Salicylic Acid for Acne: Is it Really the Best Treatment for Pimples?

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If you’ve been dealing with acne for a while now, then chances are that you’ve heard of salicylic acid. It’s a go-to acne-fighting ingredient for a number of reasons, which is why you’ll find it in the majority of acne products out there. That said, is salicylic acid really the best acne treatment for you, or could there be something even better out there? Let’s find out…


What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that naturally occurs in willow bark and other plants.

Unlike water-soluble alpha-hydroxy acids (such as glycolic or lactic acids), beta hydroxy acids are oil-soluble. This means that they can easily penetrate the skin and its numerous lipid layers, allowing them to reach even those deeper skin cells.

How Does Salicylic Acid Help Treat Acne?

Salicylic acid has the ability to treat acne in a few different ways, which is why just about every dermatologist would recommend it as an effective acne treatment.

Breaks Down Dead Skin Cells

Whether you’re dealing with mild acne or severe acne, just about all pimples are caused by clogged pores. The biggest contributors to these blockages are sebum and dead skin cells, both of which salicylic acid helps to clear.

Once the ingredient has entered into your pores, it breaks down the glue-like substance that keeps dead skin cells attached to the skin. This exfoliating effect is similar to what an alpha-hydroxy acid would offer, with the difference being that salicylic acid is able to get even deeper, making it more effective at clearing out those pores.

Dry Brushing body treatment

Reduces Sebum Production

As mentioned, excess sebum is another factor that causes spots. Topical salicylic acid works to counter this by inhibiting sebum production in the skin [1]. The less oil you have on your skin, the better you’ll be able to prevent clogged pores, and therefore avoid future breakouts.

Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Many don’t realize that salicylic acid is also great for calming inflammation in the skin. Again, this is another precursor to pimples, which occur when those clogged pores become inflamed. Regularly incorporating salicylic acid treatments into your skin care routine will help to keep inflammation, and therefore spots, at bay.

Using Salicylic Acid

There are a few different ways in which you can incorporate the ingredient into your skin care routine. The easiest is with over-the-counter (OTC) products. However, if your acne is quite severe, you may want to visit your doctor or dermatologist for prescription formulas and professional treatments.

Over-the-Counter Salicylic Acid Products

OTC salicylic acid products are available in many forms, from soap products and cleansing gel solutions to serums and creams. You’ll find these products containing the ingredient in a variety of concentrations, from 0.5% to 2%. Although they may not be as powerful as a professional acne treatment, they’re more than suitable for mild cases.

One thing to keep in mind is that these OTC skin care products shouldn’t be used solely as a spot treatment. Apply them all over your face to keep your pores clear and to prevent pimples from forming anywhere else. Ideally, use them twice a day to stay ahead of your skin.

Professional Acne Treatments

Professional Esthetician Apply Face Mask to the client's face in spa beauty center. Young woman getting facial care by beautician at spa salon Acne Treatment

If your spots are severe, then a visit to your doctor or dermatologist for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment would be a good idea. Not only will they be able to offer you topical prescription acne treatments containing a high concentration of the ingredient, but your doctor may also recommend a salicylic acid chemical peel. These can contain a concentration of up to 50%, making them extremely powerful.

Although safe and effective for all skin types, these peels can’t be carried out at home. You’ll also need several sessions to really make a difference to your skin, and you’ll likely need to combine them with another acne treatment too.

Is Salicylic Acid Right For You?

Salicylic acid works best on blackheads and whiteheads. So, if these are what make up the majority of your pimples, then yes, it would be a great ingredient to try.

If you’ve got deep cystic pimples, then salicylic acid may not be quite as effective. It will likely still help to an extent, but you’ll need to combine it with other treatments too.

Does Salicylic Acid Have Any Side Effects?

Most people can use salicylic acid without experiencing any irritation. However, due to the way in which it dries out the skin, side effects include peeling, itchiness, redness, and a small amount of skin irritation. It may cause more serious side effects too if you’re combining it with other powerful anti-acne ingredients. However, compared to the other ingredients commonly used to treat pimples, salicylic acid is on the gentle end of the scale.

To keep side effects to a minimum, introduce the ingredient gradually into your skincare routine. Start by using it just once every couple of days, and then slowly increasing usage until you’ve reached the recommended guidelines for that product.

Who Should Avoid Using Salicylic Acid?

If you’re pregnant or are taking medications for health conditions, then you may want to avoid using salicylic acid. Speak to your doctor or dermatologist for more advice.


The face of a young girl with yellow cosmetic mask on it

Is salicylic acid bad for hormonal acne?

Not at all! Salicylic acid is great for blemishes caused by hormones, although you may need to combine it with other topical treatments too.

What is better, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid?

They both work well in their own way. Salicylic acid keeps the skin clear of dead skin cells, while benzoyl peroxide destroys acne-causing bacteria. Using the two together is often beneficial.

Is salicylic acid bad for your health?

No, salicylic acid is a natural ingredient that’s considered to be safe to use. It won’t be detrimental to the health of your skin or body.


Acne is one of the most frustrating skin conditions to deal with. Just when you think that you’ve finally banished your breakouts, a new pimple threatens to erupt. Fortunately, salicylic acid offers a way out. Use it on its own to treat milder cases, or combine it with other ingredients for severe pimples. Whichever you choose, this is definitely a must-have ingredient in every anti-acne toolkit!



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About Alina Jumabhoy

With almost 10 years of experience writing for the skincare industry, Alina brings her unique perspective into all of the in-depth reviews and articles she writes.