The Complete Guide To Using Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is my favorite ingredient in skincare products and one ingredient I know I can never go wrong with, no matter the size of my pimple or the severity of my breakouts.

Besides this, salicylic acid has a longstanding history of scientific data to back its effectiveness, especially when it comes to problematic, acne-prone skins, and various skin irritations.

So, today, I will be giving you the complete guide to using salicylic acid and how to make the most out of this godsent ingredient. Let’s jump right in.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

BHA COSRX vs Paula’s Choice

NB: While you’re here, be sure to download my guide showing you the 4 things everyone needs in their skincare routine.

Salicylic acid is also referred to as beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and it is a naturally occurring substance or hormone produced by plants as a defense mechanism against environmental and pathogenic stress.

It is synthesized from willow bark trees which is the same place aspirin comes from.

What Does Salicylic Acid Do To The Skin?

Salicylic acid can make a world of difference to the skin and this wonderful ingredient is mostly used in products intended for oily and problematic skin types because it has the ability to:

  • soothe inflammation on the skin
  • cut through the surface oil and deeply cleanse congested pores
  • clear acne-breakouts
  • dissolve blackheads
  • soothe deeply inflamed cysts

What Percentage Of Salicylic Acid Is Most Effective?

Many products intended for acne-prone skins may contain as much as 30% alpha-hydroxy acids which in skincare is considered the “high normal”, however, the same action is achieved by only 0.5% to 2% salicylic acid.

Therefore, you will never find an over-the-counter product that contains more than 2% salicylic acid.

Additionally, many people believe that salicylic acid requires an acidity level of 4 or lower to effectively exfoliate the skin. However, this is not true.

Several studies have shown that neutralized forms of salicylic acid are just as effective, meaning salicylic acid with a higher pH level can give you the same results without irritating the skin.

How To Start Using Salicylic Acid?

How To Start Using Salicylic Acid?

As with all chemical exfoliants, it is important to start introducing salicylic acid into your skincare routine slowly and always opt for a lightweight solution such as a toner or a serum for best results.

Active ingredients such as salicylic acid are most efficient when used in your skincare routine and you can start by incorporating salicylic acid up to three times a week.

Depending on the formula, initial tingling is pretty normal, especially if your skin is dehydrated or super sensitive, however, if this initial tingling becomes uncomfortable burning, this may mean that the product is too strong for you, therefore, you should wash it off and opt for something else instead.

Also, one very important thing to pay attention to is that you can have an allergic reaction to salicylic acid, therefore, if you happen to be allergic to aspirin, salicylic acid is definitely not for you.

Additionally, make sure to always follow up with a high SPF in the morning as salicylic acid can make your skin sensitive to the sun.

Is It Okay To Use Salicylic Acid Everyday?

Yes, you can use salicylic acid in mild concentrations and combined with other soothing ingredients everyday, however, your skin doesn’t need that much exfoliation.

The mature cells that sit tightly packed on the surface of your skin are a part of what’s called NMFs or natural moisturizing factors, therefore, they play an important role in helping your skin retain moisture.

Exfoliating daily, and thus constantly removing these mature cells may potentially damage your skin barrier and lead to irritation, sensitivity, and all sorts of skin problems.

Therefore, be mindful about exfoliation as this is a practice that happens regularly in a good skincare routine, but exfoliating daily is just excessive and your skin doesn’t need it.

Should You Moisturize After Salicylic Acid?

You should always moisturize after using salicylic acid as this particular ingredient can also balance out the sebum production, and therefore, make the skin feel a little dry.

Salicylic acid is most useful when it comes in the form of a toner, exfoliating solution, or serum, and should always be followed up with occlusive moisture to help create a nice and thick barrier to help the skin retain moisture.

Can You Combine Salicylic Acid With Other Actives?

That depends on what are you using and how often are you using it. For example, salicylic acid can be combined with azelaic acid for great exfoliating and soothing properties.

Azelaic acid, on the other hand, also works excellent to fade those pesky red marks called post-inflammatory erythema that are often left on the skin by acne breakouts.

What Should You Not Use Salicylic Acid With?

