What Is Salicylic Acid — and How Does It Benefit Your Skin?

Salicylic acid is the gentlest, and arguably most effective, treatment for acne.

woman skin
(Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt)

The first zit treatment most of us encounter is typically that goopy white stuff that you quickly learn bleaches your sheets and towels (shoutout to benzoyl peroxide!). Once you've ruined enough linens, one usually smartens up and moves along to other acne treatments. And that's when you might hear about salicylic acid, one of the single most effective acne treatments available. But what is salicylic acid? What does it do? And can it benefit your skin in ways that have nothing to do with your blemishes? With the help of dermatologists Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD in Boston and Cheri Frey of Advanced Dermatology in Maryland, we put together your guide to salicylic acid.

What is salicylic acid? 

From a molecular standpoint, salicylic acid is a naturally occurring compound found in plants that's part of a family of compounds considered phenolic acids and beta hydroxy acids, explains Frey. Which is all to say, salicylic acid is a gentle chemical exfoliant.

"On the skin, those acids break apart cellular connections, causing dead skin cells to slough off," Frey continues. "Salicylic acid is also soluble in oil, so it has the ability to penetrate oil glands and unclog pores."

There is some research to suggest that salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory benefits, which means it can help quell skin redness and irritation, too.

How should you use salicylic acid?

Over the counter, salicylic acid is available in concentrations anywhere from 0.5-2 percent, and is found in spot treatments, cleansers, body washes, masks, lotions and creams. In these topical products, salicylic acid works to "exfoliate, increase skin cell turnover, and can help to give you a brighter, smoother complexion," says Imahiyerobo-Ip.

The Best Salicylic Acid Acne Spot Treatments

What are the benefits of salicylic acid for your skin?

Because of its oil solubility, salicylic acid is particularly effective against comedonal acne—whiteheads and blackheads—where the blemishes are attributed to clogged pores and lagging skin turnover. Acne related to inflammatory issues, which manifests as painful acne cysts and pustules, is best addressed with benzoyl peroxide.

"Salicylic acid is also used at a 20 or 30 percent concentration for a chemical peel that at your dermatologist’s office," Imahiyerobo-Ip continues, noting that the professional treatments effectively address both acne and hyperpigmentation.

Are there side effects to using salicylic acid?

There are some mild side effects associated with salicylic acid. "Because salicylic acid has a low pH, it can be irritating to the skin," explains Frey, noting that this is why concentrations above 2 percent aren't offered over the counter. "In patients with darker skin, that irritation can lead to hyperpigmentation," she adds.

If you're layering salicylic acid with other topicals like glycolic or retinoic acid, it can also leave your skin dry and irritated, so work with a dermatologist to create a targeted layering approach. Also: Salicylic acid can be absorbed by the skin, so it's not recommended during pregnancy.

The Salicylic Acid Products Dermatologists Love

What should I look for in a salicylic acid product?

There are countless salicylic acid skincare products on the market—but derms certainly have their recommendations. "My personal favorite is La Roche Posay's cleanser," says Frey: "It contains their patented lipohydroxy acid, which is derived from salicylic acid. LHA stays on the top layer of the skin, so it delivers more potent effects without the irritation. It also has anti-aging properties similar to retinols by stimulating hyaluronic acid and collagen production."

As for Imahiyerobo-Ip: "Neutrogena makes a great acne body wash with salicylic acid that's super affordable. I also like Murad’s blemish control spray. Hydropeptide’s serum contains salicylic acid and azelaic acid to gently treat and prevent mild breakouts."

Marie Claire Editors' Favorite Salicylic Acid Products

Hannah Morrill

Hannah Morrill is a writer and editor based in Portland, Maine. She’s an avid reader, an indifferent face-washer and a sunscreen/retinol evangelist.