Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

Helping People Achieve Clear Skin Since 2007

How You Can Clear Your Skin Using Salicylic Acid

By Dr. Jaggi Rao, MD, FRCPC, Double board-certified dermatologist

Salicylic acid is one of the most important treatments for acne on oily skin. The problems with most acne products that list salicylic acid as an ingredient are that they do not contain the right concentration of salicylic acid at the right pH.

Stick diagram of salicylic acid chemical structure.


  • Salicylic acid is an exfoliant ingredient that is chemically similar to aspirin. Like aspirin, salicylic acid can remove redness and inflammation as it opens pores.
  • Whether salicylic acid successfully exfoliates the skin depends on the concentration and pH of the product. Exfoliant products that are too alkaline will not work.
  • Anyone who uses salicylic acid must be sure to rinse it off according to product instructions. 👨👩 Some people should not use salicylic acid at all.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

If you have heard of salicylic acid, chances are that you know it as the primary ingredient in aspirin. The chemical gets its name from the Latin term for willow trees, salix, because it was first made from a complex carbohydrate found in willow bark . There are some companies that make acne care products claiming that they contain salicylic acid from willow bark, but the compound does not occur in the bark of the tree. The powdered bark has to be treated with oxidants and filtered to make the acid.

Salicylic acid is a very useful pain reliever. For a time, researchers even supposed it might be a vitamin, which they called “vitamin S.”

Taken inside the body, salicylic acid relieves pain and improves circulation. Applied to the skin, it breaks down fatty compounds such as the oily sebum that can clog pores.

This is the primary reason it is so often used in acne treatment. Studies show that in concentrations as low as 2%, salicylic acid can be used to support acne treatment, though it is not overly effective when used alone.

How Is Salicylic Acid Used to Treat Acne?

Applying a mild solution of salicylic acid directly to the skin yields many of the benefits of scrubbing, without the risk of rupturing pores or breaking tiny blood vessels. Salicylic acid treatment, however, has many benefits that simple scrubbing does not.

Gently removing dead skin does more than just open pores. Salicylic acid increases cell turnover. 🌱 This makes the skin grow faster, opening up pores. It increases collagen production, filling in indentations in the skin and making it less “floppy.” It removes discoloration from the skin, although it is often too strong for use on dark skin.

Salicylic acid is the only beta-hydroxy acid used in skin care. It accomplishes the same goals in skin care as alpha-hydroxy acids such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, but it is used in a much weaker concentration. Acne care products may contain as much as 30% alpha-hydroxy acids, but the same action is achieved by 0.5% to 2% salicylic acid.

Similar to benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is most effective only if applied continually even after the acne has cleared. In the absence of the exfoliating and cleansing effects of salicylic acid, the pores can clog again resulting in the return of acne.

Salicylic acid is also used in many acne treatments as a combination therapy at low concentrations. The exfoliating effect of the acid help to enhance the efficacy of other active ingredients. As salicylic acid is effective at low concentrations, it is significantly less irritating than other products.

Who Benefits Most from Salicylic Acid in Acne Treatment?

Like its chemical cousin aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), salicylic acid can stimulate circulation, in this case, it can stimulate circulation of oil out of pores. Also like aspirin, it can relieve inflammation and redness. As long as salicylic acid is used at the right concentration, it can produce better skin color than alpha-hydroxy acids. Salicylic acid is especially useful on oily skin.

Not everyone, however, benefits from skin treatment with salicylic acid. Dermatologists advise caution in the use of salicylic acid on three skin types on the Fitzpatrick scale:

  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type IV. 👧🏼👦🏽This is beige to brown skin, a Mediterranean or Latinx skin type. This skin type only gets mild sunburn and tans gradually.
  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type V. 👧🏾👦🏾This is dark brown skin that almost never gets sunburn and that tans easily.
  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type VI. 👧🏿👦🏿This is black skin that never burns and that tans very easily.

These skin types contain many cells that produce the pigment melanin. The skin uses this antioxidant pigment to limit inflammation. Since salicylic acid inflames the skin, albeit in a good way, and these skin types can make large amounts of melanin, the risk is that acne can (and often is) replaced by brown or black skin spots. Anything else that inflames the skin, whether intentional (for example, a lightening agent) or unintentional (for instance, an infection or acne itself), can also leave permanent darkening on the skin. If you have beige to black skin, you should only use salicylic acid under professional supervision.

Salicylic acid based treatments generally do a good job of getting rid of blackheads and large pimples. If you have large, red, oily zits, salicylic acid may help you to reduce them. 👦🏻👧🏻 It is also a good choice for dealing with scarring and hyperpigmentation once the pimple is gone, if you have relatively fair skin.

How to Use Salicylic Acid to Open Pores

If you have fair skin, especially if you have oily skin, then you may benefit a great deal from using salicylic acid to open pores. The first thing to know about choosing a salicylic acid product to treat your skin is that it has to be sufficiently acidic to break down fats and open pores. This means that the product has to have a pH of about 4 or lower (more about the importance of pH levels here). It has to be acidic enough that it is likely to sting. And while Salicylic acid does not kill acne-causing bacteria, it helps to unclog the pores that harbor these bacteria. Higher pH products won’t sting, but they won’t open pores, either.

The next thing to look for in a salicylic acid product is the right concentration. Too much salicylic acid can burn the skin. Too little salicylic acid won’t open pores.

