What is salicylic acid and how does it work?
Salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent, or chemical exfoliant that belongs to a class of chemicals known as beta hydroxy acids. It is the only beta hydroxy acid, or BHA, that is used in skin care. Chemical exfoliants work quickly to reveal smoother, healthier looking skin by dissolving the “glue” that holds dull, dead cells to the surface of the skin. Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory and photo-protective properties that are of benefit to the skin.
How is salicylic acid different from AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid?
Oil soluble ingredients are able to go deeper into the skin than their water-soluble counterparts. Salicylic acid is different from alpha hydroxy acids like lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and others, in that it is able to dissolve in oil and thereby penetrate the pores and also exfoliate the pore lining. AHAs are water soluble and thereby only act at the skin’s surface.
Salicylic acid, acne and fungal acne
Acne is a common problem and the internet is full of a number of questionable remedies and DIYs that claim to help get rid of acne. While a lot of these purported cures can actually exacerbate the problem instead of making it better, extensive research exists to support the use of salicylic acid as an effective acne treatment.
Your skin is composed of layers. The cells in the lowest layers of the skin are continuously dividing and as these new cells are pushed outwards towards the skin’s surface, old, dead skin cells shed off. You lose a staggering 30,000 to 40,000 skin cells every hour. Sometimes this natural exfoliation process of the skin can become faulty leading to dull or rough skin, congested skin, whiteheads and blackheads, and breakouts, among other things. In the case of acne, these dead skin cells remain stuck together, and clog pores, instead of shedding off normally.
Salicylic acid is able to penetrate pores to break down the “glue” that holds these cells together allowing the clogs that form within your pores to break up, and as a result, is able to prevent breakouts and get rid of blackheads and whiteheads. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that help inflamed pimples go away faster. What’s more? Salicylic acid also has anti-fungal properties that make it a fantastic ingredient for the treatment of fungal acne in a fungal acne-safe formulation!
Acne however, is a complex issue and no one solution is the perfect solution for everyone. Salicylic acid, in our experience though, is an exceptional starting point and can work wonders for a number of people if a good product is utilised correctly, i.e., at the right concentration, in the right format for your specific skin type, and in a gentle formulation that doesn’t aim to destroy your skin barrier. We detail the options we have available, how to use them and how best to incorporate them into your skin care routine in a section below.
Salicylic acid and pores
Since salicylic acid is able to go into the pore, exfoliate it from within, and break up clogs, incorporating salicylic acid in your routine helps keep pores clean and as a result, helps minimise the appearance of enlarged pores. You can learn more about enlarged pores and how best to deal with them here.
What else is salicylic acid good for?
In addition to the treatment of acne, salicylic acid also tends to be used in the treatment of dandruff, psoriasis, calluses, corns, keratosis pilaris and warts. Salicylic acid, and chemical exfoliants in general, also help fight signs of skin ageing.
How to incorporate salicylic acid into your routine
When starting out with salicylic acid, or with chemical exfoliants in general, it can be a good idea to start slowly and see how your skin responds. This is because everyone’s skin is different in terms of oiliness, sensitivity, and other skin concerns, and is able to tolerate different strengths of the ingredient. Make it a point to not overdo it, and to keep your skin moisturised, so you don’t end up compromising your skin’s barrier function.
If you have very little to no acne, salicylic acid in a wash-off format, such as a cleanser, might be all you need to keep your skin healthy. If your skin tends to be sensitive and you’re new to chemical exfoliants, in that case as well, salicylic acid might be best incorporated into your routine in the form of a cleanser. Alternatively, if you want to start with leave-on products, and you’re prone to skin sensitivity or are new to acids, you might be best off starting by using them 3 times a week instead of everyday, and slowly increasing frequency of use.
Salicylic acid, or acids in general, especially in high concentration, might not be the best option for people with very sensitive skin. People with dryer skin types might also see more benefit from a product geared more towards AHAs as salicylic acid can be drying for some people. If salicylic acid is still something you’d like to try, try starting at a low concentration in a creamy cleanser, such as our Salicylic Acid Cleanser, and make sure you moisturise well while you’re using it.
If your skin is sensitive, build up your skin barrier before you start using actives and use products with calming and moisturising ingredients alongside to offset any possible irritation that might arise as a result of acid use. Also make it a point to avoid actives if your skin is prone to eczema and be diligent with your use of sunscreen to ensure that you get the most out of all the time, money and effort you put into your skin care routine.
One of the most overlooked, but nevertheless important, thing to bear in mind with salicylic acid is that persistent use, even after your skin has cleared, is essential if you want to continue to see results. Acne doesn’t have a universal cure and tends to return with a vengeance if you stop taking care of your skin.
Precautions and other notes to bear in mind when using salicylic acid
Over-the-counter salicylic acid products tend to contain the ingredient at a concentration of between 0.5% and 2%. Products containing salicylic acid may come in several different formats, i.e., cleansers, toners, moisturisers, masks, and serums, among others. Salicylic acid is pregnancy safe in concentrations of up to 2% and is perfectly safe for daily use on the face if your skin is able to tolerate it. However, it is not the best ingredient to use if you’re looking to exfoliate or treat large areas of your body over a prolonged time period.
