What is Salicylic Acid and How to Use it to Treat Acne?



If you have a habit of reading the label on skincare products before you buy them, you may have noticed that the products targeting acne breakouts contain salicylic acid listed as an ingredient. So, what exactly is salicylic acid, why is it such a key ingredient, and how does it help your skin? Let us tell you.


What is Salicylic Acid (SA)?


When it comes to skincare products, there are two classes of acids you'll often notice: beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs). Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid and belongs to the class of salicylates. It is derived from willow bark and also naturally occurs in sweet birch bark, and wintergreen leaves, but synthetic versions are also used in skincare products.




The structure of this acid makes it more oil-soluble so it can penetrate deeply into the pores of the skin. This makes it a valuable ingredient in most product formulas concerning acne.


SA is also considered a keratolytic medication, which causes the top layer of skin cells to soften and shed.


For these reasons, salicylic acid is a popular ingredient in the skincare world and is effective in reducing acne by exfoliating the skin and keeping pores clear.


How Salicylic Acid Can Benefit Your Skin?


Salicylic acid is found in various over-the-counter (OTC) products. Its oil-soluble properties make it more efficient in penetrating the layers of the skin more easily compared to water-soluble products.


Penetrating so deeply into the skin, topical salicylic acid treats acne by reducing swelling and redness and unplugging blocked skin pores to allow pimples to shrink faster. In addition, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties that work as an exfoliant to remove dead skin cells leaving behind clear, glowing skin.


Anyone can use salicylic acid, but it’s especially useful for people with oily or acne-prone skin.


Cleans Excess Oil From Pores


For those with an oily skin type, salicylic acid is a key ingredient to clean up excess oil and to keep the shine maintained for the future as well. Salicylic acid controls this oil production by getting underneath the dead skin deep inside your pores compared to other water-soluble ingredients that only glide over the surface.


Prevents Future Acne


Salicylic acid helps for whiteheads and blackheads removal as well as for f. By keeping the pores clean, whiteheads and blackheads won't develop from excess oil or dead skin cells that get lodged into the skin.  It also regulates oil production.


Soothes Inflamed Skin


Salicylic acid is naturally found in willow bark and contains salicin. Salicin has anti-inflammatory properties that calm irritated, inflamed skin. When it comes to acne, these properties aid in reducing redness, soreness, and puffiness.


Exfoliates Dead Skin Cells


As mentioned earlier, salicylic acid is a peeling agent that exfoliates the upper dead layer of the skin surface and accelerates the cellular regeneration process.


How To Use Salicylic Acid?


Before using a product with salicylic acid, do a patch test. Apply a limited amount to a small area of affected skin to test your reaction before applying to the entire area. If you don't have an allergic reaction, you can use the product.




Salicylic acid works best when applied to your entire face as it removes dead skin cells and cleans out excess oil from pores. This helps in preventing future breakouts as well. However, make sure to avoid the eyes, lips, and mouth areas.


Only use the prescribed quantity of salicylic acid or a pea-sized amount or less just to be safe.   This is advised due to the fact that salicylic acid is an exfoliant, and over-exfoliation can cause irritation and damage to the skin.


Finally, do not scrub it in. As a chemical exfoliant, SA has the ability to loosen the dead skin cells on your skin’s surface without you having to scrub your skin to make it work. Let your skin absorb the product on its own for better results.


Precautions for Salicylic Acid


Always consult your esthetician, dermatologist or doctor before trying out a new skin product. Some topics you can discuss with your esthetician beforehand are:


  • Allergies: Let your esthetician or doctor know if you’ve experienced allergic reactions to salicylic acid or any other topical medications before.
  • Medications / Drugs: Some medications may not interact well with salicylic acid, so let your doctor know beforehand about any medications that you are taking.
  • Usage for children: Children are more at risk of developing skin irritation, peeling or patchiness due to the fact that their bodies have a faster rate of absorption compared to adults. Salicylic acid should not be used on children under the age of 2.


Your doctor should also be aware if you have any of the following medical conditions before they  prescribe salicylic acid:


  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Blood vessel disease
  • Influenza
  • Chickenpox


Does Salicylic Acid Have Any Side Effects?


Even though salicylic acid is used widely in products and is considered safe overall, it is always safer to know whether or not a product suits you. Be careful not to overuse salicylic acid as it can strip the skin of its natural oils which may lead to dryness or patchy skin. Depending on the number of applications and concentration, some people may experience redness, peeling and dryness, especially if your skin type is dry or sensitive.


Other side effects may include:


  • Irritated skin
  • Itchiness
  • Peeling skin
  • Hives


These side effects of course only occur in extreme cases of either allergic reactions or over-usage. If used in proper amounts, then your skin can tolerate SA quite well. Plus, most over-the-counter salicylic acid creams and cleansers have a low concentration — often only 2%.


BelleCôte Paris’ Recommendations


At BelleCôte Paris, our skincare products are formulated with a variety of ingredients that are gentle on the skin yet effective in repairing, revitalizing, and restoring your skin. Here's our recommended products that are charged with salicylic acid among other ingredients:


Azelaic Toner




Our azelaic toner is a miracle healer for breakouts. It combats oily skin, shrinks visible pores and reduces the redness of irritated skin. Powered with azelaic and salicylic acids, this toner consists of antibacterial and antimicrobial properties that aid in lightening dark spots, eliminating ingrown hair, as well as discouraging the formation of blemishes and blackheads.


This toner is a gentle exfoliator, but always be careful not to over-exfoliate as that can cause damage to the skin.


Ideal for women and men, and suits normal to oily/combination skin types.




Use twice a day after cleansing. Moisten a cotton pad and pat on the face, concentrating on problem areas. Avoid the eye area.


Organic Seaweed Exfoliator




Concentrated with Mandelic, Lactic and Salicylic acids, our seaweed exfoliator expertly removes dead skin cells from the surface of the skin. By delicately removing excess oil, this exfoliator helps unclog and refine pores and also stimulates blood circulation to promote anti-ageing by reducing wrinkles and fine lines.


The presence of Laminaria Extract; refreshes dull and damaged skin by hydrating, soothing, and brightening the skin immediately. Leaving behind a smooth and even complexion.


Suitable for all skin types.




Massage gently into the skin using circular movement with damp hands. Rinse off with lukewarm water or remove with a warm towel for best results.


The Takeaway


For many people who struggle with oily or acne-prone skin, salicylic acid has been proven to reduce their breakouts and clear up their skin. Even if it's a common ingredient found in most OTC skincare products, it is still important to know whether or not your skin will react properly to these acids.


However, if your breakouts are not diminishing after the use of such ingredients, consult your esthetician or dermatologist, or contact us and we will help you find a trained BelleCôte esthetician in your area.

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