Most products that work provide 1% to 3%  of this ingredient, possibly as little as 0.5%, but never more than 3% (unless treating warts).

Salicylic acid in a face wash won’t help your skin, because you rinse it off almost as soon as you put it on. Salicylic acid in powder form is not at the right pH to have any effect on the skin. Only salicylic acid in the form of a gel that stays on the skin will do any good, but it is essential not to leave the product on the skin any longer than directed, to remove it as directed, and not to use the product around the eyes.

Notes and Precautions Before Using Salicylic Acid Based Acne Treatments

Salicylic acid is generally a safe compound when applied at proper concentrations for the treatment of acne. However, one thing that you might notice with salicylic acid based acne products is the fact that sometimes, they may leave your skin a bit dry. So it should go without saying that you should avoid any harsh cleansers and astringents while using salicylic acid based products.

It is very important to make sure that you have a balanced acne regimen, especially if you are using salicylic acid-based products. Make sure that you are regularly moisturizing your skin and using soothing products while using a salicylic acid-based treatment. Also, make sure that you are not applying salicylic acid to extensive areas of your skin, stick to the areas that have pimples on them. If your skin is broken, swollen, red or infected, avoid using salicylic acid based products.

What Are Some Salicylic Acid Products That Work?

Ineffective salicylic acid products are easy to find, but it takes some effort to find products that work. Some good beta-hydroxy acid exfoliants are:

If you are on a budget, 👍🏼👍🏾 Neutrogena is your best choice among the drugstore brands at $8, and Paula’s Choice is your best choice among the cosmetic counter brands at $30.

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Sophi Reply

Aveda acne and razor bump topical gel is amazing! My skin has never been better !

May 23, 2014 at 5:00 am Reply
dev Reply

Sir ,i m suffering from acne problems since long time so plz help me to short out it.

October 9, 2014 at 11:19 am Reply
Siobhan Kennedy Reply

Hi there I am a 45 year old female who as an adult in my early twenties developed acne rosacea. I have been on one six-month course of Roaccutane and this pretty much cleared up the problem however I am still partial to the odd breakout. I had a product from La Prairie "Blemish Control" which contained 2.0% Salicylic Acid which I found very effective. Unfortunately this product is no longer available and I was wondering if you could recommend another similar product. Here is a link to the ingredients of this product. I would be most grateful if you could get back to me with any suggestions you may have. Many thanks and kind regards. Siobhan Kennedy.

January 28, 2015 at 3:03 pm Reply
Lisa Reply

The Neutrogena hydrating acne treatment was my go-to product until it was discontinued. Is there a similarly effective product in that price range?

August 21, 2015 at 12:31 am Reply
zhe Reply

Salicylic acid is effective for me. Salicylic is not that expensive. 10% solution will cost you in my country like less than 2$. It also removes callus. Also, it is very effective to take away dirt from the skin. I recommend this solution.

October 22, 2015 at 12:22 am Reply
Barb Reply

Your thoughts on Clearasil 2% salicylic acid pads (mfr site says PH 3-3.5) used daily after cleansing and before moisturizing

February 4, 2016 at 2:59 pm Reply
Beth Reply

So what should people with darker skin use? I am from SE Asia and have dark skin. You're saying salicylic acid will give me dark spots?

January 30, 2017 at 8:46 pm Reply
chris Reply

Mandelic acid is good for dark skin tones because it doesn't over peel the skin

July 30, 2017 at 11:16 am Reply
Anni Reply

Thank you.

September 11, 2017 at 1:14 am Reply
ZeldaZonk Reply

For Siobhan, the Paula's Choice Salicylic acid range is fantastic. There's a 1%, a 2%, a 4% and an 8 or 9% for spotting on to pimples. Zel.

February 3, 2017 at 11:20 pm Reply
DJ Reply

What can I use to extract blackheads from my cheeks and nose?

June 23, 2017 at 9:57 pm Reply
Stony Reply

Try making your own mixture and experiment until you are happy. This method works for me: Buy white willow bark capsules and open them. Mix contents of 2 capsules with 1 teaspoon of bentonite clay, 1 teaspoon diatomaceous earth and enough milk to make a paste. Use as a face mask for 15 minutes and wipe of with a warm cloth and warm water. Repeat daily.

July 2, 2017 at 7:02 pm Reply
Sunny Reply

hi am an adult in my twenties suffering from acne and I bought a salicylic acid ointment 20% do you think it's best for me. please I need your help

July 7, 2017 at 12:36 pm Reply
mary caryl yaun Reply

Hi! I am wondering. If you are allergic to aspirin are you also automatically be allergic to salicylic acid? If yes, then aside from salicylic acid, what can help me fix my acne?

August 2, 2017 at 8:21 pm Reply
Cecilia Reply

I love the Nuskin Night Recovery Treatment and also their Blemish Treatment. It can reduce the pimple without breaking so no scars once it is heeled

August 25, 2017 at 6:48 am Reply
Marisa Reply

I've read that the wash penetrates the pores within seconds, hence can be beneficial as a face wash. Additionally i've read that applying SA as a cream can be aggravating to skin, particularly sensitive skin. Idk maybe what i've read has been incorrect, can you comment? also, question- why do some people develop more pimples when using SA initially?

April 20, 2018 at 5:24 am Reply
allen adam Reply

should i use topical clindamycin in form of liquid after i appy my toner containing salicylic acid???

June 16, 2018 at 5:25 am Reply