Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Gopika Suresh (Journalist)  on 13th Jan 2021

How does Salicylic Acid (BHA) help Acne-Prone Skin?

How does Salicylic Acid help Acne-Prone Skin?

Salicylic acid is no newcomer to the skincare industry. Most of us know it as an excellent exfoliator that cleans your pores and helps in reducing acne. One could find many salicylic acid products in the market ranging from cleansers, face washes, and facial scrubs. It works best on mild acne like whiteheads and blackheads and can prevent future breakouts as well. Read more to know about how salicylic acid is an excellent exfoliator for acne-prone skin!  

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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Alpha and beta hydroxy acids - the two acid categories of skincare 

Although you may have heard of salicylic acid and its benefits, it's crucial to understand how it works before you use it. Most of you must have heard of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). In skincare products, these make up the two acid categories.  

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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Difference between beta hydroxy acids and alpha hydroxy acids  

In beta hydroxy acids, the molecule's hydroxy end is separated from the acid by two carbon atoms. However, in alpha hydroxy acids, only one carbon atom splits them. Although both AHAs and BHAs can exfoliate your skin well, AHAs are water-soluble, and BHAs are oil-soluble, according to Sejal Shah, a board-certified dermatologist. Lactic and glycolic acids are examples of common AHA'S. 

Oil-soluble ingredients penetrate deeper into the skin  

Shah states that oil-soluble ingredients can travel better through the lipid layers of your skin. In simple words, water-soluble components have less penetrating capacity than oil-soluble ones that can penetrate the pores on the skin. Doing so, AHAs can give you a fresh look by loosening the old, dead skin. However, BHAs take it one step ahead and work deeper inside on unclogging your pores.  

What makes salicylic acid work so well?  

Salicylic acid, obtained from willow bark, is a beta hydroxy acid. It belongs to a category called salicylates. It can dissolve in oils and can deep clean your skin.  

What does salicylic acid do for the skin?

It is not surprising that salicylic acid is so popular among dermatologists and other experts. It is a staple piece in several people's skincare kits as it is one of the best ingredients to treat acne, whiteheads, and blackheads.

Experts state that when your skin comes in contact with the acid, the top layer's shedding happens. The dead, dull skin you may notice is often the topmost layer made of dead skin cells. This layer would also be impacted with acne due to blocked pores. Chances are, if you have any redness or skin inflammation, salicylic acid may take care of that as well.  

How does salicylic acid work on acne? 

When your hair follicles or pores on the skin are blocked by oil and dead skin cells, whiteheads or closed clogged pores, blackheads or open clogged pores, blemishes or pimples tend to appear. Salicylic acid penetrates the skin and works on dissolving the pores clogged with dead skin cells. Although it may take a few weeks to see full results, you may check with your dermatologist if you don't notice any changes after six weeks.  

Cleanse with salicylic acid 

Although benzoyl peroxide is more popular, look for over the counter skincare products that use salicylic acid as it is more effective in treating blackheads and whiteheads caused due to dead skin cells and excess oil.

Choose a good, daily cleanser infused with salicylic acid to remove oil, makeup, and dirt.
Although dermatologists recommend washing your face twice a day, try restricting the salicylic acid cleanser to just once a day to start with. You could use it at night only and wash your face with the regular cleanser the next morning. Once your skin gets used to the product, you may use it twice - both day and night.

However, it is essential to note that some people can be sensitive to salicylic acid and cannot use it for more than a few days. If you notice any adverse reactions, discontinue it.  

Salicylic acid is an excellent exfoliant 

Salicylic acid can break down dead skin cells and is a great exfoliator. It is a keratolytic drug that produces softer outer layers of skin.

Salicylic acid carries out a 'hemolytic' action. By doing so, the cells on the skin's outer layers break apart after loosening. While suffering from acne, skin cells do not behave normally. Instead, they clog pores by sticking together by having an unhealthy skin cell cycle, creating blackheads. Salicylic acid removes the dead skin cells by loosening them. This dissolves blackheads and acne.

Salicylic acid works best on blackheads and whiteheads 

Abnormal scraping off of the skin, excessive oil, and the action of microorganism causes acne. Salicylic acid helps control the first as it breaks down the dead skin cells and debris on your skin and prevents clogging of pores and acne. It is a great addition to your skincare routine as it dissolves the keratin plugs and allows the skin cells to function properly. It can treat cystic acne as it is antibacterial. However, it treats mild acne, whiteheads, and blackheads better.  

Is it okay to use salicylic acid(SA) every day? 

Most experts don't recommend using salicylic acid every single day or all day. Like any other chemical exfoliant, you must give your skin the time to get used to its working slowly.  

Minimalist advice:

You could consider staring once in three days and gradually increase the dosage as your skin begins to accept it. Those with conditions like eczema and rosacea must take special care while using salicylic acid and only under a doctor's guidance.  

Does salicylic acid have any side effects? 

Although experts claim that salicylic acid is safe to use, it may cause skin irritation initially as it may remove too much oil and cause dryness.  

Other potential side effects of using salicylic acid include: 

  • skin stinging or tingling  
  • peeling skin  
  • itching  
  • Hives 

Salicylic acid toxicity 

Salicylic acid can sometimes cause toxicity. Please refrain from using too much of it all over your body. Moreover, please do not wear it under tight clothes. If you feel that you are experiencing any dizziness, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, etc., stop using it and call your doctor.  

Precautions to take before using salicylic acid 

Do not use salicylic acid on children below the age of two. If you are taking any other medications, oral or topical, take salicylic acid with caution. Moreover, if you have diabetes, chickenpox, flu, kidney disease, etc., inform your dermatologist.  

Using salicylic acid while pregnant or breastfeeding 

Though the ACOG/American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists claims that it's safe to use salicylic acid during pregnancy, remember to consult your doctor first.
A 2018 study stated that salicylic acid is unlikely to be absorbed into breast milk. However, you must not apply to the areas that come in contact with your infant's mouth or skin.  


Although there is no complete cure for acne, salicylic acid's exfoliating properties have helped many. However, don't expect to see changes overnight. Make sure to use it with patience for at least four to six weeks. After consulting with your dermatologist, you may give it a shot as it can do wonders to some skin types.