Typically used to treat and prevent oily skin, breakouts, blackheads and mild acne, salicylic acid is a common skincare ingredient found in both in-salon treatments and at-home products.
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA – meaning it is only one carbon atom less than the more populous alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid. Like both of those acids, salicylic also has a natural origin, being a derivative of willow bark.
This acid mixes with the lipids and sebum on the skin’s surface, disrupting cellular junctions. Such action helps slough off dead skin cells and remove the contents of clogged pores – decreasing the appearance of pore size and improving skin health.
In addition, it has a keratolytic effect, softening and loosening the bonds that hold keratinocytes in place; a comedolytic effect by dissolving follicular impactions; and an anti-inflammatory action.
In the salon or clinic, salicylic acid can be used in a number of different treatment stages. Rebecca Jones, trainer and ambassador for Noon Aesthetics, explains, “Salicylic acid works to de-oil the skin and remove surface build up, so it is a great prep choice before extractions, lymphatic massage and oxygen infusion.”
It’s also a great ingredient to use alongside LED light therapy treatments “due to the combination working effectively at combating breakouts”, according to maskology+ national trainer Deborah Carrington.
Salicylic acid can also be incorporated into a facial or chemical peel treatment in clinic, and is often implemented as a peeling agent within a chemical peel treatment.
Outside of the salon, it can be used by clients at home in concentrations of 2% or less. The ingredient is widely available in products such as cleansers, exfoliants, serums, spot treatments and masques.
Although salicylic acid is safe for clients to use at home in this percentage, they do need to be careful not to overdo it.
“Caution must be taken to not dry out the skin too much,” explains Loasby-Smith. “Using such products sparingly and following up with hydrators such as a hyaluronic acid serum and ceramide-rich moisturisers will make sure the skin is not stripped of all its moisture.”
Other ingredients to pair salicylic acid with include niacinamide as it will complement the oil-soluble acid beautifully, working on locking in moisture all day and avoiding skin dryness, redness or vulnerability.
Care should be taken not to overload the skin with actives – clients can work them into their routines at different times of the day.
If salicylic acid is being used to treat existing mild acne issues and breakouts, Jones adds that “skin-brightening ingredients like azelaic acid will reduce the chances of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation” resulting from these skin concerns.
Since salicylic acid is an active ingredient, caution should be taken when layering products in order to avoid irritation and sensitivity. Although retinoids and salicylic acid are both well known for their acne-fighting abilities, the two together are a combination which should be avoided – especially with high-strength retinoids. Topical salicylates should be avoided with medications that are already being prescribed for acne such as isotretinoin, tretinoin or adapalene. Vitamin C is a no-go too.