When it comes to chemical exfoliants, it’s important to make sure that you don’t overuse them and that your skin remains moisturised and hydrated so you don’t end up compromising your skin barrier. Keep in mind however, that the definition of overuse varies from person to person as everyone’s skin is different and can tolerate different levels of acids. If your skin feels dry, tight and irritated, you’ve probably been using too much. In that case, switch to a gentle cleanser, give your skin a break from actives for a few days, and ensure that your skin remains well moisturised. Also be cautious when combining actives. As a general rule of thumb, especially if you’re unsure of what can and cannot be used together, avoid combining different exfoliating products together and refrain from using more than two to three actives in your routine. Try to spread out the actives that you’re using over your morning and evening skin care routines.
Ultimately though, bear in mind that no one can be a better judge of what format, concentration and frequency of use, for any given product, works best for your skin than you can. Listen to your skin. If you’re tolerating the new product well and want quicker results, you can increase its use. Conversely, if your skin feels irritated, you’re probably using too much and need to cut back. Keep this in mind when reading the recommendations written on products - they are simply guidelines and are written so as to be as generic as possible. There simply isn’t enough space on product packaging to cover every possible scenario and what might work best for one person might not be the best option for another.
While actives can be an exceptional addition to any skin care routine, in addition to how you use them, the way they are formulated also matters a great deal. Every ingredient in a product is important. Look for products without fragrance, essential oils, high concentrations of drying alcohols and harsh surfactants, and other irritating ingredients. Avoiding irritating ingredients when you’re using exfoliants is also especially important since exfoliants enhance the penetration of other ingredients so they’re able to reach deeper layers of your skin.
Salicylic acid and purging
Ingredients like salicylic acid, retinol, and AHAs, that increase skin cell turnover, can sometimes lead to a phenomenon called purging when you first incorporate them into your routine. This happens because as your skin cell turnover speeds up, as does pimple formation as clogged pores underneath the surface make their way to the top more quickly.
Purging tends to happen in areas where you usually get breakouts and tends to subside within 4 to 6 weeks of starting the new product. While it can look ugly initially, the clear skin that follows after a purge makes it worth the pain. If you really would like to avoid purging though, incorporate ingredients with actives that might lead to a purge into your skin care routine slowly. Start at lower concentrations and frequencies of use and slowly up the ante.
Our salicylic acid product range
Description/format: A luxurious wash that doesn’t foam, but cleans the skin without drying it out
Salicylic acid concentration: 0.5%
Best for: People with normal to dry skin or for people who are just getting started with chemical exfoliation
Other beneficial ingredients: Honey, turmeric and glycolic acid
Usage recommendations: If you’re new to acids, start by using this product once a day. As exceptional as AHAs and BHAs are for exfoliating the skin, they can make the skin more sensitive to the sun. Regular use of sunscreen with products containing chemical exfoliants is always advised. If you have some experience using acids, this product is perfectly safe even for twice daily use and if your skin is able to tolerate higher levels of exfoliation, it’s also safe to use in conjunction with a leave-on exfoliant.
Description/format: Hands down our best-selling product and for good reason. A luxurious wash that doesn’t foam, but gently exfoliates and cleans the skin without drying it out. A large percentage of people notice healthier skin within the first few uses.
Salicylic acid concentration: 1.0% - we’ve formulated the product with higher concentrations of salicylic acid in the past but have discovered that this concentration is highly effective and at the same time is also tolerated best by the largest number of people.
Best for: People with normal to oily skin. It is also suitable for people who are new to acids.
Other beneficial ingredients: glycolic acid, honey, grapeseed oil
Usage recommendations: If you’re new to acids, and have little to no acne, which includes blackheads and whiteheads, start by using this product once a day. If you have moderate to severe acne, use this product twice a day in conjunction with one of our two leave-on salicylic acid products, detailed below, once a day. For best results, use with the Salicylic Acid Moisturiser if your acne is bacterial and with the Salicylic Acid Pore Cleansing Emulsion if it is fungal or hybrid, or if you are unsure of its type.
Description/format: A lightweight moisturiser that gives you your dose of salicylic acid without drying your skin out.
Salicylic acid concentration: 2.0%
Best for: Suitable for all skin types. Not suitable for people with fungal acne. If you have fungal acne, have a combination of fungal and bacterial acne or are unsure of the type of your acne, use our Salicylic Acid Emulsion instead.
Other beneficial ingredients: grapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, glycolic acid, panthenol
Usage recommendations: If you’re new to acids, and have little to no acne, which includes blackheads and whiteheads, start by using this product thrice a week. If you have moderate to severe acne, use this product once a day in conjunction with our Salicylic Acid Cleanser. If your skin tends to be dry, don’t hesitate to pair it with our Carbamide Intensive Hydration Cream, or Million Dollar Moisturiser. Avoid the eye area.
Description/format: A cross between a gel and a lightweight lotion.
Salicylic acid concentration: 1.5% - this product was initially formulated with 2% salicylic acid but we’ve discovered that this concentration is also highly effective and at the same time is also better tolerated by more people.
Best for: People with normal to oily skin and people with fungal acne.
Other beneficial ingredients: glycolic acid, panthenol, oats, carbamide
Usage recommendations: If you’re new to acids, and have little to no acne, start by using this product thrice a week. If you have moderate to severe acne, use this product once a day in conjunction with our Salicylic Acid Cleanser. If your skin tends to be dry, don’t hesitate to pair it with our Carbamide Intensive Hydration Cream, or Million Dollar Moisturiser. However, if you have fungal acne and need some extra moisturisation, use our MCT Oil instead and if your fungal acne is severe, use this product twice a day, on problem areas, till the acne subsides. Continue once daily use once the acne has cleared. Avoid the eye area.