Salicylic Acid Is The Secret Ingredient To Clear, Smooth Skin

Jacqueline Kilikita
·6-min read

When it comes to skincare, acids are everywhere, as skin experts and dermatologists encourage us to ditch the harsh physical scrubs and environmentally damaging microbeads for smart chemical exfoliators. In skincare products, exfoliating acids usually include alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs, such as glycolic and lactic acid) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs), the most well known being salicylic acid.

What is salicylic acid and how does it work in skincare?

"Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that is safe to use in all skin types," says Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. "It is anti-inflammatory," Dr Mahto adds, so it brings down raised, red spots. "It also breaks down the outer layer of skin, which makes it an ideal treatment for acne," she continues. "Even at low concentrations (for example 2%) it can help speed up resolution of acne and comedones," the latter of which are essentially small, flesh-coloured bumps under the skin.

How should you use salicylic acid for blackheads?

Salicylic acid is especially useful for treating blackheads, as it penetrates the pore a little deeper than other acids to dislodge the paste-like mixture of skin cells, oil and dirt, which eventually leads to clogging. "While AHAs work on the surface, BHAs like salicylic acid work from the inside out," says Tom Allison, skin expert and global vice president of CeraVe. "It's beneficial for blackheads because it really helps unclog pores. The acne lesion that we all see is a product of a few weeks or months of development of a skin infection, but salicylic acid de-clogs and gets it all out."

How do you use salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a lot gentler than alpha hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, so it can be used daily in leave-on toners (simply swipe on with a cotton pad), cleansers and serums. If your skin is sensitive, start by incorporating salicylic acid into your evening skincare routine two or three times a week. Always remember to apply a high factor SPF in the daytime, as all acids can make skin sensitive to sunlight.

Ahead, discover 11 brilliant salicylic acid skincare products, from toners and serums to cleansers.

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Perricone MD's Blemish Relief range is packed with spot-busting products but this gel cleanser comes out on top. It unplugs skin prone to blackheads, whiteheads and painful red spots while eradicating excess oil, all without making skin tingle or causing sensitivity. Massage onto wet skin (morning and evening) for up to one minute before rinsing away with warm water. <br><br><strong>Perricone MD</strong> Blemish Relief Cleanser, $, available at <a href="https://www.perriconemd.co.uk/collections/blemish-relief/products/blemish-relief-cleanser-1" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Perricone MD" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Perricone MD</a>
Perricone MD's Blemish Relief range is packed with spot-busting products but this gel cleanser comes out on top. It unplugs skin prone to blackheads, whiteheads and painful red spots while eradicating excess oil, all without making skin tingle or causing sensitivity. Massage onto wet skin (morning and evening) for up to one minute before rinsing away with warm water.

Perricone MD Blemish Relief Cleanser, $, available at Perricone MD
If we didn't know about salicylic acid's spot-shrinking properties, we'd say this treatment was magic. Dabbed onto red, raised or painful under-the-skin spots, it brings down inflammation fast to help skin heal. <br><br><strong>Medik8</strong> Blemish SOS, $, available at <a href="https://www.facethefuture.co.uk/shop/561-medik8-betagel-serum.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Face The Future" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Face The Future</a>
If we didn't know about salicylic acid's spot-shrinking properties, we'd say this treatment was magic. Dabbed onto red, raised or painful under-the-skin spots, it brings down inflammation fast to help skin heal.

Medik8 Blemish SOS, $, available at Face The Future
Used regularly as part of a nighttime routine, this leave-on toner takes skin prone to whiteheads, blackheads and bumps (big or small) and makes it clear and smooth thanks to 2% salicylic acid – something R29's beauty editor can attest to. Swipe on with a soaked cotton pad or if you want to be eco-friendly, with your hands, just as you would face cream. Follow with a lightweight moisturiser. <br><br><strong>Alpha-H</strong> Clear Skin Tonic, $, available at <a href="https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/alpha-h-clear-skin-tonic-.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Cult Beauty" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Cult Beauty</a>
Used regularly as part of a nighttime routine, this leave-on toner takes skin prone to whiteheads, blackheads and bumps (big or small) and makes it clear and smooth thanks to 2% salicylic acid – something R29's beauty editor can attest to. Swipe on with a soaked cotton pad or if you want to be eco-friendly, with your hands, just as you would face cream. Follow with a lightweight moisturiser.

Alpha-H Clear Skin Tonic, $, available at Cult Beauty
If your skin is very sensitive but prone to rough patches or spots, try this. "When you're using salicylic acid in a cleanser, it has a short dwell time," says CeraVe's Tom Allison. "While it'll only be on your skin for 30 seconds to one minute, it can still penetrate the pore and help to unclog." This removes all traces of oil and dirt, too, without making skin feel tight.<br><br><strong>CeraVe</strong> Smoothing Cleanser, $, available at <a href="https://www.feelunique.com/p/CeraVe-Smoothing-Cleanser-236ml" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:FeelUnique" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">FeelUnique</a>
If your skin is very sensitive but prone to rough patches or spots, try this. "When you're using salicylic acid in a cleanser, it has a short dwell time," says CeraVe's Tom Allison. "While it'll only be on your skin for 30 seconds to one minute, it can still penetrate the pore and help to unclog." This removes all traces of oil and dirt, too, without making skin feel tight.

