Maybe you navigate the nuanced world of skin care with ease, able to differentiate your essential oils from your plant extracts like an old pro, or maybe you still associate acne spot treatments with the goopy white stuff from the drugstore that bleached your pillowcases as a teenager and made your face smell faintly of egg. Either way, there's a solid chance you've heard of — and probably even used — salicylic acid.
A beta-hydroxy acid derived from willow bark, salicylic acid is the go-to breakout-fighting ingredient for clearing out the clogged pores that cause acne. Unlike benzoyl peroxide, which is better for killing bacteria (and ruining your sheets), salicylic acid works by going deep into pores to cut through sebum buildup and dead skin cells. "Once inside the pore, it has dual actions," explains dermatologist Ted Lain, MD. "It exfoliates and removes the skin cells quickly, not allowing them to cause a plug in the pore."
You'll find the popular ingredient in countless over-the-counter preparations at either end of the price spectrum, from $2 (literally — and it's a good one, too) to $200. Which seems like a good thing, since you have your choice of scoring the skin-care hero on the cheap or splashing out on a luxe formulation, but it also begs the question: What's the difference between a salicylic acid product that costs a quarter of your rent and one you can buy with quarters gathered from your coat pockets?
"All salicylic acid products are pretty similar," says dermatologist Ronald Moy, MD, FAAD of MFC Dermatology. The only real variable is the percent of acid, but Dr. Moy says, "For most over-the-counter products, there isn't a huge difference between them." And a higher percentage doesn't necessarily mean a better, more effective treatment; in fact, says dermatologist Jennifer Herrmann, MD, FAAD, stronger concentrations can even worsen the problem by causing more irritation and unwanted inflammation.
But even if there's no difference in the actual salicylic acid component in one product versus another, there is one legit reason why you may want to consider spending more on the sauce: "Other ingredients in the products may be contributing to price differences," Dr. Moy says. "If a product also contains anti-aging peptides, for instance, it may be at a much higher price point than those with few ingredients beyond the salicylic acid.”
So, in the save-or-splurge argument, neither side wins. But if you want more from your product than just a quick fix on a zit or ten — like, say, the bonus brightening, fine line-smoothing effects of Sunday Riley's U.F.O Ultra-Clarifying Face Oil, or the potent antioxidants in 111Skin Ground Control Anti Blemish Tonic — it might be worth investing in... but in a world where the budget-friendly formulas are on par with the pricy ones, it's entirely up to you. (Your pay schedule might have some say in the matter, too.)