Salicylic acid can be a very temperamental ingredient on its own and you should not use it with active ingredients such as retinols or other alpha-hydroxy acids.

This can be very drying on the skin and may potentially lead to irritations and sensitivity.

Additionally, you can always alternate your actives on different days and safely incorporate them into your skincare routine, however, it is best to keep salicylic acid on its own and not mix it with other powerful ingredients.

Can Salicylic Acid Make Acne Worse?

Salicylic acid won’t make your acne worse, however, there might be that initial purging period where your pimples are going to come out at an accelerated rate than usual.

This means that the clogged pore that was going to become a pimple in a few weeks’ time will be pushed on the surface prior to its time due to the help of salicylic acid.

Don’t panic when this happens as this is almost always the case with an active ingredient. The only thing to do is to be consistent with your product and allow it to do what it’s meant to do.

5 Best Salicylic Acid Products

Here are the five best salicylic acid products I’ve tried and tested:

Paula’s Choice – BHA Liquid Exfoliant

How Long Does It Take For BHA To Work

This is the best exfoliating solution if you have oily/combo or even dry skin but you can still see those pesky little blackheads or occasional pimples every now and again.

It has a slightly thick and oily texture that will not dry out your skin, but since it’s also an exfoliator, it also won’t contribute to excess oil production that can potentially clog your pores and create more acne breakouts.

Read my detailed review of the BHA Liquid Exfoliant.

Paula’s Choice – Regular Strength 2% Salicylic Acid Exfoliator

Paula's Choice Regular Strength Salicylic Acid

This one is perfect for oily skin types that deal with moderate acne breakouts. It has a nice and light texture, isn’t heavy on the skin, and many people are tolerating it pretty well.

One thing I have to say about it is that it can sting a little for the first several uses, especially if your skin is also a little dehydrated, however, once your skin gets used to it, you will be good to go.

Paula’s Choice – Calm Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion

Paula's Choice - Calm Redness Relief 1% BHA Lotion

The 1% BHA lotion by Paula’s Choice is the perfect product for you if you are a beginner in chemical exfoliants, but also if your skin is dehydrated, sensitive, and irritated.

Besides containing 1% salicylic acid, this lotion is also packed with calming and soothing ingredients such as green tea extract, licorice extract, allantoin, and lauric acid.

It is excellent for oily and acne-prone skins that are super sensitive.

The Inkey List – Beta Hydroxy Acid

The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid

I have been impressed with this relatively new brand on the skincare market and I am genuinely loving each new product I try from The Inkey List.

Their beta hydroxy acid is a gentle, resurfacing treatment that is capable of penetrating deeper into the pores and clearing out the congestion from the inside.

It also contains some healing and soothing ingredients besides salicylic acid such as zinc, hyaluronic acid, betaine, and propanediol.

COSRX – BHA Blackhead Power Liquid

COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid Texture

The COSRX BHA Blackhead Power Liquid is one of the first Korean skincare products I’ve tried and although I’ve noticed some good results with this one, these are still not nearly as impressive as some of the products I’ve mentioned above.

I’m not saying that the product is bad because all the ingredients on its list are relatively good and non-irritating, but it simply didn’t do wonders for my skin, however, I’ve read so many good reviews and seen so many positive videos about this product, so it might be worth checking out.

I actually did a detailed comparison review between the COSRX BHA and the Paula’s Choice BHA Liquid Exfoliant, so check that out for more detailed information on my experience with it.

Final Thoughts

There you have the complete guide to using salicylic acid as well as some of the most commonly asked questions about this popular ingredient.

Do you use salicylic acid as part of your routine? Which salicylic acid product is your favorite? Let me know in the comments.

Guide To Using Salicylic Acid

2 thoughts on “The Complete Guide To Using Salicylic Acid”

  1. I’m about to get salicylic acid 2% solution.It is by The Ordinary…You mentioned that it should be added into the routine slowly and i didnt quite get that,should i mix with equal amounts of water when using it?

    • Hi Azeemah and thanks for reaching out!

      You don’t have to mix your salicylic acid with water, however, you can slowly introduce it into your skincare routine by starting to use it twice a week and no more than that until your skin gets used to it. I hope this helps! 🙂


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