The Basics: 10 Things to Know About Salicylic Acid

salicylic acid

It’s one of the most commonly seen ingredients on the labels of acne treatment products—but do you know what salicylic acid actually is, and how it works? Because understanding ingredients is a vital step in getting (and keeping!) a clear complexion, we’ve put together a handy user’s guide for salicylic acid products. Read on for a quick primer on everything you need to know about salicylic acid.

  1. You can thank a tree for it. Salicylic acid was originally derived from the bark of a willow tree (hence, it’s appearance as “willow bark extract” on the labels of certain products).
  2. It’s easy to find. You’ll find it in a variety of over-the-counter acne products, including cleansers, lotions, treatments, pads and more.
  3. It’s FDA-approved. Unlike glycolic acid, which is an alpha hydroxy acid found in many anti-aging skin care treatments, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid. Both work to encourage the sloughing of dead skin cells and the clearing of pores, but of the two, only salicylic acid is recognized by the FDA as an acne-treating ingredient.
  4. It’s a multi-tasker. Salicylic acid is a safe and effective treatment ingredient for mild to moderate acne—and it’s great for post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. (Read: it’s helpful in fostering a clearer, more even-toned complexion and can work to help diminish the appearance of dark marks post-breakout.)
  5. It’s just one part of a complete acne regimen. Unlike benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid doesn’t have the ability to kill the bacteria that causes acne. This is why the world’s #1 acne treatment brand, Proactiv, leverages both ingredients.
  6. It works best when used continuously. Like so many skin care treatments, it’s not a one-and-done situation; to help keep your pores clear after your blemishes have healed, it’s best to use salicylic acid on a continual basis.
  7. It’s smart to pair it with a hydrating product. Although it’s generally safe for use even on sensitive skin types, salicylic acid can have a mild drying effect on the skin. If your skin is visibly scaly after using salicylic acid treatments, follow up with an oil-free moisturizer.
  8. It can cause mild irritation. If you experience mild irritation as a result of salicylic acid, try decreasing the frequency with which you use it. (However, if irritation is severe, it’s best to discontinue use.)
  9. Pregnant women should consult with a physician before using it. Even though current data regarding potential risks associated with salicylic acid is inconclusive, you should definitely play it safe and consult with your physician before using it if you’re expecting.
  10. It’s part of what makes Proactiv the acne-fighting powerhouse that’s beloved by so many. It’s actually one of the key ingredients in the brand’s latest acne treatment system that’s been shown in a clinical study to work 4 times faster* than the leading prescription—Proactiv+. (The other is benzoyl peroxide.)

Click here to know more about what benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid do and when you should use one over the other, or in combination.

Click here to learn about repairing treatment.

*Study participants suffering from mild to moderate acne using the most commonly prescribed generic acne treatment gel (as of April, 2014) took 4 weeks to achieve approximately the same reduction in total lesion count as achieved by study participants after just 1 week’s use of PA+. After 12 weeks use, total lesion count reduction data between the same 2 groups showed that PA+ was still twice as fast.

Presented by Proactiv®