Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Akruti Khandkar (Journalist)  on 11th Dec 2020

No BS Guide to Using Salicylic Acid

Guide to Using Salicylic Acid

You might find the word "acid" scary. However, there are many acids in the skincare industry that provide you ultimate benefits. The potential they have in treating your skin problems from the inside is the industry's talking point. In the realm of exfoliants, you have many choices to look out for what your skin needs.

One of the prominent acids that are widely celebrated is Salicylic acid. While examining the skincare aisle, you will undoubtedly go over cleansers, moisturizers, or acne treatments with salicylic acid on their label.

We at minimalist always recommend learning about a product or active ingredient before applying it to your skin. Is salicylic acid safe for your skin? How does it benefit skin? Do you need it?

We will answer all these frequent questions in this article today:  

What is salicylic acid?  

Dr. Sandra Lee, a board-certified dermatologist.Says

Skincare acids are divided into two categories- AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) and BHA ( beta hydroxy acid). Salicylic acid is a part of Beta hydroxy acid, a naturally occurring chemical called salicin and extracted from a willow tree bark

The structure of salicylic acid is more oil-soluble, which helps it to penetrate the skin deeply.

SA is used as a keratolytic, which means it helps in increasing cell turnover and exfoliates the skin as well, she adds. 

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

₹ 545

When to use: PM

Frequency: Alternate days

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How is BHA different from AHA?

AHAs and BHA work with different methodology as it focuses on a different level of the skin. AHAs (lactic and glycolic acid)are water-soluble acids, and BHA is oil-soluble. Oil solvent ingredients can penetrate through lipid layers more easily, meaning it can reach a deeper level, dissolving trapped waste and extra sebum, leading to future acne. AHA works on the epidermis of the skin, dissolving the desmosome bonds. 

AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel
AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel
AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel
AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel

AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel

₹ 689

When to use: PM

Frequency: Once in 2 weeks

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Should you incorporate SA in your regular skincare routine, and how?

Yes, individuals with oily skin that tends to breakout should incorporate salicylic acid in their skincare routine.

Salicylic acid face washes are suited for oily skin as the cleaning agents are sufficiently intense to focus on dirt and pollutants covering your epidermis. Combination skin individuals can also include SA to get an even-tone complexion and minimize pores.

SA makes your skin super dry, so dry skin individuals should stay away as it can make your skin patchy and rough. Remember to apply a lightweight moisturizer that penetrates deep enough to fight the dryness caused by salicylic acid.  


Anything over 2% for oily, acne-prone, and combination skin can be too strong for your skin. Look for OTC products with 2% or less formulation for in-house treatment. In the case of chemical peel, a dermatologist may use a stronger percentage of SA.  

How does salicylic acid diminish dark spots?  

Acne is already a big problem, but the dark spots it leaves behind annoys to another level. Salicylic acid can help relieve you from your misery. It separates the dead skin cells and urges new skin cells to frame, which helps lighten the dull spots. Also, due to its calming properties, salicylic acid can prevent dark spots from occurring.

According to Dr. Lee, 

over the counter, SA products can range up to 0.5% to 2%. She also recommends regardless of how severe your acne is. It starts with a lower concentration of SA. 

How Salicylic Acid benefits the skin?

BHA has been the number 1 choice of dermatologists for treating blemishes, acne treatment, clogged pores, breakouts, etc. Here's a breakdown of precisely how salicylic acid attempts to profit the skin: 

1. Work as an exfoliant:

when you are new salicylic acid, it is recommended to use it as an exfoliant, as you can wash it off all the dirt and pollutants by removing dead cells. Salicylic acid is a keratolytic (a treatment that supports loosening the outer layer and shed). Accordingly, it supports cell turnover and assists with sloughing off dead skin cells, thus improving skin texture and dullness.  

2. Cleans clogged pores:

The oil-soluble ingredient can enter the pores, extricate the glue that holds the skin cell, and eliminate the germs of clogged pores that lead to stubborn acne, similar to little red pimples, whiteheads, and clogged pores.  

