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Salicylic Acid: Does It Work On Acne?

They key to clear skin from acne is the right concentration of salicylic acid and right pH.

salicylic acid formula
credit image: Vine Vera

What is salicylic acid?

The salicylic acid term comes from the Latin word “Salix” – willow trees. This is because it was originally produced from a complex carbohydrate from willow bark. Several companies that manufacture acne care products claim that they contain salicylic acid extracted from willow bark. But the compound does not actually come from willow bark. The powdered bark should be treated with oxidants and filtered to produce the acid.

Salicylic acid is very effective as a pain reliever. There was a time when researchers thought this acid could be a vitamin which they termed as vitamin A. When this acid is taken orally, salicylic acid helps relieve pain and improve circulation. When it is applied topically, it helps break down fats and fat-like elements in the skin. Because of this, it is used to treat facial skin by combining 2% salicylic acid and 98% of lotion as a neutral carrier agent. Salicylic acid that is up to 3% strength may be used on other parts of the body, while 10% to 30% concentration helps dissolve warts.

How does salicylic acid work to treat acne?

Salicylic acid works great on clogged skin pores that cause blackheads, whiteheads, inflammation, redness, and cysts. By helping open up the pores and prevent it from clogging, this ingredient helps to treat active acne and prevent new breakouts, It works best on whiteheads and blackheads, and cysts as well. Cystic acne is usually triggered by internal sources like genetic makeups and hormones. This is why topical acne treatments do not always work to treat this skin condition.

Salicylic acid gently removes dead skin cells and boosts cell turnover. It also helps increase the production of collagen and remove discoloration from your skin. This acid is the only beta-hydroxy acid that is used in skin care products because it is effective. It does the same benefits as alpha-hydroxy acids such as glycolic acid and lactic acid. Most acne products have up to 30% alpha-hydroxy acid but with salicylic acid of 0.5% to 2% strength, it brings the same benefits and results.

Who should use salicylic acid in acne treatment?

Avoid using salicylic acid on damaged skin or skin with open wounds. Also, avoid using it on any irritated or infected skin.

If you are trying out a new acne product, test it on a small area first before applying it on a larger area of your skin. This will make sure that you are not allergic to the product. Take caution using salicylic acid if you are already using other products that contain benzoyl peroxide, retinol, adapalene, tretinoin, and other acid containing products. This is because they also exfoliate the skin and too much exfoliation can result in skin irritation and redness.

And as long as salicylic acid is used with the right strength, it can effectively clear skin better than alpha-hydroxy acids. It is especially helpful for those with oily skin and not everybody can benefit from this acid.

Skin professionals advise caution in using salicylic acid on those with the following types of skin, using the Fitzpatrick Scale:

  • The Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type IV refers to brown skin, Mediterranean or Hispanic type of skin. This skin gets only mild sunburn and tans slowly.
  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type V is characterized by dark brown skin that almost never gets sunburn and tans easily.
  • The Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type VI refers to black skin that never burns and tans so easily.

Those skins types mentioned above have many skin cells that produce melanin. The skin utilizes this antioxidant pigment to reduce inflammation. And since salicylic acid “inflames” the skin (in a good way) and a large amount of melanin, the risks of acne is usually replaced by brown or black skin spots.

And anything that “inflames” the skin, whether it is intentional (like lightening agent) or unintentional (such as infection or acne), may leave a permanent darkening on the skin. Thus, if you have a beige to black skin type, you should only use salicylic acid under the supervision of a skin professional – dermatologist.

Salicylic acid-based treatments are effective in removing blackheads and huge pimples. So, if you have huge, red, and oily zits, acne treatment with salicylic acid may be a better choice to reduce them. It also helps you deal with scarring and hyperpigmentation after the pimples have disappeared.

How do we use salicylic acid in treating acne?

If you have oily and fair skin, you may benefit from using salicylic acid to open your skin pores. The key factor in treating acne using salicylic acid is in its acidity to break down fats and open your skin pores. This means that the acne product should contain a pH of about 4 or even lower. pH plays a significant role in treating acne. Again, the formula has to be acidic enough that it is likely to sting. Although salicylic acid does not really kill acne-causing bacteria, it helps unclog the skin pores where these bacteria live.

Higher pH products will not sting but they will not have the ability to open skin pores. So, another thing to look for in a product with salicylic acid is the right concentration. Too much salicylic acid can burn your skin. Too little salicylic acid will not open your pores. Most of the acne products that work effectively have 1% to 3% salicylic acid concentration, or as lower as 0.5%, but should never be more than 3%. More than 3% of salicylic acid concentration is useful in treating warts.

Salicylic acid in a gel has the ability to stay on your skin and will give great results. However, it should not remain on the skin any longer than directed. Remember to remove or rinse it off as directed and avoid using the product around your eyes.

Important Things To Know Before Using Acne Treatments With Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is generally safe when it is applied with the right concentrations. However, products with salicylic acid may make your skin a bit dry. We advise avoiding using harsh cleansers and astringents if you are using products that contain salicylic acid.

It is also important to make sure that you have a well-balanced skin care regimen, including acne treatment. This is especially if you are using acne treatment products with salicylic acid. Also, make sure that you avoid applying salicylic acid treatment to sensitive areas. Stick only to areas with pimples on them.

If your skin is swollen, infected, red, or broken, avoid choosing products with salicylic acid.

What we recommend:

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Exfoliant helps exfoliate your skin gently and naturally. Formulated for oily skin and clogged-prone pores and bumps.

Neutrogena Body Clear Body Wash is a refreshing body wash that fights breakouts on your shoulders, chest, and back. This body wash also helps treat and prevent breakouts without over-drying your skin.

DRMTLGY Gentle Acne Cleanser is a cleansing wash that helps remove face and body acne helps reduce pore size, eliminate blackheads and whiteheads, back acne. It also helps exfoliate your skin gently. Formulated for all types of skin.

Life-Pro Salicylic Acid Spray contains 2% strength of salicylic acid with other ingredients such as colloidal silver and tea tree oil to remove dead skin cells for a smoother, younger looking skin. Formulated for oily skin.

Our final notes,

Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid or BHA that helps treat acne. This is done by exfoliating your skin and helping to remove dead skin cells that clog up your skin pores. Products with this ingredient are available over-counter-the-counter in 0.5% to 2% concentrations.

And for the salicylic acid product to be effective in treating acne, it has to be formulated in the right pH level. The formula should be acidic – between pH level 3 and 4 – for the acne product to penetrate through your skin and perform its job.

What do you think?

Written by Maria

My passion is helping other people overcome the pain and embarrassment of acne. I have dealt with acne since my teenage years and know first-hand how hard it is to suffer from this condition.

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