If you suffer from oily or breakout-prone skin, you probably will have heard of salicylic acid, the magical ingredient that can fight acne, clear skin, and dissolve oil. Salicylic acid is also known as a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and is derived from willow bark. In skincare, there are two groups of acids: AHAs (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHAs (beta hydroxy acid) – and both exfoliate the skin.
Many people make mistakes in skincare – skincare experts and aestheticians included. When I first learned of salicylic acid, I overused it and damaged my skin barrier. Now I know better, so here’s what you need to know to not make the same mistake as me!
What’s the Difference Between AHA and BHA?
BHA is oil-soluble and can penetrate through pores and decongested dead skin and oil that may be stuck there, whereas AHA cannot as it is water-soluble. AHA works on the surface of the skin by removing dead skin and revealing new skin, while BHA works on a deeper level by decongesting clogged pores.
What Does Salicylic Acid Do?
Salicylic acid breaks down the bonds between skin cells that act like glue holding the skin together. It can also dissolve skin debris that clogs pores. Some of its pros and cons include:
- It has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties.
- It effectively treats blackheads and whiteheads.
- It exfoliates surfaces and inside pores.
- It reduces excessive oiliness.
- Overuse can cause sensitivity and skin dryness.
- It could cause a burning or stinging sensation.
- It could lead to dry or flaky skin.
How Should You Use Salicylic Acid?
I recommend ignoring what the label says and using salicylic acid as needed because when it comes to skin, one size does not fit all. Some products recommend using it daily in the morning and at night, which can work great for certain skin types, but it can be too irritating for others and may sensitise the skin.
I would recommend incorporating the acid into your routine two to three evenings a week, and then building it up gradually. If it is a cleanser-based salicylic acid, start by using it in the morning. And if it is a cream or oil-based cleanser, start by using it in the evening. You could even begin with a salicylic cleanser and slowly introduce salicylic serum as and when you need it. In the case of salicylic acid serums, you can use it as a spot treatment in areas where it’s necessary, such as for blackheads or whiteheads.
However, if you have acne or cystic acne, benzoyl peroxide may be a better alternative for you as it is more anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, though ongoing use can cause ageing and damage to the skin, so make sure you consult a professional aesthetician or dermatologist. As always, make sure to use sunscreen, and avoid using it on the same day as when you’re applying retinol. Salicylic acid is also a salicylate, which is part of the aspirin family, so you should avoid it if you have any allergies to aspirin.
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SA Smoothing Cleanser, Cerave
This cleanser by Cerave effectively exfoliates and and promotes radiance. Its key ingredients include salicylic acid, ceramides, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and vitamin D. It can improve skin texture, reduce oiliness and blackheads, and smoothen and hydrate your skin. I love that it doesn’t make your skin feel tight or stripped of its natural oils!
Tip: If you don’t usually use a foam cleanser, alternate with a cream-, oil-, or, balm-based cleanser until you get used to it.
Blemish + Age Cleanser, Skinceuticals
This cleanser by Skinceuticals can help prime your skin prior to professional in-clinic skin rejuvenating treatments. It can remove excess oil, accelerate skin surface exfoliation, smooth irregularities, and brighten the skin. Its key ingredients include glycolic and salicylic acid.
Tip: If you lather this up and leave it on for five minutes whilst in the bath or shower, it also acts as a mini exfoliating mask.
Blemish + Age Defense, Skinceuticals
This oil-free face serum reduces the formation of acne and clogged pores, while improving the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone. Its key ingredients include 2% dioic acid with an alpha- and beta-hydroxy acid formulation. It does tingle when applied on your skin, which is to be expected. You can spot-treat areas with it, whether it’s breakouts or blackheads, but it will cause drying and flaking if used in excess.
Tip: Follow this serum with a moisturiser with ceramides to lock in the moisture and avoid crusting when applied to breakouts.
2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, Paula’s Choice
This is a great product if you’re unsure at first as it comes in two different sizes. It can improve redness, breakouts, blackheads, and enlarged pores while exfoliating dead skin cells, smoothing wrinkles, and evening out the skin tone – all while being gentle enough for sensitive skin with the perfect 2% of salicylic acid (the maximum for at-home use). It also contains green tea, which can do wonders for your skin.
Tip: Don’t use this on cotton pads as it wastes the product, while also making it more abrasive. It’s best to gently tap it in with your fingers.
Liquid Exfoliant Pads
Complexion Renewal Pads, Zo Skin Health
These pads act as dual-action exfoliators that remove dead skin cells to prevent clogged pores and reduce oiliness. Additionally, it can also calm and soothe irritated or inflamed skin, and provide a clearer complexion. Its key ingredients include glycolic acid and 2% salicylic acid. I love that this product is made for us lazy girls as it’s so easy to use. Initially, I wouldn’t use these twice a day (as stated) as it could be too much for your skin, so start by using it two to three times a week, and take it from there.
Tip: These come in a pack of 60 and are pricey, but you can cut them in half and double your use. If you’re using them every few days, they will last about three months. Another hack: tip the tub upside down occasionally so that the serum is fully absorbed into the pad. The pads do actually come with a lot of serum, but you can sometimes squeeze them a little so that when you’re done, you have some extra serum to use at the bottom of the container.