Salicylic acid: what is it and does it help clear up blemishes?

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Salicylic acid is the thing to use if you suffer from spots or blemishes. Here’s how it works and why it’s so good.  

Do you often experience from hormonal breakouts? Or do you have oily, blemish-prone skin? Maybe you’re somebody who’s prone to random spots that pop up out of nowhere with no clear cause?

Whatever the reason, the influx of those breakouts is never not annoying – and while the skincare world is pretty overcrowded to say the least, there is one ingredient that skin experts and dermatologists alike will always fall back on when it comes to the treatment of acne and blemishes: salicylic acid.

Sure, the thought of using an acid on your face might fill you with fear, but it really isn’t that scary. Used correctly, salicylic acid will actually work wonders when it comes to helping clear up spots and helping to prevent future breakouts.

Here’s everything you ever needed to know about it – plus the Stylist edit of the best products that are worthy of a place on your bathroom shelf.

Best salicylic acid products to treat blemishes

What is salicylic acid?

Known as the gold standard ingredient for helping to prevent blemishes, it’s a BHA (beta hydroxy acid) that’s naturally things like willow bark. “It’s oil-soluble and can penetrate the skin with ease,” explains Daniel Isaacs, director of research at Medik8. “It’s able to soften and dissolve keratin, a protein naturally found in the skin that can block pores by causing skin cells to stick together.”

What are the benefits of using salicylic acid for your skin?

Most beneficial for oily, acne-prone skin types, salicylic acid works its way deep inside pores and dissolves sebum. “It works by breaking down any impurities that block pores whilst also exfoliating surface layers,” says skin specialist Debbie Thomas.

Salicylic acid is also part of the aspirin family meaning it has additional benefits, including mild anti-inflammatory properties which means it’s able to help speed up the healing process of any angry, sore, red blemishes that often rear their heads unexpectedly, while also helping to reduce bacteria.

Votary's Blemish Rescue Oil harnesses the power of salicylic acid and tamanu oil

Is salicylic acid safe during pregnancy?

“We would always strongly advise speaking with your doctor or midwife so that they can give you an accurate recommendation,” says Isaacs.

“However, we would recommend to refrain from using leave-on, high-strength exfoliating acids. BHAs in particular are ones to watch out for, as oral salicylic acid is not safe during pregnancy and therefore doctors also recommend avoiding high strength use of topical skin products containing BHAs.”

When should you start using salicylic acid in your skincare routine and how often?

“This always depends on how your skin is and what product you are looking at,” explains Thomas. “Some products are developed for daily use, while others are recommended weekly so always follow the instructions. If you have skin that is prone to sensitivity and dryness, start out using the product once or twice a week and build up to full use.”

Can salicylic acid be used in combination with other ingredients?

Unlike some other actives, salicylic acid can be used in tandem with other ingredients. “It works perfectly in conjunction with other exfoliating AHAs (alpha hydroxy acids). Salycylic is a BHA which works to target different layers of the skin, therefore providing total exfoliation and refined texture,” explains Isaacs.

Be warned, though, as salicylic acid can be quite drying – but that can be helped by using it in combination with light hydrating ingredients. “Choose things like hyaluronic acid, or lipids e.g. ceramides that will help to protect the skin’s barrier function,” adds Thomas. 

Are there any side effects of using salicylic acid in skincare products?

As is the case with all exfoliating acids, balance is key. “It’s very easy to sensitise the skin depending on your choice of daily AHA or BHA, therefore it is important to know your skin type and if you have sensitive skin,” says Isaacs.

It’s also important to incorporate different acids one by one, initially using them a two or three times a week and slowly building up to more regular use depending on the product you’re using.

The drying effects that salicylic has can easily be mitigated, so don’t let that put you off incorporating it into your routine. Instead, just make sure you’re adding extra hydration steps into your routine. 

What forms does salicylic acid come in?

“Nowadays you can find it in all forms from cleansers and toners, to spot gels and acne creams,” says Thomas. “2% is the highest strength you will find for a home product though.”  

The best salicylic acid products to add to your skincare routine

  • Best targeted salicylic acid treatment: Votary Blemish Rescue Oil

    Votary Blemish Rescue Oil
    Votary Blemish Rescue Oil

    Best used as a targeted treatment, apply one drop of oil onto your fingertip and apply directly onto the affected area. This plant based oil is as gentle as it is effective.

    Shop Votary Blemish Rescue Oil at Cult Beauty, £35

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Lucy Partington

Freelance beauty editor Lucy Partington is obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she'll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.