We've All Been Underestimating This Acne-Fighter

Raise your hand if you hear "salicylic acid" and immediately think "pimple healer." That's because everyone and their dermatologist has preached the power of SA. But you might not know that the wonder acid is actually spectacular for fighting other skin woes, not just that pesky period pimple on your chin. I sure didn't.
One day, while googling around for wrinkle-fighting ingredients, I came upon another acid commonly used to soften lines: beta-hydroxy. And — get ready for the big reveal, people — SA and BHA are the same thing. While acne products market it as salicylic and anti-wrinkle products market it as beta-hydroxy, turns out they are interchangeable. What makes the difference in treatment is the strength of the acid and the ingredients it's paired with that make it better for one skin issue or the other.
Advertisement
Seeing as how I have an epic stash of zit-fighting cleansers, toners, creams, and treatments, I wondered whether I could repurpose them to be collagen promoters and line erasers. But before I got to work, I wanted to know the safest ways to use this ingredient and some juicy secrets about why, and how, it treats fine lines and aging skin.
The pros I spoke with gave me the lowdown on all the benefits of salicylic, and the myriad ways in which you can use it. You'll be amazed to hear just how SA works with your skin's chemistry, what issues it can solve, and why you'll be thanking it in the long run.
The grown-up guide to dealing with acne. Read more from The Acne Diaries here.
1 of 9
A key component to BHA is that it can be absorbed into sebum-filled pores. Ted Lain, MD, tells us, "Once inside the pore, it has dual actions... It exfoliates and removes the skin cells quickly, not allowing them to cause a plug in the pore."

Dendy Engelman, MD, of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, adds that since salicylic is a keratin-dissolving acid, “it...encourages the shedding of the top layer of skin, which prevents the pores from becoming congested.”

Products like this face-and-body scrub can Mortal Kombat any overwhelmed pore that needs some buffing.

Cane + Austin Face & Body Retexture Scrub, $42, available at Sephora.
2 of 9
Besides that immediate purifying result, salicylic acid is also stellar at sloughing away dead skin. "The exfoliative properties of salicylic acid have been shown, over time, to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by promoting collagen growth," Dr. Engelman tells us. "Exfoliation leads to reduction in thickness of the dead-skin-cell layer, which gives the skin a brighter, more glowing appearance."

So basically, any dead cells preventing your skin from looking radiant will be obliterated. A cream exfoliator will be gentle enough to use regularly to reduce pimple pop-ups and long-term aging effects.

Dermalogica Gentle Cream Exfoliant, $42, available at Ulta Beauty.
Advertisement
3 of 9
The exfoliating power BHA has isn't exactly what you would expect, especially if you're familiar with gritty buffers. Director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC Joshua Zeichner, MD, tells us that BHAs work "by creating microscopic trauma to the skin." Basically, the ingredient takes advantage of your skin's ability to heal itself. "Salicylic acid is commonly combined with alpha-hydroxy acids, like glycolic or fruit acids, to enhance anti-aging effects."

Dr. Zeichner recommends looking for products that claim to do more than fight fine lines and acne. "Many products that contain BHA are used to brighten [and] improve pore size," in addition to their primary goals, he says.

Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Glow Pads, $12, available at Sephora.
4 of 9
While it may sound miraculous, salicylic acid isn’t for everyone all the time. If your skin tends to feel dry or itchy — sometimes or all the time — steer away from using salicylic too frequently. If you make this mistake, like I certainly have in the past, you’ll be handed a whole host of new skin problems that you'll need to solve with some seriously hydrating gels or creams.

Dr. Lain reveals a silver lining that will make picking out products from your beauty stash, or nearest drugstore, a little easier. “The exfoliating properties can be seen in low concentrations, [meaning] that individuals can try the lowest concentration cleanser and see how the skin reacts.”

Neutrogena Pore Refining Cleanser, $8.49, available at Ulta Beauty.
5 of 9
The major drawback to salicylic acids is the potential irritation. "They should be used as often as tolerated, not more than once a day," Dr. Lain advises. If you have sensitive skin, but want to incorporate the ingredient every day in something like a serum or moisturizer, Dr. Lain says "[salicylic acid] may be tolerated at a low concentration, such as .5%."

Origins Original Skin Renewal Serum with Willowherb, $39, available at Origins.
6 of 9
Dr. Engelman says there are ways the BHAs can boost other skin-care magic going on. "In some skin creams for dry or mature skin, salicylic acid is used in lower concentrations as an exfoliating ingredient to increase the efficacy of active ingredients.” We recommend paying close attention to the ingredient list.

Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream Skin Protectant Nighttime Miracle Moisturizer, $39, available at Elizabeth Arden.
7 of 9
Planning on using salicylic acid on the regular to battle acne? Dr. Lain notes that "a concentration of 1% or 2% is used for acne, and rarely causes irritation or dryness if in a cleanser, but may be more drying if left on the skin in a lotion or cream." So if you have easily irritated skin, skip the creams and try a cleanser instead. Either way, be on the lookout for any signs of irritation and stop using the product(s) immediately if you see a skin freakout.

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $28, available at Paula's Choice.
Advertisement
8 of 9
When using salicylic acid, or any other skin-care ingredient, it's important to maintain consistency. Remember that BHA isn't just meant to be a spot-treatments, Dr. Engelman says. “You need to continuously use it to maintain its exfoliating and pore-clearing benefits, which means...even after acne has cleared, to continue to have clear skin.”

This means the acid is also preventative. Frequent use will help clear away the dead skin and debris pileups that cause dullness and the collagen loss that can contribute to fine lines.

To keep your complexion smooth, try finding an easy product to incorporate every day if you know you can't commit to a strict regimen just yet. Any kind of peeling, cleansing, or refining pads are simple and easy to use — meaning you'll be more likely to see real results.

Nip + Fab Dragon's Blood Fix Cleansing Pads, $12.99, available at Ulta Beauty.
9 of 9
Like this post? There's more. Get tons of beauty tips, tutorials, and news on the Refinery29 Beauty Facebook page. Like us on Facebook — we'll see you there!
Advertisement