Salicylic acid is one of the most effective over-the-counter treatments for breakouts. But I’m not telling you anything you probably haven’t already figured out yourself from putting it on overnight and waking up in the morning to a much less noticeable pimple.
What exactly does salicylic acid do? And, is it safe for everyone to use? Before I can answer those questions, let’s establish what salicylic acid is because the exact structure of salicylic acid is key to explaining why and how it works so well.
In skin-care products, there are basically two classes of acids: beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Salicylic acid is a BHA, meaning that the hydroxy part of the molecule is separated from the acid part by two carbon atoms. AHAs, from comparison, are separated by one.
The other important piece of background here is that salicylic acid is derived from willow bark, and it belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates. This structure makes salicylic acid more oil-soluble so it can penetrate the pores of the skin.
AHAs, on the other hand, are water-soluble. They work well on the skin’s surface to loosen old, dead skin and reveal fresh skin. But only BHAs can unclog pores because they can penetrate the skin at a deeper level.
What does salicylic acid do for my skin?
That quality is exactly what makes salicylic acid such a useful ingredient for battling acne, particularly blackheads and whiteheads. Once it penetrates the skin, it dissolves the debris that clogs pores, acts as an anti-inflammatory, and also helps inflamed pimples and pustules go away faster.
Is it safe for all skin types?
You know that old adage, “You can never have too much of a good thing”? Well, it doesn’t hold here because you can actually use too much salicylic acid, which can become a problem. Its main negative side effect is its ability to irritate and dry skin in those with very sensitive skin or those who overuse it.
So, depending on the concentration and the number of applications, some may experience dryness, peeling, and redness. If your skin’s already severely dry or sensitive, it’s probably best to avoid using salicylic acid. It’s also generally not recommended for pregnant women and anyone who’s taking certain medications, such as blood thinners.
Even if none of that applies to you, you should still try to be fairly selective in your use because applying salicylic acid, or any salicylate, to very large portions of your body at a time can lead to salicylate poisoning. So, stick to just the acne-prone areas.