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Everyone swears by this ingredient for acne—here’s why

If you experience pimples, consider adding salicylic acid to your skincare routine.

A person looking into a mirror touching their skin and holding a bottle of serum. Credit: Getty Images / Daniel de la Hoz

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Dozens of acne-fighting products line the shelves at the drugstore. When a pimple crops up and you find yourself unequipped to deal with it, you may dash to the skincare aisle only to feel analysis paralysis. What products and active ingredients will work on your breakout, and how do you use them with your current routine?

There’s more than one solution for getting rid of acne, but one tried-and-true method is to use an ingredient called salicylic acid. To explain why, we consulted Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City.

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What is salicylic acid?

A person holding a bottle of serum and dropping liquid onto their face.
Credit: Getty Images / Layla Bird

Salicylic acid dissolves oil and dead skin.

Salicylic acid is classified as a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that, when applied topically, can break down oil and dead skin cells. It’s often used for treating acne-prone or oily skin types because it has the ability to soak down into the sebaceous glands and dissolve acne-causing oil. Friedler explains: “Oil is food for bacteria, so salicylic acid, by reducing some of the oil on the skin, also helps to prevent a breakout because less oil is less food for the bacteria.” It’s also a keratolytic, meaning it exfoliates the surface of the skin, causing dead skin cells to slough off to reveal new, healthier skin.

Salicylic acid can also address discoloration, such as hyperpigmentation or melasma, and brighten the skin’s appearance because of its exfoliating abilities that keep the skin cells turning over, says Friedler.

What skin types can benefit from salicylic acid?

A closeup on a person's face as they apply cream to pimples.
Credit: Getty Images / Boyloso

Salicylic acid can benefit oily and acne-prone skin.

Salicylic acid is best for oily or acne-prone skin—and, as mentioned, those two traits often overlap, as oil can lead to acne. You may try salicylic acid if you have normal or dry skin and experience bouts of acne, but a gentler exfoliant, like glycolic acid (an alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA), may suit your skin better, particularly if you know your skin is sensitive.

When adding any new ingredient into your skincare routine, it's best to integrate it gradually, as little as once or twice a week to see how your skin reacts.

Below, find top-notch products that contain salicylic acid to banish breakouts and enhance your skin tone.

1. For an acne-busting cleanser: Cerave SA Cleanser

On the left: A bottle of cleanser laying on a blue background. On the right: A person applying face wash to their face.
Credit: Cerave

Wash your face with the Cerave SA Cleanser.

Using salicylic acid in a wash-off treatment, like a cleanser, is a great way to add it into your routine to see how well you tolerate it. “Once it's done its job as a keratolytic, it's just done, so sitting [on the skin] is not really going to help you that much,” says Friedler.

The Cerave SA Cleanser claims to be gentle enough for daily use on all skin types and it contains ceramides that protect the skin barrier, in addition to salicylic acid.

Get the Cerave SA Cleanser from Amazon for $9.87

2. For a no-fuss leave-on treatment: Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

On the left: A gray cylindrical bottle of liquid. On the right: A gray bottle tipped over to pour out clear liquid.
Credit: Paula’s Choice

Prevent breakouts with the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant.

Leaving salicylic acid on the skin isn’t necessary for it to do its job, but you may prefer using your typical cleanser and moisturizer, which is where a toning treatment can come in. Leave-ons can also work well for someone with oily skin who isn’t breakout-prone but wants to use the ingredient for its oil-reducing abilities, says Friedler.

This Paula’s Choice liquid is gentle enough for twice daily use and it contains 2% salicylic acid for evening your complexion as well as green tea extracts to hydrate the skin.

Get the Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant from Amazon for $32

3. For an acne-combatting moisturizer: Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Facial Moisturizer

On the left: A bottle of pink and white moisturizer. On the right: A person applying moisturizer to their face.
Credit: Neutrogena

Moisturize and ward off breakouts with the Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Facial Moisturizer.

An easy way to include salicylic acid in your routine is by using a moisturizer—a skincare essential—that contains it. This daily one from Neutrogena claims to offer a lightweight, non-greasy feel with a moisturizing formula that’s non-comedogenic, meaning it won’t clog pores.

Get the Neutrogena Oil Free Acne Facial Moisturizer from Amazon for $6.67

4. For a blemish spot treatment: Mario Badescu Drying Lotion

On the left: A person using a cotton swab to apply pink acne lotion to their face. On the right: A clear bottle of acne solution with a cotton swab above it.
Credit: Mario Badescu

Zap pimples using the Mario Badescu Drying Lotion.

Treating your entire skin with salicylic acid may not be necessary if you only experience the occasional pimple. In that case, try using a spot treatment that dries up a blemish in one or two uses.

The Mario Badescu Drying Lotion contains salicylic and sulfuric acids to unclog the pores and calamine lotion to soothe irritation. Without shaking the bottle, dip a cotton swab down into the pink solution and dab it straight on a pimple. Note: It will leave a coating of pink powder, so this treatment may be best at night or when you won't be leaving the house too soon.

Get the Mario Badescu Drying Lotion from Amazon for $17

5. For a body acne treatment: Murad Acne Body Wash

On the left: A bottle of acne body wash. On the right: A squiggle of blue body wash.
Credit: Murad

Clear up body acne with the Murad Acne Body Wash.

Breakouts don’t only occur on the face. If body acne is what’s ailing you, treat it with the Murad Acne Body wash that contains salicylic and glycolic acids to chemically exfoliate the skin and date seed powder to physically buff away at dead skin cells. It also contains green tea and licorice extracts that claim to soothe irritation. Murad doesn’t offer instructions on how often to use it, but the general advice for physical exfoliants is to limit use to once or twice weekly to avoid disrupting the skin barrier.

Get the Murad Acne Body Wash from Amazon for $44

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