Beta hydroxyacid in skin care
Salicylic acid has a low pH, meaning it is a potent acid that causes stinging on the skin when used in high concentrations.
SA is usually found in products with a small number of active ingredients, this preserves the pH of the acid.
To find out if this BHA is right for your skin care, take our quiz and shop by your Baumann Skin Type!
What is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is a simple phenol. It is the only beta hydroxy acid used in skin care, known for anti-inflammatory, exfoliating, and antimicrobial properties. (2)
It is a close chemical relative to aspirin, (acetylsalicylic acid), meaning it poses an allergic risk to those with pre-existing allergies to aspirin, and it blocks inflammation the same way aspirin does.
There are organic forms of salicylic acid because the main sources of SA are plants like willow trees, wintergreen and birch trees, and even flowers. (1,3)
SA has potent acidic properties, so it is used in treatments like chemical peels to exfoliate and cleanse the skin.
How does BHA work?
Salicylic acid is lipophilic, meaning it is able to move through and interact with fats such as the oil on oily skin. (4)
Strong acids like SA are able to break apart the bonds between dead skin cells and living cells, exfoliating the face.
Acids like these also eliminate acne causing and other bacteria on the skin, preventing and treating acne.
When dead skin cells are exfoliated either by a peel or through natural desquamation, the skin responds by creating new cells.
In response to exfoliation, the skin also produces collagen; this makes SA a good ingredient in anti-aging regimens.
The functions of SA are broad in skin care because it is fat soluble and a good exfoliator.
Because salicylic acid can strip sebum from the skin, it can cause dryness in some skin types. It is most effective on oily skin types.
Salicylic acid is a simple ingredient with many benefits that come from its potent acidity and fat solubility.
SA and other hydroxy acids are considered the most effective ingredients at unclogging pores.
This ingredient is also great at eliminating acne-causing bacteria, promoting collagen synthesis, and treating various kinds of hyperpigmentation.
Through exfoliation, SA nurtures collagen production in the skin, meaning it is a good additive in anti-aging creams or other products.
Its ability to eliminate clogged pores from the inside is called a "comedolytic property."
Another benefit associated with SA is that it does not need to be neutralized for skin care like glycolic acid does.
As a potent acid, notable stinging/burning is expected on applied areas, but this sensation usually resolves within a few minutes.
It is not considered toxic in concentrations currently approved for chemical peels (5), but studies have identified children and senior citizen patients with patterns of dry skin and salicylism after treatments. (6)
Salicylism is a rare potential side-effect associated with overuse of SA; the symptoms can include nausea and diarrhea. (6) This is much more common with oral salicylates.
If you are allergic to aspirin, you should avoid all forms of SA.
Some concerns and risks do exist. Overuse of BHA and other exfoliators can result in:
- Over-thinning of the stratum corneum (the outermost layer of your skin)
- Increase sun sensitivity due to a thinner stratum corneum
- Purging of the skin
- Acne due to a disruption of the normal keratinization process
- Inability to tolerate retinoids
- Stinging skin
- Other skin reactions such as small sandpaper-like bumps
Salicylic acid works best under specific pH conditions, so pairing it alongside ingredients or products with wildly different pH's can result in you SA product losing effect.
Is it safe?
Salicylic acid is supported by a dearth of research and is considered safe when used properly.
The Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR) opined in their report of salicylic acid that it is safe for use in skin care products. (7)
Because salicylates like SA are absorbed through the skin, some residual traces can be found after applications within the body. This is why it is not recommended during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
Otherwise, it is not considered phototoxic or a photosensitizer. (7)
If you have oily skin and need a chemical peel, salicylic acid is a safe option. If you have dry skin, consider glycolic acid or other alpha hydroxy acids instead.
How long does it take salicylic acid to work?
Skin care products take time to work, but salicylic acid is one of the fastest skin care ingredients. It immediately lowers the skin pH helping unclog pores. It takes a few weeks for it to help reduce redness.
Salicylic acid is considered very versatile, specifically for its benefits in acne care and anti-inflammatory properties.
Because it has a low pH, it is great for chemical peel formulations on oily skin.
Acne and acne scars
Salicylic acid is considered one of the best ingredients for unclogging pores in oily, acne prone skin.
SA is able to enter the oils of clogged pores and basically break up the oil, release the built up of dead skin cells and temporarily shrink pores.
While it penetrates through oil, it also exfoliates the skin, removing the outer layers of the skin to assist in natural desquamation.
The low pH that causes exfoliation also lowers the general pH environment of your skin, which makes the skin less attractice to acne-causing bacteria.
The anti-inflammatory and exfoliating properties of this ingredient help prevent the formation of comedones and pimples in the first place. If skin does not get inflamed, it is less likely to develop clogged pores and pimples. (8)
If you have oily skin and acne concerns, consider salicylic acid cleansers for your custom skin care regimen.
Salicylic acid works to treat hyperpigmentation in a very similar way to alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid: it exfoliates dark spots on the surface of the skin.
Removing dark spots from the skin is a good way to treat hyperpigmentation, however it does not prevent future discoloration.
Other ingredients that actually inhibit melanin production are needed to actually stop the production of future dark spots.
It is important to note that even though SA is used to treat hyperpigmentation conditions like PIH or melasma, overuse of it can result in further inflammation and actually worse PIH.
For dry skin types
Dry skin types can still get acne and often need chemical peels, but they should look for alpha hydroxy acids, not beta hydroxy acids.
Alpha hydroxy acids like glycolic acid are humectants that keep the skin hydrated. Salicylic acid does not have humectant properties since it is soluble in fats instead of water.
