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Ingredients 101: Salicylic acid



Natural or synthetic?

Both (natural: willow bark extract)

Best for?

Addressing skin blemishes, clearing up pimples, and preventing whiteheads/blackheads by working as a keratolytic (exfoliant) for the skin. Also applies as a medication for treating conditions that has to do with skin cell overgrowth and/or scaling, such as psoriasis, dermatitis, dandruff, corns, warts on hands and feet, and calluses.

The story

Salicylic acid comes in a wide variety of forms in anti-acne products, ranging from pads/wipes, liquids, lotions, gels, foams, soaps, and solutions in anywhere between 0.5% to 2% concentration. It’s the exfoliating beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) in cosmetics, an ally to the peeling effects alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) such as glycolic acid, lactic acid, citric acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid. More on AHAs in future post.

The science

The only difference between the BHA and AHAs is that BHA is oil-soluble, whereas AHAs are water-soluble only. This makes salicylic acid more ideal for those with oily skin, as it’s able to penetrate deep into clogged pores, dissolve excess sebum, and extract impurities out. Because it can deeply-exfoliate as well as sloughing dead skin cells off the surface, skin texture will even out and improve with long-term use of salicylic acid. Moreover, this multitasker is often prescribed not only to treat blemishes for its anti-microbial properties, but also to calm irritated complexions and stubborn breakouts, as it’s an anti-inflammatory agent as well. It gets easier for boosting collagen production when the skin is always open for new cell turnover. This means improved thickness, firmness, and plumpness for your skin.


Just as you do with BPO, you may feel a stinging sensation at first. Wait 3 days. Discontinue use if it irritates your skin (itching, swelling, hives, redness, throat tightness, light-headed, nausea, fatigue, difficulty breathing, fainting). Use with the dosage and as frequently as prescribed by your doctor, or as it says on the instructions label. When used excessively, the skin can become dryer over time, prompting it to produce even more oil and creating more acne. Worse, overdose permanently strips off the skin’s moisture barrier, causing thinning skin that highlights capillaries, fine lines, and premature wrinkles. For this reason, you may also need to apply sunscreen more religiously after introducing salicylic acid into your skincare regimen. As a rule of thumb, avoid high heat or open flame when using salicylic acid medications, especially those that come with higher concentrations (wart-removers generally come at anywhere between 6% to 10%). They’re flammable, so store it somewhere cool and dry.

Is it safe?

The FDA has listed salicylic acid as a Category C for pregnant women. There’s enough body of research showing that salicylic acid is tetratogenic (causing abnormal growth and development in embryo and fetus) in rats and monkeys. Whether it will pass into breast milk or harm an unborn baby is unknown, but talk to your doctor before exposing yourself to salicylic acid if you’re expecting.




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