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Treating acne breakouts with salicylic acid

girl worried about acne breakout

While facial breakouts are most common in every age group, especially in teenagers, also found to be an issue throughout their 20s, 30s, and in their 40s too. For some, the problem of acne may appear for the first time in their adulthood. In general, the causes for these severe facial breakouts in adults are the same as those found in teenagers. Acne is usually related to the increased production of sebum.

Sebum is actually an oily substance that is naturally produced by your skin. Excess sebum production can mix with the dead skin cells that build up in your skin pores, resulting in pores clogging. The sebum in the clogged skin pore promotes the growth of certain types of bacteria. The result of this fast bacterial growth is irritated skin. This leads to the redness and inflammation of the skin which is associated with pimples.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is actually derived from willow bark, and it belongs to a category of ingredients called salicylates. When it comes to the various skin-care products marketed all around, there are two major classes of acids you'll see very often; BHAs and AHAs.

BHAs are beta hydroxy acids, and AHAs are alpha hydroxy acids. Salicylic acid is actually a beta hydroxy acid which means the hydroxyl part of the present molecule is separated from the acidic part by the two carbon atoms, as opposed to an alpha hydroxy acid where they have been separated by one carbon atom.

This structure is quite important because it makes the salicylic acid more and more oil-soluble so it can easily penetrate into the pores of your skin. Both of these alpha and beta hydroxy acids exfoliate your skin well, but AHAs are easily water-soluble, while BHAs are good oil-soluble. Examples of AHAs are glycolic and lactic acids.

Generally, these oil-soluble ingredients penetrate easily through the lipid layers present between the skin cells more readily. In other words, these oil-soluble ingredients can easily penetrate into the skin at a much deeper level than their water-soluble counterparts can.

What does salicylic acid do for the skin?

Salicylic acid can get much deeper into the skin to do its job perfectly. This very quality makes salicylic acid a potent ingredient to treat acne — especially for whiteheads and blackheads.

Once it penetrates your skin, salicylic acid easily dissolves skin debris that clogs your pores, acts as an anti-inflammatory ingredient, and also helps the red, inflamed pimples and chronic pustules go away faster.

The ingredient can penetrate so deeply into your skin that it is actually able to break down the connections between skin cells. The acid part of this molecule can easily dissolve some of the intracellular glue that holds your skin cells well together.

Salicylic acid is also a great exfoliant. This easy breaking down of your skin cells promotes good exfoliation. Salicylic acid is known as a great keratolytic medication. Keratolytic medications effectively cause softening and sloughing of the top layer of your skin cells.

Salicylic acid is also able to loosen and break apart the desmosomes which is an attachment between cells present in the outer layer of the skin, and encourages exfoliation of your skin and unclogging of skin pores.

One thought that comes into your mind while dealing with the etiology of acne is that the cells of your skin do not behave normally, and rather than going through a healthy skin cell cycle, they stick well together and clog the skin pores, creating severe blackheads and the cysts. Salicylic acid helps in removing and loosening up your skin cells which helps to dissolve severe blackheads.

Salicylic acid in treating blackheads and whiteheads

Researchers say that there are three major factors that contribute to the acne outbreak: an abnormal sloughing off of your skin cells, also the excessive oiliness of your skin, and the direct action of P. acne bacteria present. Salicylic acid helps you with the first cause by dissolving the skin debris that clogs the skin pores and in turn causes severe acne.

Therefore, salicylic acid is ideal for treating the problem of blackheads and whiteheads. Salicylic acid can easily dissolve the keratin plugs and regulate the condition of your skin cells. It also has some effectiveness against cystic acne due to the presence of antibacterial activity, but quite less than the classic whiteheads and blackheads.

Can salicylic acid damage skin?

You can easily use too much salicylic acid. The primary negative side effect of this salicylic acid is the ability to irritate your skin and dry skin in those who are quite sensitive or those who overuse salicylic acid.

Depending upon its concentration and the daily number of applications, some people might experience redness, dryness, peeling, and some skin irritation. For this main reason, those whose skin is already severely dry or somehow sensitive should consider avoiding the use of salicylic acid altogether. It's also not the best option to go for if you are pregnant or taking some kind of medication, including the use of blood thinners.

Still, the concentration of salicylic acid present in most over-the-counter salicylic acid cleansers and creams is low. If used appropriately, it can be easily tolerated. When you plan to use a new salicylic acid-based product, it is well advised to begin very slowly by using the product on alternate days then gradually working their way up to a daily basis once you know how your skin reacts to the ingredients.

Note: Applying the salicylic acid or any other salicylate onto a very large portion of your body that in turn leads to salicylate poisoning. So no need to apply a layer of it all over your body in fact just stick to only the acne-prone areas.

Can you use salicylic acid every day?

Salicylic acid-based products are quite safe for daily use if they are used as directed by the doctors and easily tolerated by your skin. Those who have quite oily skin can apply salicylic acid daily on your skin type and it works totally fine. If your skin type is quite dry or even sensitive, it's more likely that the salicylic acid could cause you some irritation, so be sure to follow the doctor's advice as stated over it and test the product on your skin every alternate day before applying it on a daily basis.  

Salicylic Acid & Acne

If you look at the labels of several acne medications available in the market, you'll notice that the active ingredient present in them is salicylic acid. Salicylic acid is an active member of a class of medications called keratolytic. Keratolytics work great by softening the uppermost layer of your skin that is the epidermis, making it very easier to remove the dead skin and the shedding of skin cells.

Acne occurs in those parts where there is a buildup of dead skin cells in your pores. Salicylic acid helps normalize the shedding of your skin cells present inside the pores and helps you to prevent the pores from clogging, along with the bacteria and the oil, which can produce pimples.

Salicylic acid is easily available for topical use on your Acne in creams, gels, and lotions. Over-the-counter products contain approximately 0.5 to 2 percent of salicylic acid. You may find that it takes quite a long time to see its result. Use it regularly, as it is a proven method for treating the problem of acne and helps you to prevent any future breakouts.

We recommend that you should consult your dermatologist for proper diagnosis and treatment of your ailments. In general, the causes of these facial breakouts mostly in adults are the same as those found in teenagers.

Does salicylic acid have any side effects?

Although salicylic acid is overall considered safe, it may cause skin irritation initially. It may also remove too much oil, causing dryness and potential irritation.

Other potential side effects are:

  • skin tingling or stinging
  • itching
  • peeling skin
  • hives


Although there’s no complete solution for acne, salicylic acid has been shown to help clear up breakouts for many people. Consult your doctor or dermatologist to see if salicylic acid is appropriate and suitable for your skin and your current health condition.

Frequently Asked Questions 

1. Can you use salicylic acid with retinol? 

Yes! Contrary to some popular belief, you can use Salicylic Acid with Retinol!

2. Does salicylic acid cause purging? 

Retinoids like Tretinoin, acids like salicylic, and benzoyl peroxide are just a few of the products that result in purging. These products have active ingredients that increase the skin cell turnover rate, in turn causing your skin to purge.

3. Is salicylic acid safe during pregnancy?

No studies have been conducted in pregnancy on the topical use of salicylic acid; however, as such a relatively small amount is absorbed through the skin, it is unlikely to pose any kind of risk to a developing baby.


  1. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent. By National Library of Medicine, Aug 26, 2015.
  2. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments. By National Library of Medicine, May 5, 2012.
  3. Benefits of using Salicylic acid. Saturn by GHC, Mar 28, 2022.
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