It is interesting to know that – in the over-the-counter battle against breakouts, there is a key player who tops the list. You would be surprised to know that salicylic acid is at the top of that list. Do you know that salicylic acid is one of acne’s biggest enemies?
As soon as you see a pimple invading your face, you reach out for a product. You slather it on your pimple, and you wake up in the morning with a pimple that has dried up and is much less noticeable.
The question is, what exactly does salicylic acid do? What are the best ways to reap its benefits? You would be surprised to know that salicylic acid works wonders on the skin, and that is why it is such a popular choice for stopping acne.
What is Salicylic Acid?
First, you need to understand what salicylic acid is. It is important to know the exact structure of salicylic acid. There are two classes of acids you often see when it comes to skin-care products. They are beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs).
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid. This means the hydroxy part of the molecule is separated from the acid part by two carbon atoms. On the other hand, an alpha hydroxy acid is separated by one carbon atom. You can better understand the concept if you are a chemistry student.
Salicylic acid is derived from the willow bark, and it belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates. The best part of this acid is that it is oil-soluble, so it can penetrate into the pores of your skin.
Meaning oil-soluble ingredients penetrate through the lipid layers between the skin cells more readily. In other words, oil-soluble ingredients can penetrate your skin at a deeper level than their water-soluble counterparts.
How Does Salicylic Acid Work on Acne?
Before explaining exactly how salicylic works, here is a quick breakdown of the whole process. When bacteria, sebum, debris and dead skin cells mix together, a clog forms inside your pores.
The chemical exfoliants called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), which you use regularly, are water-soluble. Hence they are ideal for surface exfoliation. But salicylic oil is oil-soluble, which makes it capable of cutting through the oil and exfoliate deep within your pores to remove blockages.
When your pores or hair follicles blocked with dead skin cells and oil, whiteheads (closed plugged pores), blackheads (open plugged pores), or pimples (pustules) start to appear. When such is the case, acid penetrates into your skin and dissolves the dead skin cells clogged in your pores.
It can take many weeks of use to see its full effect. You should check with your dermatologist if you do not see results after 5 to 6 weeks.
In simple terms, the acid works by increasing the moisture content in your skin. In addition, the acid dissolves the substance that causes your skin cells to stick together.
This is a great advantage as it removes the substance that makes your skin oily. The effect of salicylic acid makes your skin easier to shed skin cells. So hope now you understand why the ingredient is a longtime favorite for those with oily, acne-prone skin?
You might also be familiar with salicylic acid as an acne treatment. This is the prime ingredient of many other skin products like cleansers, serums, toners, and peels, which can all be beneficial to your skin in some way or the other. Hence salicylic acid is used to address several skin disorders.
Benefits of Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid is known for its unique properties. It is widely used to treat a range of skin conditions other than acne-like skin warts and dandruff. Described below is a breakdown of exactly how salicylic acid works to benefit your skin.
1 Exfoliates dead skin: Salicylic acid is said to be keratolytic. Therefore, it encourages cellular turnover and helps to slough off the dead skin cells. As a result, the skin dullness and texture of your skin improves drastically.
2 Softens the contents of clogged pores: The oil-soluble ingredient present in the acid is able to penetrate your pores. This helps to loosen the ‘glue’ that blocks the pores. This glue-like substance causes your skin cells to stick together. The acid removes the contents of your clogged pores that are responsible for superficial acne, such as blackheads, whiteheads and small red pimples.
3 Prevents whiteheads and blackheads: Salicylic acid successfully treats your existing breakouts. The acid also targets whiteheads and blackheads directly, preventing them from returning to the surface of your skin.
4 Removes excess oil: As you might have learnt by now, salicylic acid is oil-soluble. It can penetrate beneath your skin’s surface to clean out any excess sebum from the pores. This is also said to improve the appearance of the pores.
5 Reduces inflammation: Do you know that salicylic acid belongs to the same class of drugs as aspirin, known as salicylates. Because of the acid’s anti-inflammatory properties, it is helpful in addressing irritation and redness that occurs due to breakouts.
