Everything you need to know about the popular skincare ingredient salicylic acid and its uses.
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Perfect skin is hard to come by, but fortunately, concentrated skincare ingredients like salicylic acid exist to better your pores. Because everyone deserves to put their best face forward, we asked aestheticians and dermatologists just what salicylic acid can do to improve one's complexion and safeguard against breakouts.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid can penetrate the sebum that clogs pores, clearing blackheads. "When used on a regular basis, it can decrease the frequency and severity of acne eruptions," says Leslie Baumann, a professor of dermatology at the University of Miami, in Florida. Avoid it if you have dry or sensitive skin or an allergy to aspirin. (It's in the same family as the pain reliever.)

How does salicylic acid work exactly?

The fast-acting acid is best known for treating common acne that’s caused by clogged pores, especially for those with oily or combination skin. But salicylic acid can do so much more than just dry up pimples, says Dr. Jennifer Segal of Metropolitan Dermatology Institute in Houston. “It can treat a variety of conditions, including acne, warts, dry skin, and even dandruff.”

What products can I find salicylic acid in?

Salicylic acid face washes, such as Dermalogica Clearing Skin Wash ($39; sephora.com) prevent breakouts before they start by dissolving oil, dirt and other debris. But, if your acne or breakout is severe enough that you want to treat it around the clock, salicylic acid gels are ideal. The consistency of spot treatments like Alba Botanica Anecdote Maximum Strength Invisible Treatment Gel ($5; amazon.com) is generally lightweight enough to be worn under makeup, and can be applied to clean skin overnight.

How often should salicylic acid be used to see its effects?

As unbelievable as it sounds, salicylic acid spot treatments can improve or even eliminate pimples overnight. (Yes, really.) However, that depends on the severity of your breakout, and as a general rule, spot treatments should only be used when necessary.

Does salicylic acid work on all skin types?

While salicylic acid really gets the skin-clearing job done, the ingredient can have adverse side effects, such as minor skin irritation, rashes, or peeling. While it's ideal for oily or combination skin types, it can be used for those with normal skin who experience the occasional breakout. If you have dry or sensitive skin, steer clear of the acid, as your pores may become too agitated with use.

As with any skincare ingredient, it’s important to exercise caution when using salicylic acid. Don’t apply too much product until you know just how your skin will react. It’s also wise to avoid applying it to skin that is already irritated or sunburned.

“The ability of salicylic acid to induce irritation limits its use," says Dr. Segal. "It's important to make sure that the other products in your routine, such as your cleanser, moisturizer and sunscreen, are gentle and soothing.”

While it's extremely rare, salicylic acid can cause a serious allergic reaction among some users. Symptoms of this include itching, hives, light-headedness and swelling. If you experience any of these, please consult a physician as soon as possible. It’s also not an appropriate treatment for every type of acne. “If acne vulgaris (common acne) is confused with acne rosacea (breakouts in sensitive skin), using salicylic acid only further irritates the skin and worsens rosacea,” Dr. Segal warns.

Dermalogica Clearing Skin Wash with Salicylic Acid

dermalogica salicylic acid face wash

To buy: $39; sephora.com.