Askanesthetician's Blog

An esthetician explores skincare issues and concerns

Ingredient Spotlight: Salicylic Acid May 31, 2010


I recently wrote about the anti-acne ingredient benzoyl peroxide so I thought it would be good to write about  another great OTC anti-acne ingredient – salicylic acid. 

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is a derivative of aspirin and functions as an exfoliant helping to loosen and expel comedones (aka blackheads and whiteheads – clogged pores) from the skin.  Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties which can help reduce the redness of inflamed breakout lesions.  So this combination of exfoliation and anti-inflammatory properties helps the skin heal, prevents scarring, and helps to decrease the chance of future breakouts.  Salicylic acid, which is oil soluble, is able to penetrate deeply into the pore helping to keep sebaceous follicles clear of cellular buildup and can help minimize the formation of new comedones.

In order for the salicylic acid product to be effective it should have at least a 1% concentration of the ingredient but preferably a 2% concentration.  But just as important is the pH level of the product.  The pH must be between 3 and 4 in order for the product to be effective.  Otherwise the salicylic acid is not effective as an exfoliant.  Of course, it is quite hard to determine the pH level of products on one’s own.  Though pH strip tests are available for home use I instead refer to the charts at the back of Lydia Preston’s excellent book Breaking Out (pages 207-208 and 210-212).  Preston tested the pH levels of different salicylic acid cleansers and lotions in order to determine which products would actually do what they claim to do. 

You might also find willow bark listed in the ingredients of products that claim to have salicylic acid in them.  When ingested orally willow bark is converted by the body into salicylic acid.  It is questionable if the same process takes place when willow bark is applied topically. 


Lastly, a lot of ob/gyns recommend that women who are pregnant or nursing not use salicylic acid because of its connection to aspirin.  Most likely a OTC product with 1 to 2% salicylic acid will not harm your child, but be sure to check with your doctor before using such a product during pregnancy or while you are nursing.


Recommended Salicylic Acid Products (taken from Breaking Out)



  • Clearasil 3 in 1 Acne Defense Cleanser
  • Clearasil Total Control Deep Pore Cream Cleanser
  • Clearasil Icewash Acne Gel Cleanser
  • Neutrogena Oil Free Cream Cleanser
  • Zapzyt Acne Wash Treatment


  • Aveeno Clear Complexion Daily Moisturizer
  • Clean & Clear Blackhead Clearing Astringent
  • Clean & Clear Clarifying Toner
  • Neutrogena Blackhead Eliminating Astrigent
  • Neutrogena Multi-Vitamin Acne Treatment Lotion
  • Paula’s Choice 1% Beta Hydroxy Liquid Solution normal to oily


My Recommendation


Any Paula’s Choice BHA lotion, gel, or toner.  These products work and are easy to order online.  Buy samples if you aren’t sure that you want to invest in a whole regular size product.  I like the fact that you can use these as frequently or infrequently as you need to. 


Sources and Further Reading





10 Responses to “Ingredient Spotlight: Salicylic Acid”

  1. Pam Says:

    I previously used a Boscia Willow Bark gel, which is supposed to be the gentler form of salicylic acid for sensitive skin. Salicylic acid doesn’t seem that effective on me as a spot treatment, and I don’t want to combine a salicylic acid cleanser with my benzoyl peroxide treatment. Would ingesting willow bark target acne-prone areas and clear clogged pores from within? If not, how would salicylic acid inside the body be beneficial?

    • I actually think that combining a salicylic acid cleanser with your benzoyl peroxide treatment is a good idea. You could start off by using the cleaner every other day and see how it goes. I’m curious – why don’t you want to do that?
      As for taking willow bark in order to help clear clogged pores from within – that’s an intriguing idea but well out of my area of expertise. I would consult a doctor or nutritionist before doing that. It seems that willow birch extract can be pain reliever and fever reducer. If you are interested in changing your diet or taking supplements for your acne I would see a doctor, nutritionist, or acupuncturist for a consultation. You can always look at one of Dr. Perricone’s books which all have information about following an anti-inflammation diet in order to reduce both acne and the signs of aging.

      • Pam Says:

        I don’t want to dry out my skin from double-dosing with a medicated cleanser followed by BP. I’ve gotten tiny clogged pores on my otherwise smooth forehead when using the wrong cleanser and also when I tried Ole Henriksen Invigorating Night Gel (alpha hydroxy acid) and Sheer Transformation Creme (beta hydroxy acid or salicylic acid). The Regimen seems to be working, and I’m slowing adding other treatments after BP on cleansed skin. Thanks for the suggestion on Dr. Perricone’s book. I’ll check it out one of these days.

      • Everyone’s acne is so individual so you are right that finding the right solution for you is the best way to go. I am curious to hear how the regime works for you. is a great resource and website for people struggling with acne. I hope their products work for you!

  2. At the beginning I was skeptical of this acid peel. Nevertheless, I changed my mind quite fast since it really worked. I’m 22, male white, my skin is slightly oily and I have had nodular acne since I was 13.
    Eventhough the salicylic acid does tingle a bit it is still very bearable. I’m using it for 8 mins every time as the instructions recommend and its working more than fine. My skin feels mostly same before and after each application, but results can been seen a few hours after the application. I have only been using it for 2 months so I will let you know how my skin evolves. I’m willing to try it for six months.
    I really hope it works with the scars. I’m really afraid of having them for the rest of my life.

  3. Jenna Wilson Says:

    I am assuming that salicylic is similar to azelaic acid, which I have used in the past with great success in treating my acne, it does tend to burn a bit but well worth the end results.

  4. Rhonda Combs Says:

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  5. phoebe Says:

    if i have dry skin, but i also want to get rid of my blackheads, what would be the best for me to do? because I am currently using the neutrogena oil free toner and a night serum and lotion that helps hydrate my skin, would those products you mentioned dry out my skin alot?

    • Thanks for your question. I would suggest using a salicylic acid lotion or serum to help get rid of your blackheads. Use one with a low percentage of salicylic acid so that you don’t irritate your skin or one that is formulated for dry, sensitive skin. You could try Paula’s Choice or Epionce. I hope this information helps!

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