If you want clear skin, make no mistake, you need salicylic acid. You’ve no doubt heard of this multi-tasking ingredient before—it’s in a myriad of products and for good reason. It’s one of the oldest and most effective ways to exfoliate skin, reduce inflammation and unclog pores. Which is why you can find it in so many products, from drugstore stand-bys to luxe, high-end brands. But, what does salicylic acid do for the skin, and what are the best ways to reap its benefits?
We consulted a few experts—from celebrity makeup artists to board-certified dermatologists to help break down exactly how salicylic acid works on the skin and how you can get the most from this powerhouse ingredient. Put simply, salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that has been used to treat skin conditions like acne, blackheads, dull texture and signs of aging for decades. Studies have proven that regular use is extremely effective at reducing pimples and unclogging pores. That’s because most acne is the result of blocked hair follicles that become plugged with oil and dead skin cells, explains dermatologist Dr. Melanie Palm. But, she says, salicylic acid is actually oil soluble—this means that it’s able to penetrate the surface of the skin, through the lipid layer and into the pores. That allows it to penetrate down the hair follicle where acne starts.
Another benefit is that it’s derived from willow bark, so it’s naturally anti-inflammatory, which can decrease redness, swelling and irritation. Unlike other exfoliants, salicylic acid will slough away the top layer of skin cells, while helping to regenerate new, smoother skin—all without leaving you with raw, angry skin. Since it penetrates pores and dissolves dead skin and other gunk while regulating oil production, it’s extremely effective against blackheads and whiteheads, as well as other skin conditions like rough texture from psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis, as well as dandruff. As for how to use it, we’ve rounded up the best products for any and all your needs, all of which have been tested by our team and go-to experts.