3. Reduces sebum:

As salicylic acid is oil-solvent, it can enter underneath the skin's surface to clear out overabundance sebum from the pores and decrease oiliness. This can, thus, lead to an improvement in the presence of pores.  

4. Prevents whiteheads and blackheads:

Salicylic acid treats existing acne and targets blackheads and whiteheads. It keeps them from getting back to the surface of your skin. It unclogs pores and the hair follicles present on a superficial level, which at last go to comedones if not cleaned.  

5. Reduces irritation:

Due to salicylic acid's mitigating properties, it tends to address the redness that comes with acne.  

How does salicylic acid cure acne?  

Everyone has been a victim of clogged pores. But do you know why it occurs? When your hair follicles or pores get clogged with the dermis, oil, and dead skin cells, blackheads, whiteheads, and clogged pores tend to appear. Dr. Lee suggests that unclogging the pores with SA helps to sweep away all the bacteria, dermis, and oil, and therefore your acne starts healing.

Salicylic acid infiltrates into your skin and attempts to break down the dead skin cells obstructing your pores. You won't see the results in one night. Patience is the key with active ingredients, friends.

Check with your dermatologist(dermat) if you are not getting any results after one and a half month, you might be doing something wrong.   

Salicylic acid doesn't just treat acne. It is a strong exfoliator too. 

When treating skin conditions, for example, seborrheic dermatitis and psoriasis, salicylic acid work as a keratolytic, which relaxes keratin (a protein that shapes the structure of skin), subsequently permitting thickened, layered plaques of skin to shed easily.

Utilizing an exfoliator that contains salicylic acid, not just swamps off dead skin as a daily face scrub. Yet, it likewise contains mellow acids that will diminish aggravation and forestall further breakouts.

Be cautious when utilizing salicylic acid if you have a packed exfoliating routine with actives. You may have to quit facial scrubs, exfoliating masks, and harsh soap.  


Listen to your skin, see if the product containing SA you use daily makes you dry or a little irritated, skip a few days. Use it every other or third day. 

Does salicylic acid have side-effects?  

Although salicylic acid is safe to use generally, it might cause skin aggravation in the beginning. It might likewise eliminate a lot of oil, bringing dryness and irritation.  

Salicylic acid can have side-effects on the following people: 

  • One with hypersensitive skin and have an allergy to salicylates, including aspirin.
  • One who is consuming isotretinoin (a drug to treat severe acne) 
  • One with active dermatitis. 
  • Pregnant ladies.


According to (ACOG)the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, salicylic acid is considered safe if you are pregnant. To be sure, consult your doctor regarding the use while pregnant or breastfeeding.

A 2018 report suggests that as it is unlikely to be absorbed in breast milk, you should not use it in the skin areas that might contact the kid's skin or mouth.

Although the side-effects might vary according to the skin, the common ones are: 

  • tingling sensation  
  • sun sensitivity  
  • redness  
  • Dryness  
  • peeling  

Precautionary measures to keep in mind with SA  

Salicylic acid isn't an ingredient to mess with. As a BHA that goes deep into the pores to remove dead cells, this compound can easily breakdown the fats, including the essential ones. Limit yourself from excess use as it can cause chemical burns if used abusively.

Always remember, if you are new to any topical medication, take a patch test. All you have to do is, apply a small amount of product on the shaded part of your skin. Look for any response for a couple of minutes, maybe be a few hours to confirm whether you are sensitive to the product. If you are using multiple products with active ingredients, make sure salicylic acid is the one causing damage.

Quit using the product or consult your dermatologist if you experience redness or itchiness on your skin.

Dr. Sandra Lee suggests avoiding the application on the areas that are already red and irritated. It might sting and burn.

Before you begin using salicylic acid, read the label for the amount to use and proper application. If you use SA as a topical treatment, keep a distance from sensitive areas, such as the nose and eyes. 


Although there is no way to get rid of acne completely, you can make it less frequent. With the help of salicylic acid, you can prevent mild acne and hinder the process of them occurring in the future. At Minimalist, we always suggest consulting a dermatologist to ensure if salicylic acid or any other skincare component would suit your skin. 

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