If you have extremely dry skin, especially if you currently use retinoids or benzoyl peroxide products, your skin likely will not tolerate salicylic acid products unless you are a resistant skin type.
For wrinkles and aging skin
Salicylic acid is a good ingredient for many kinds of anti-aging regimens. (9,10,11)
Salicylic acid's exfoliating properties stimulate a response from the skin to produce new healthy skin cells and accompanying skin structures like collagen.
Collagen is gives skin its elasticity, plushness, and resilience. Any ingredient that stimulates collagen production can be a good anti-aging ingredient.
By aiding in the production of more collagen, SA causes wrinkles to become less deep over time.
As a versatile, abundant, and effective ingredient, salicylic acid can be found in many product types such as:
To find the right salicylic products for you, shop take our quiz and shop by your Baumann Skin Type!
Cleansers and exfoliators
Products with SA in them aid the body's natural desquamation process by dissolving the connective membranes between dead and living skin cells. (12,13,14)
Exfoliating with SA makes the skin feel smooth and look glowing and radiant. This is sometimes called glass skin.
SA and other hydroxy acids are considered the single most effective group of pore de-clogging chemicals in skin care.
That being said, as a lipophilic compound, SA is best used on oily acne prone skin, and avoided by dry skin types.
Acids as strong as SA change the pH environment of the face, eliminating acne causing bacteria and other residue on the face.
If you are looking to pair a salicylic acid product with another cleanser, make sure it is a low pH cleanser that will not disrupt the balance of the SA.
If you are somebody in need of gentle skin care solutions, there are products that contain low concentrations of SA which are less irritating on the skin, but also less effective.
Products designed to have high concentrations of active ingredients, like serums, can sometimes contain salicylic acid.
SA is often found in serums alongside ingredients like vitamin C which help deliver SA into the skin and contributes many of its own benefits.
How to use salicylic acid
There are many kinds of salicylic acid products and each of them can have varying levels of the acid present. For those reasons, it is important to consider the specific SA product you would like to use when asking this question.
How often to use salicylic acid in your skin care routine depends upon may factors:
Product type (cleanser, toner, serum, cream, peel or mask)
The % and pH of the BHA
The other products in your regimen
If you are on a retinoid
Overuse of salicylic acid can result in hypersensitive, irritated skin, dryness, and scaling.
A low concentration SA product could likely safely be used every day, while a high concentration product certainly should not be used daily.
Everyone's experience with salicylic acid is going to vary drastically based on their Baumann Skin Type , environment, and personal habits.
If you have oily, acne prone skin and need an ingredient for your cleansers and exfoliators, salicylic acid might be right for you!
Make sure to take our skin type quiz before shopping for SA products; just because an ingredient is great doesn't mean its great for everybody!
If you see your skin type octagon on a product page, that means it can fit into your custom skin care regimen.
Here are some of our favorite products containing salicylic acid:
Here are some of the best references on salicylic acid (beta hydroxy acid) in skin care:
- Weirich EG, Longauer JK, Kirkwood AH. Dermatopharmacology of salicylic acid. III. Topical contra-inflammatory effect of salicylic acid and other drugs in animal experiments. Dermatologica. 152:87, 1976.
- Mills S, Bone K. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy: Modern Herbal Medicine. London, Churchill Livingstone, 2000, pp. 23-25, 61.
- Duthie GG, Wood AD. Natural saliyclates: foods, functions and disease prevention. Food Funct. 2:515, 2011.
Davies M, Marks R. Studies on the effect of salicylic acid on normal skin. Br J Dermatol. 1976;95:187.
Rubin MG. What are skin peels? In: Manual of Chemical Peels: Superficial and Medium Depth. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1995:19-20.
Brubacher JR, Hoffman RS. Salicylism from topical salicylates: review of the literature. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 1996;34:431.
Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel. Safety assessment of Salicylic Acid, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Calcium Salicylate, C12-15 Alkyl Salicylate, Capryloyl Salicylic Acid, Hexyldodecyl Salicylate, Isocetyl Salicylate, Isodecyl Salicylate, Magnesium Salicylate, MEA-Salicylate, Ethylhexyl Salicylate, Potassium Salicylate, Methyl Salicylate, Myristyl Salicylate, Sodium Salicylate, TEA-Salicylate, and Tridecyl Salicylate. Int J Toxicol. 22 Suppl 3:1, 2003.
Stringer T, Nagler A, Orlow SJ, Oza VS. Clinical evidence for washing and cleansers in acne vulgaris: a systematic review. J Dermatolog Treat. 2018;29(7):688-693.
Imhof L, Leuthard D. Topical Over-the-Counter Antiaging Agents: An Update and Systematic Review. Dermatology. 2020 Sep 3:1-13.
Ditre CM, Griffin TD, Murphy GF, Sueki H, Telegan B, Johnson WC, et al. Effects of alpha-hydroxy acids on photoaged skin: a pilot clinical, histologic, and ultrastructural study. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1996;34(2 Pt 1):187-95.
Baumann L, Saghari S. Chemical Peels, in Cosmetic Dermatology: Principles and Practice, 2nd edition. L Baumann, S Saghari, E Weisberg, eds. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009, pp. 148–162.
Berardesca E, Distante F, Vignoli GP, Oresajo C, Green B. Alpha hydroxyacids modulate stratum corneum barrier function. Br J Dermatol. 1997;137(6):934-938.
Van Scott EJ, Yu RJ. Control of keratinization with alpha-hydroxy acids and related compounds. I. Topical treatment of ichthyotic disorders. Arch Dermatol. 1974;110(4):586-90.
Van Scott EJ, Yu RJ. Hyperkeratinization, corneocyte cohesion, and alpha hydroxy acids. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1984;11(5 Pt 1):867-79.