When it comes to skincare, acids are everywhere, as skin experts and dermatologists encourage us to ditch the harsh physical scrubs and environmentally damaging microbeads for smart chemical exfoliators. In skincare products, exfoliating acids usually include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acid) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), the most well known being salicylic acid.
What is salicylic acid and how does it work in skincare?
"Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that is safe to use in all skin types," says Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. "It is anti-inflammatory," Dr Mahto adds, so it brings down raised, red spots. "It also breaks down the outer layer of skin, which makes it an ideal treatment for acne," she continues. "Even at low concentrations (for example 2%) it can help speed up resolution of acne and comedones," the latter of which are essentially small, flesh-coloured bumps under the skin.
How should you use salicylic acid for blackheads?
Salicylic acid is especially useful for treating blackheads, as it penetrates the pore a little deeper than other acids to dislodge the paste-like mixture of skin cells, oil and dirt, which eventually leads to clogging. "While AHAs work on the surface, BHAs like salicylic acid work from the inside out," says Tom Allison, skin expert and global vice president of CeraVe. "It's beneficial for blackheads because it really helps unclog pores. The acne lesion that we all see is a product of a few weeks or months of development of a skin infection, but salicylic acid de-clogs and gets it all out."
How do you use salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is a lot gentler than alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, so it can be used daily in leave-on toners (simply swipe on with a cotton pad), cleansers and serums. If your skin is sensitive, start by incorporating salicylic acid into your evening skincare routine two or three times a week. Always remember to apply a high factor SPF in the daytime, as all acids can make skin sensitive to sunlight.
Ahead, discover 11 brilliant salicylic acid skincare products, from toners and serums to cleansers.
Refinery29's selection is purely editorial and independently chosen – we only feature items we love! As part of our business model we do work with affiliates; if you directly purchase something from a link on this article, we may earn a small amount of commission. Transparency is important to us at Refinery29, if you have any questions please reach out to us.