CeraVe Smoothing Cleanser, $, available at FeelUnique
This salicylic acid serum has countless five-star reviews, and for good reason. It combines a dream team of 2% salicylic acid to unclog pores and resurface bumpy skin texture, and 1% zinc, known for mopping up excess oil on the skin. If your ultimate bugbear is a shiny T-zone come 3pm, it's one for you.<br><br><strong>Typology</strong> Local Blemishes Serum 2% Salicylic Acid + 1% Zinc, $, available at <a href="https://uk.typology.com/products/salicylic-acid-serum?variant=3665467003628" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Typology" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Typology</a>
This salicylic acid serum has countless five-star reviews, and for good reason. It combines a dream team of 2% salicylic acid to unclog pores and resurface bumpy skin texture, and 1% zinc, known for mopping up excess oil on the skin. If your ultimate bugbear is a shiny T-zone come 3pm, it's one for you.

Typology Local Blemishes Serum 2% Salicylic Acid + 1% Zinc, $, available at Typology
Salicylic acid is the star ingredient in this serum but it's joined by glycolic acid (which exfoliates the top later of skin, minimising <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/black-women-hyperpigmentation-experiences" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:hyperpigmentation" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">hyperpigmentation</a> and encouraging a healthy glow) and <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/niacinamide-skin-benefits-acne" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:niacinamide" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">niacinamide</a>, which hydrates skin and minimises the appearance of pores. A triple whammy. <br><br><strong>La Roche-Posay</strong> Effaclar Serum, $, available at <a href="https://www.laroche-posay.co.uk/effaclar-serum" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:La Roche-Posay" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">La Roche-Posay</a>
Salicylic acid is the star ingredient in this serum but it's joined by glycolic acid (which exfoliates the top later of skin, minimising hyperpigmentation and encouraging a healthy glow) and niacinamide, which hydrates skin and minimises the appearance of pores. A triple whammy.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Serum, $, available at La Roche-Posay
If your skin tends to be on the drier side, choose this leave-on salicylic acid toner. The 2% BHA is accompanied by butylene glycol, a conditioning agent which makes skin soft and smooth. Lots of dermatologists have recently championed this product for combating the effects of <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/treat-acne-wearing-face-mask" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:maskne" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">maskne</a>. <br><br><strong>Paula's Choice</strong> Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $, available at <a href="https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/paulas-choice-skin-perfecting-2-bha-liquid-exfoliant.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Cult Beauty" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Cult Beauty</a>
If your skin tends to be on the drier side, choose this leave-on salicylic acid toner. The 2% BHA is accompanied by butylene glycol, a conditioning agent which makes skin soft and smooth. Lots of dermatologists have recently championed this product for combating the effects of maskne.

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant, $, available at Cult Beauty
If your skin gets clogged easily, this featherlight, oil-free moisturiser is an excellent choice. Salicylic acid exfoliates deep inside the pore to break up the clogging mixture of dead skin and oil, while urea and <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/glycerin-skincare-benefits" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:glycerin" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">glycerin</a> leave skin feeling moisturised all day long. If you're using it in the daytime, be sure to follow with a <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/non-comedogenic-beauty-products" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:non-comedogenic" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">non-comedogenic</a> (non-pore-clogging) SPF.<br><br><strong>Murad</strong> Clarifying Oil-Free Water Gel, $, available at <a href="https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/murad-clarifying-oil-free-water-gel.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Cult Beauty" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Cult Beauty</a>
If your skin gets clogged easily, this featherlight, oil-free moisturiser is an excellent choice. Salicylic acid exfoliates deep inside the pore to break up the clogging mixture of dead skin and oil, while urea and glycerin leave skin feeling moisturised all day long. If you're using it in the daytime, be sure to follow with a non-comedogenic (non-pore-clogging) SPF.

Murad Clarifying Oil-Free Water Gel, $, available at Cult Beauty
This foaming cleanser is ultra gentle but lifts away all traces of dirt, dead skin and oil (that'll be the 10% clay) and exfoliates kindly (thanks to 0.5% salicylic acid) so that your skin doesn't feel taut afterwards. <br><br><strong>Vichy</strong> Normaderm Volcanic Mattifying Cleanser, $, available at <a href="https://www.feelunique.com/p/Vichy-Normaderm-Phytosolution-Intensive-Purifying-Cleansing-Gel-125ml-FR" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:LookFantastic" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">LookFantastic</a>
This foaming cleanser is ultra gentle but lifts away all traces of dirt, dead skin and oil (that'll be the 10% clay) and exfoliates kindly (thanks to 0.5% salicylic acid) so that your skin doesn't feel taut afterwards.

Vichy Normaderm Volcanic Mattifying Cleanser, $, available at LookFantastic
For treating the odd spot, it has to be this stuff. Two percent salicylic acid deflates hormonal breakouts in a matter of moments. <br><br><strong>Kate Somerville</strong> EradiKate Salicylic Acid Blemish Treatment, $, available at <a href="https://www.cultbeauty.co.uk/kate-somerville-eradikate-salicylic-acid-blemish-treatment.html" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Cult Beauty" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Cult Beauty</a>
For treating the odd spot, it has to be this stuff. Two percent salicylic acid deflates hormonal breakouts in a matter of moments.

Kate Somerville EradiKate Salicylic Acid Blemish Treatment, $, available at Cult Beauty
There's a reason why The Inkey List's Beta Hydroxy Acid often sells out. The toner-serum hybrid uses salicylic acid, betaine and zinc to target blackheads, whiteheads and bumps and absorbs quickly without leaving behind a sticky residue. <br><br><strong>The Inkey List</strong> Beta Hydroxy Acid Serum, $, available at <a href="https://www.boots.com/the-inkey-list-beta-hydroxy-acid-serum-30ml-10271185" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Boots" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">Boots</a>
There's a reason why The Inkey List's Beta Hydroxy Acid often sells out. The toner-serum hybrid uses salicylic acid, betaine and zinc to target blackheads, whiteheads and bumps and absorbs quickly without leaving behind a sticky residue.

The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid Serum, $, available at Boots

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