Oh, hi, hello! I’m assuming you’ve stumbled upon this page because (a) you’d do anything to cure your acne, and (b) there’s an equally good chance you’ve f*cked with your face trying to do so in the past. Hey, I’m not here to judge. I hear ya — oh, boy do I hear ya. Because, surprise: I, too, am an acne hater! But do you know the acne hater of all haters? Any guesses? No? Well, my friends, allow me to introduce you to Salicylic Acid — the legendary active ingredient whose purpose revolves around destroying those pesky little pimples. And please say a warm hello, because, honey, an enemy of an enemy is a friend.
If you’re no stranger to the horrors of those facial bumps and lumps, you’ve probably heard of salicylic acid (i.e., serums, masks, creams, gels, toners), but today, we’re going to focus on one: the cleanser. However, I would be remiss not to mention that you shouldn’t start droppin’ your hard-earned pennies on any salicylic acid cleansers just yet. You’re going to need to know what it is, how it works, and most importantly, if it’s right for you. So without further ado, people ~over acne~ everywhere, let’s take a trip back to Chemistry 101. (With the help of a few pros, of course.)
What exactly is salicylic acid?!
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that comes from bark willow, a natural substance, making it a natural ingredient, explains Dr. Cheryl Burgess, MD, FAAD and Board Certified dermatologist at the Center for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery in Washington. It’s most commonly known “for helping clear pores of dirt, reducing acne-causing sebum production at the follicular level, and dissolving dead skin cells,” says Dr. Annie Chiu, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist and Founder of The Derm Institute in Manhattan Beach. Because it has anti-inflammatory properties, penetrates deep into the pores, and acts as a chemical exfoliant, it can greatly help reduce mild acne while working to prevent future breakouts, Chiu explains to Cosmo.
In dermatology or skincare, salicylic acid is most commonly used in a topical form. It is approved anywhere up to 2% by the FDA for over-the-counter sales and the mass market (AKA, you), making it readily available for purchase in many different forms. If you need a higher dosage for specific concerns, it can be prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist under their supervision and care.
The bottom line…
K. So basically, salicylic acid is a natural BHA that works to kick acne’s ass by penetrating deep into the skin, unclogging pores, and therefore renewing your skin. And you can purchase it at a concentration of up to 2% at basically any local drug or cosmetic store near you?! Yep, you’d be right, my friend.
What else does it do?!
So we know that salicylic acid is great to treat acne, but did I mention that it has a ton of other insane benefits, too?
They include, but are not limited to —
- Wart/callus removal
- Anti-aging treatments
- Scar treatments
- Dandruff treatments
- Skin disorder treatments (such as psoriasis and ichthyosis)
Pretty impressive, right?! If this leaves you curious to learn more, we break down literally everything you may still be wondering about salicylic acid and the science behind it here.
…back to the good stuff — what kind of salicylic acid cleanser is right for me, and how do I use it?
According to Dr. Chiu, the cleanser you choose should depend on your skin type, age, and primary skin concern. A salicylic acid cleanser comes in two formats: 1) with a soapy and lathery consistency, which is best for oily skin, and 2) with a soapless preparation, which is best for dryer skin, explains Dr. Burgess. Then, depending on your skin type, she continues, you usually can choose between 0.5%, 1%, or 2% salicylic acid concentration.
Although a lot of us may be used to throwing on, lathering up, and immediately rinsing a cleanser off, Dr. Burgess has a better recommendation to get the full effect of the salicylic acid cleanser. “You want to suds it up, put it on the skin, and let it sit on there for maybe a minute or two. By doing this extra step, the top layer of the skin is softened, and the active ingredient can penetrate just a little bit more. You’ll subsequently see more response versus just washing your face and then abruptly rinsing,” she says.
“You want to suds it up, put it on the skin, and let it sit on there for maybe a minute or two.” — Dr. Cheryl Burgess
When using a salicylic acid cleanser, it is important to let your skin be the guide, explains Dr. Loren Krueger, MD, Dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Emory University. “I would recommend starting the use of a salicylic acid cleanser either every other morning or each morning,” Krueger explains that using the cleanser too frequently at the beginning of your treatment can potentially lead to irritation. “If you are tolerating well at once daily yet have room for improvement in your skin, you can bounce it up to twice daily,” she says.
Warnings when using salicylic acid…
Unfortunately, as with everything in life, nothing can be perfect. Aaaaand that includes some of the side effects you may experience when using SA. “Everyone’s skin can react differently,” says Dr. Lucy Chen, Board Certified Dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, “common side effects include burning, peeling, dry, flaky skin, and inflammation, especially at the start of treatment. If any of these effects worsen or continue, make sure to consult your doctor. Sometimes, all you may need to change is the amount of the drug or how frequently you’re using it,” she says. If you are experiencing dryness, apply a gentle, fragrance-free face moisturizer after cleansing.
It is important to note that the higher the concentration of salicylic acid in the cleanser, the more drying it can be, so keep that in mind when choosing your cleanser. And before adding a salicylic acid cleanser to your routine, ensure the other products in your skincare regimen do not include retinol nor glycolic acid. Combing either of these with salicylic acid can cause redness and irritation.
And for the final, and probably most important, tip when it comes to using a salicylic acid cleanser: If you have questions or concerns before, while, or after using the product, the very best thing you can do is speak. with. a. doctor (!!) Each and every person’s skin is different, therefore one regimen cannot suit all.
The best salicylic acid cleansers…
OK, OK, OK, I get it — that was a tonnnn of info. So, before I lose you all to an information-overload-headache (sry), get excited, because here are the 15 best salicylic acid cleansers on the market RN — vetted by the pros.