it’s best to use it at night, when the sun isn’t around.

Finally, Salicylic Acid may cause purging. A purge is different from a breakout. A breakout happens when you use ingredients that clog pores and give you acne. Remove the offender and you have clear skin again. A purge happens when your skin is already clogged beneath the surface. In this case, exfoliation brings all that crap, in the form of pimples and blackheads, to the surface sooner, so it can be cleared up.

If you’re experiencing a breakout after using salicylic acid, it’s normal. Salicylic acid isn’t giving you more pimples. It’s clearing every layer of your skin, so you can remove all the gunk in one go and enjoy beautiful skin afterwards. Depending on how clogged your skin is, it can take up to 6 weeks to complete the purging process.

What Are The Best Products With Salicylic Acid?

Pick one product. If your moisturizer has salicylic acid, you don’t need a separate exfoliant. If you exfoliate with salicylic acid, you don’t need it to be in your toner, too. You get the point. Now that’s out of the way, here are my fave skincare products with salicylic acid:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): Don’t let the name fool you. This exfoliant has both salicylic acid to unclog pores and glycolic acid to fade away the dark spots pimples sometimes leave behind. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The cult exfoliant from the brand, it unlclogs pores and treats blackheads and acne. The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can take that, this is one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants out there. Available at Cult BeautyDermstoreNet-A-PorterPaula’s ChoiceSephora, and SpaceNK.
  • The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A simple, no-frills salicylic acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Sephora.

The Bottom Line

If you have oily, combo or acne-prone skin, you need to add salicylic acid to your skincare arsenal now. It’ll vanish blackheads, fade dark spots, banish pimples and soothe your skin. What more could you ask for?