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Everything you really need to know about salicylic acid


The star of many a teenage skin routine, salicylic acid may well be one of the first skincare ingredients you came to know and rely on.

But now, with adult acne on the rise across the country, it might be time to welcome this spot-clearing acid back into your routine. Happily, formulations have come a long way since you first picked up that sticky, drying gel, and salicylic acid can now be found in a host of impressive products, from targeted treatments to toners, serums to creams.

Here, see everything you need to know about salicylic acid, including the Bazaar verdict on the best products to try now.

What is salicylic acid, and how does it work?

Salicylic acid sits within the skincare acid family, but it is different from others. Glycolic, lactic and mandelic are all alpha hydroxy acids, whereas salicylic is classified as a beta hydroxy acid: in fact, it’s the only one used in skincare.

“Naturally sourced from willow tree bark, this fat-soluble beta hydroxy acid penetrates follicles to break down oil build-up, reducing and preventing pore blockages,” explains dermatologist Dr. Dennis Gross.

Of course, salicylic acid is famed for its spot-fighting powers, but a good product will actually do much more than shrink down an angry pimple, as Dr. Gross explains. “A keratolytic agent, salicylic acid reduces the pH of skin and increases hydration as well as encouraging the process of desquamation (the shedding of dead skin cells). It can also directly dissolve keratin plugs (known as keratosis pilaris) and regulate skin cells to fight acne and blemishes.”

What are the differences between an AHA and a BHA?

AHAs and BHA work on different levels on the skin, hence their differing classification. AHAs are water-soluble acids (commonly derived from sugar cane, milk and citrus fruits). They work on the surface of the skin, dissolving the desmosome bonds – think of them as the glue that holds dead skin cells together – and revealing the fresher skin just beneath. BHA is oil-soluble and so works on both the surface and deeper inside the pore, dissolving the trapped debris and excess sebum that leads to breakouts.

What skin types should use salicylic acid?

“Salicylic acid is suitable for use on all skin types, but it’s especially effective on blemish prone and uneven types as it helps to prevent pore blockages and contains anti-inflammatory properties.” says Dr. Gross. However, anyone with an allergy to aspirin should avoid products containing salicylic acid, as they both belong to the same family of compounds (and so your skin may be intolerant).

How to use salicylic acid at home

Traditionally, salicylic acid has been widely used in on-the-spot blemish gels and treatments, but now its powers are being harnessed for prevention as well as cure. A salicylic acid cleanser is a good ally for acne-prone skin types, as it’ll help keep pores consistently clear, preventing breakouts before they occur. A serum is another good option, while easily overloaded skin will love a water-weight salicylic acid toner or treatment mist.


From Harper’s Bazaar UK

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