Salicylic Acid: How It Works, What It Does And Where To Find it

What is salicylic acid and why do you need it in your life?

Salicylic acid

by Grazia Contributor |

The Saviour of Evil Spots everywhere, salicylic acid originates in the bark of the willow tree and is part of the beta hydroxy acid family, ingredients that unlike their (water soluble) alpha hydroxy acid cousins, are oil-soluble. 'This means that they can penetrate into our sebaceous glands, where we produce oil,' says cosmetic dermatologist Dr Sam Bunting, so if you’re oily skinned, susceptible to blackheads or blocked pores then this is the ingredient to be incorporating into your routine.

Is salicylic acid good for acne?

Spots rear their ugly heads when our pores become clogged by various debris, like bacteria and dead skin cells. Thanks to its ability to penetrate past an oily surface, salicylic helps stop this happening by de-clogging pores and taking spots down in both size and redness thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. 'Not only does it soften and slough off dead skin cells by interfering with the way they bond together, but it also exfoliates inside the pore lining,' says Dr Bunting, 'which means you get smoother and clearer skin as a result.'

How do you use salicylic acid?

Despite being a brilliant ingredient to use on acne-prone skin, it does need to be handled with care: 'You don’t necessarily want salicylic acid all over your skin,' points out Dr Bunting, 'It can be really drying.' There are a host of salicylic-infused products on the market, from foundation to cleanser. But, as Dr Bunting warns, some cleansers can be too drying and are often formulated with foaming agents so may be too harsh on sensitive skins, regardless of acne.

'If you want to reduce a blemish, I advise using a leave-on product with 2% salicylic acid directly on the spot,' says Dr Bunting, who recommends combining this approach with a gentle, non-medicated cleanser, like her own Dr Sam’s Flawless Cleanser, £16, and not a salicylic-infused face wash. 'It’s hard to be targeted with a salicylic cleanser,' she says, 'think about the drying effects around the eyes.'

Your skin will be more sensitive so be savvy about what other active ingredients you combine it with. 'If you’re using a retinoid at night, don’t use salicylic at the same time,' advises Dr Bunting, 'the two don’t go together and you run the risk of irritating skin more.' Instead, use your salicylic in the morning and retinoid at night and, as with any active, always combine with a good sunscreen.

Who can use salicylic acid?

Anyone who suffers from spots should look to incorporate a salicylic acid into their routine. Whether that be every-now-and-then type spots or aggressive acne, targeted use of this ingredient can work wonders. 'Someone with very dry, sensitive skin might struggle with this,' says Dr Bunting, 'so should look to other acids like lactic, which is gentler, but note that this won’t have the same effect if they’re blemish prone.' If you do struggle with very dry or sensitive skin, look to reduce the concentration of salicylic acid to 0.5 per cent (as opposed to a typical 1-2 per cent in a normal product).

Which products contain salicylic acid?

BHA is brilliant for busting spots and evening out skin texture - and not just on your face. If you've struggled with spots on your back or any other part of your body, a salicylic acid body wash could work wonders. It's also a good shout before spray tanning to ensure an even, smooth finish. There are plenty of ways to incorporate salicylic acid in your facial skincare routine, from exfoliators to toners and face washes.

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