Over-the-Counter Salicylic Acid
You can easily get salicylic acid products in any of the over-the-counters for your acne treatment. These products could range from cleansers to toners, creams and medicated pads. Over-the-counter salicylic acid products vary in strength ranging from 0.5% to 2%.
OTC salicylic acid products are very good and work best for mild pimples and comedonal acne. But you should not use them for severe types of acne. It will not have any on such acne, so those with severe acne need a prescription treatment.
Irrespective of the type of acid product you use, make sure you are applying it over your entire face or the affected body part. If you only dab it on the pimples, you can see it will not help much.
You need to apply it over the entire affected area. Then the medication will prevent your pores from getting blocked and help clear microcomedones, which are tiny blemishes – too small to see otherwise.
Professional Salicylic Acid Treatments
Do you know that salicylic acid is also used as a chemical peel agent? Its peels are stronger than OTC products, as their strengths range from 20% to 30%.
These superficial chemical peels are helpful as they exfoliate more deeply than over-the-counter salicylic acid products. So they can help treat your moderate acne and, in a few cases, even severe acne. These products are typically safe for all skin types. They are also safe for medium to dark complexions because the acid peels will not cause hyperpigmentation.
You need to take note that you cannot do these types of peels yourself at home. You can only get them at your dermatologist’s office, day spas and medical spas. In order to get the best results, you will need more than one peel.
Moreover, these acid peels generally are not used as the sole acne treatment. They are most often used along with other acne medication. Your dermatologist is the right person to help decide if these peels are the best course of treatment for your kind of acne.
Side Effects of Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid is best for you if you have oily skin and superficial acne. On the other hand, if you have eczema-prone, dry or sensitive skin, this drying ingredient could be too harsh for your skin. It could lead to irritation on your skin surface.
Some of the most common side effects of salicylic acid include burning, dry skin and overall irritated skin in the areas of application. But what is important to know is that these side effects are more common at the beginning of the treatment.
Hopefully, these side effects become less as the treatment continues. In case your condition gets worse, you should definitely contact your dermatologist and discuss with him – how your skin is reacting.
Additionally, salicylic acid can make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. Because of this there are chances you might get sunburns easily. Anyway, you should always try to protect your skin from the sun.
It becomes all the more important when you are using this acid. Just try to limit your sun exposure as much as possible. In addition, keep using and applying sunscreen more often.
How to Use It
The concentration of a salicylic acid that is recommended in every product varies from person to person. Your dermatologist is the right person to suggest the amount to use. At the same time, you need to check with him – how often you use the acid treatment.
In general, you can use the acid in moderation until you know your skin is able to tolerate it. Start by applying it for a few days, and check how your skin reacts after each application.
The basis is – listen to your skin. If it starts getting irritated, you will have to take a day or two off. And during the time, be more vigilant with moisturizing.
Your doctor is the right person to confirm the amount to use. You should follow the direction of your doctor. You only need to apply just enough acid to cover the affected area. Then rub it onto the skin very gently.
Salicylic acid is a common ingredient and it is found in many of the skin products. And it is easily accessible and found at most drugstores.
A lot of variables or factors are at play when it comes to using the acid for acne-fighting. Basically, the use of the ingredient depends on one’s skin type, the underlying condition, and how severe your acne is.
This acid is a reliable option if you want to treat superficial acne. But you need prescription medications if you want to target cystic acne. So the best approach is to have a derm evaluate your skin and then decide which treatment would be most effective.
Just note that incorporating acid is not a ‘one size fits all’ situation. The best option is to work with your dermatologist to optimize your regimen.
Salicylic acid acne products available over-the-counter work best if you have rough, bumpy skin, minor blackheads, or mild pimples. OTC acid does not have much effect on more serious, inflamed acne breakouts.
Professional salicylic acid peels might be a good add-on treatment. But interestingly, they are not used as the sole treatment for acne. Your dermatologist will suggest if using salicylic acid is the right acne treatment for your skin.