Excellent for acne, redness, and inflammation, salicylic acid has led many people’s acne healing journeys.
This remarkable acid is gentle and efficient and can be found in skincare products like cleansers, toners, and serums.
But did you know there are certain ingredients salicylic acid should never be mixed with?
Although salicylic acid is considered a mild chemical exfoliant, combining it with other actives can often lead to dryness, irritation, and worsening of the condition you want to get rid of.
Therefore, in this article, we’ll cover the ingredients that you should never mix salicylic acid with in order to avoid any skin problems.
What is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid with oil-soluble properties that works by cutting through the superficial skin oil and traveling deeper into the pores.
Once the molecules enter the pores, they continue to dissolve the accumulated cellular debris consisting of dead skin cells, oil, and white blood cells that cause a stiff clog.
This action will unclog the pores and allow our natural oil to flow freely instead of remaining stuck inside, causing issues such as closed comedones, open comedones, and inflamed acne.
Salicylic acid is an ingredient that gives results over time, which means you need to use it for at least a few weeks before you can expect to see changes in your skin.
Additionally, salicylic acid is an active ingredient likely to trigger some skin’s purge stage.
This means that when you begin using a product containing salicylic acid, you will experience an initial outbreak of acne due to clearing, or purging, the clogs that were going to become a pimple at some point in the future.
Salicylic acid speeds this up, and since all clogs will come to the surface simultaneously, instead of popping up as random pimples at different times, it can appear like a full breakout and look a little scary at first.
However, once the purge stage passes and the clogs are cleared, you will start to notice your skin clearing up and looking healthier.
Some benefits of using salicylic acid include:
8 Ingredients Salicylic Acid Not Be Mixed With
Due to its action of speeding up cellular turnover and removing dead skin cells, salicylic acid isn’t suitable to be used with several other active ingredients.
Here are some actives salicylic acid can’t be mixed with:
AHAs, or alpha-hydroxy acids, are different than salicylic acid in terms of action, but they also remove dead skin cells and increase cellular turnover.
Some popular AHAs frequently spotted in skincare products are glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acid, and they’re typically used to fade hyperpigmentation, even out uneven skin tone, and smooth out rough skin texture.
However, because they also work to remove dead skin cells from the skin’s surface, using them in combination with salicylic acid can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation.
Therefore, unless they are all found in one properly formulated product with lower concentrations of each, it’s best to use either only AHAs or only salicylic acid to address your concerns.
PHAs, or poly hydroxy acids, are similar to AHAs but have much bigger molecules that don’t penetrate the skin’s surface as deeply.
Therefore, they’re not as aggressive as AHAs, and they provide gentler exfoliation without causing as much irritation.
However, because they can still increase cellular turnover and remove dead skin cells, it’s best to use PHAs and salicylic acid separately to avoid the risk of over-exfoliation and barrier damage.
Enzyme exfoliants are becoming increasingly popular in skincare due to their gentle exfoliating action. These enzymes eat away the bonds between dead skin cells, allowing them to be shed from the skin’s surface.
However, due to their exfoliating action, it’s best to avoid combining them with salicylic acid as this can lead to over-exfoliation and irritation.
Retinoids are vitamin A derivatives found in over-the-counter or prescription-strength skincare products that increase cellular turnover and reduce the appearance of wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and acne.
However, when combined with an exfoliating agent, like salicylic acid, retinoids will cause new skin cells to travel to the skin’s surface at a rapid rate, while salicylic acid will keep removing them, leading to a vicious cycle of over-exfoliation and irritation.
This is because young, immature skin cells don’t hold as much moisture and are more delicate and prone to damage, so when using a retinoid to renew the skin, it’s important to use other non-exfoliating products and allow the skin cell cycle to normalize.
Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that protects the skin from free radicals while also fading hyperpigmentation and brightening up the complexion.
However, using vitamin C and salicylic acid in the same skincare routine doesn’t make sense.
Hyperpigmentation and uneven skin tone are concerns resulting from some sort of inflammation, be it environmental damage or bacterial conditions like acne.
So, in order to treat hyperpigmentation that comes after inflammation, it’s essential first to get rid of the inflammation.
Therefore, if you’re using salicylic acid to get rid of active acne, vitamin C should come much later, after the acne has healed and the inflammation is gone, leaving hyperpigmentation on the skin.
And while vitamin C and salicylic acid can be used in separate routines, for example, salicylic acid in the evening and vitamin C in the morning, using them together will likely lead to skin irritation due to the potency and the low pH of both ingredients.
Sulfur is a mineral that, when used topically, can reduce oiliness and unclog pores.
It’s considered one of the most effective acne treatments, as it reduces both the bacteria that cause acne and the inflammation that comes with it.
However, because sulfur can be drying to the skin, adding salicylic acid to the mix can be too aggressive and lead to excessive dryness and irritation.
Again, when using an active ingredient that reduces oil, it’s essential to give the skin cells a chance to recover and be able to hold on to moisture.
And while sulfur and salicylic acid can be used on different days, using them in the same routine would be overkill.
Similarly to vitamin C, tranexamic acid is a melanin-inhibiting ingredient used to treat hyperpigmentation, which results from inflammation.
Therefore, using tranexamic acid and salicylic acid together can be too aggressive, as the inflammation needs to go down entirely before addressing the hyperpigmentation.
In this case, it’s best to use salicylic acid to reduce active acne and inflammation before introducing tranexamic acid on alternate days.
Hydroquinone is a prescription-strength treatment for melasma, freckles, age and sun spots, uneven skin tone, and aggressive hyperpigmentation left from acne.
However, since hydroquinone works to reduce melanin production, it also makes the skin more sensitive. Therefore, combining it with an exfoliating ingredient like salicylic acid can be too aggressive and lead to skin irritation, and even visible skin damage, like bleaching.
For this reason, it’s best to keep hydroquinone separately from salicylic acid, and since both are best to be used in the evening, try to leave at least a day’s break between them.
My name is Simone and I am a certified skin specialist. I created this website to teach my readers how to take great care of their skin and I also like to occasionally share my honest opinions on skincare products I’ve tried. You can learn more about me here.
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