The Ingredient Chronicles: Salicylic Acid

The Ingredient Chronicles is a series that takes an in-depth look at one key ingredient at a time. Read all about salicylic acid here.

This tricky ingredient shows up in many skin care products. It is commonly found in acne treatments. Let’s take a closer look at how salicylic acid works in the skin to use it effectively.

Skin care ingredients like salicylic acidSalicylic is a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA. It is an exfoliant derived from the botanical willow bark or made synthetically. Salicylic works primarily inside the pore, as opposed to AHAs like glycolic that work on the surface of the skin. It’s oil-soluble as well, so that means that it can break up the oil that’s in the pores. It also slows the production of the oil in the pore.  Because of this, it’s a great ingredient to use to control excessive shine.

Salicylic acid is one of the more common ingredients used in acne control products. We know that acne is caused by three things: oil, dead skin, and bacteria. Salicylic acid actually can address all three things, but it specializes in breaking down the clogs in the pores. Like a jackhammer, it breaks up the oil that acts as the cement to form the clog in the first place. It is usually partnered with something like benzoyl peroxide, which is more effective at killing bacteria.

By looking at the way salicylic works, we can see alternative uses. Most people don’t consider blackheads to be a form of acne, but in fact, blackheads are the very beginning of acne. If blackheads are a concern for you, salicylic is the way to go. It will dissolve the blackhead, making it more pliable and more easily extracted by a professional. Once the pore is clear, it will help to keep that oil from building up again. Folliculitis, or ingrown hairs, can also be addressed by using salicylic acid, since ingrowns have many similar properties to pimples (both are caused by a buildup of oil and dead skin in the pore). It is also great if you are prone to breakouts after waxing. A light application helps to kill bacteria, reduce redness and itching, and keep the follicle clear.

Remember that, as with many effective skincare ingredients, you can get too much of a good thing.  Since salicylic curbs oil production, it can in fact be drying. For dry skins, I find that using salicylic in just one step of your routine is usually sufficient. Dry skin that is still concerned with breakouts should try an acne control serum once a day, maybe even just in the areas prone to breakouts or blackheads. Combination skins may follow the same advice, or try a salicylic wash a couple times a week to control oil. Very oily skins may find that a wash and a serum work well to control breakouts or shine. Be careful in combination and oily skins, as using too much salicylic can cause what’s often called a rebound effect, where the drying effect actually stimulates the skin to produce more oil. If you feel like your skin is oily no matter what you try, you may be suffering from rebound oiliness.

Salicylic acid is a great ingredient when used correctly. It controls oil, fights breakouts, and even soothes irritation. It is definitely an ingredient to consider for all skin types. With a little help and advice, you can figure out exactly how it works best in your routine.



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