The 12 Best Salicylic Acid Cleansers to Clean Out Your Pores and Fight Acne

Buh-bye, blackheads.

best salicylic acid cleansers: Tata Harper, SkinCeuticals, and more
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There are so freakin’ many ways to address acne with your skincare. Obviously consulting with your dermatologist is your best bet, but on the over the counter front, there are spot treatments, non-comedogenic moisturizers, anti-inflammatory benzoyl peroxide products, and, of course, the best salicylic acid cleansers. The latter is an integral part of a skincare routine for acne because it’s not only going to dry out existing pimples by busting up oil, but it's also going to keep your pores nice and clean so future breakouts are less common.

“Think of salicylic acid like a pipe cleaner for your skin,” explains board-certified dermatologist Dr. Anna Karp. “Salicylic acid is both highly keratolytic and comedolytic, which means it not only dissolves dead skin cells on the surface of the skin, but it’s also able to get down into the pore, dissolve the oil, and break apart the debris inside that commonly leads to acne.”

Sounds pretty good, right? If you’re not sure which cleanser to add to your routine, we’ve got you covered. We’ve tried and tested dozens of salicylic acid cleansers—and talked to the professionals—to uncover the best ones out there. From drugstore options that are surprisingly powerful to luxe options designed to combat the drying side effects of the beta-hydroxy acids, here’s a definitive list of the pore-cleaning, pimple-busting face washes that’ll have you on your way to clearer skin. 

What to Look For

  • Percentage of the Active Ingredient

Salicylic acid is great, but you're only going to reap the pore-declogging benefits when it's used at a high enough concentration. Make sure you read the label to see where your product falls on the spectrum. Two percent is the highest possible over-the-counter dosage and likely what you'll find in the majority of your cleansers. If you have very dry, sensitive skin, consider looking for a one percent formula. See a lower percentage? Chances are the formula is bolstered with a natural, salicylic acid alternative like willow bark. 

  • Alternative Acids 

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, but a decent number of acne-fighting cleansers will also contain alpha-hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid or lactic acid. The combination of both, while not necessary, can help get rid of current blackheads and prevent other pimples by speeding up cell turnover. 

The Best Salicylic Acid Cleansers

What Are the Side Effects of a Salicylic Acid Cleanser?

Perhaps the biggest downside of salicylic acid is that it can be drying and cause irritation—especially for those with dry or sensitive skin types. That’s why it’s important not to overdo it. “It is a mild exfoliant, so I wouldn’t combine a salicylic acid cleanser with too many other exfoliating products,” says Dr. Karp. “I would avoid using it with retinoids or other acids unless it’s already in the product as a combination.” 

It’s also important to reinforce hydration with an oil-free, non comedogenic moisturizer. 

Meet the Dermatologists

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Dr. Anna Karp

Anna Karp, DO, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Skin Institute of New York (SINY®). Dr. Karp specializes in medical, cosmetic, and surgical dermatology, and she treats adults and children at SINY’s® three offices in New York City’s West Village and Bay Ridge and Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York.

Dr. Karp is a native New Yorker, growing up on the South Shore of Long Island. After graduating magna cum laude with her bachelor of arts degree in Biology from the State University of New York at Binghamton, she went on to earn her medical degree from Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. She then completed dual residencies in Family Medicine and Dermatology at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway, New York.

During her residency, Dr. Karp presented at a number of local and national conferences, and she published several articles in peer-reviewed journals. She also served as Chief Resident during the final year.

Dr. Karp is an active fellow and member of the American Academy of Dermatology, American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, and the American Medical Association. As a highly skilled dermatologist, she focuses on providing the highest level of individualized and compassionate care to all her patients.

Beauty Editor

Samantha Holender is the Beauty Editor at Marie Claire, where she reports on the best new launches, dives into the science behind skincare, and shares the breakdown on the latest and greatest trends in the beauty space. She's studied up on every ingredient you'll find on INCI list and is constantly in search of the world's glowiest makeup products. Prior to joining the team, she worked as Us Weekly’s Beauty and Style Editor, where she stayed on the pulse of pop culture and broke down celebrity beauty routines, hair transformations, and red carpet looks. Her words have also appeared on Popsugar, Makeup.com, Skincare.com, Delish.com, and Philadelphia Wedding. Samantha also serves as a board member for the American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME). She first joined the organization in 2018, when she worked as an editorial intern at Food Network Magazine and Pioneer Woman Magazine. Samantha has a degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from The George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. While at GWU, she was a founding member of the school’s HerCampus chapter and served as its President for four years. When she’s not deep in the beauty closet or swatching eyeshadows, you can find her obsessing over Real Housewives and all things Bravo. Keep up with her on Instagram @samholender.