Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Mahek Chawla (Dietitian & Nutritionist)  on 27th Nov 2020

Salicylic Acid Cleanser, Cream or Serum? Which One Should You Choose?

Salicylic Acid Cleanser, Cream or Serum?

Salicylic acid, yes, you might have heard or seen the name more than any other skincare ingredient by now! With more than 100 facial acids available in the market and more variants of each acid, it is tedious to select the right one for your skin. But salicylic acid has been the hero since time immemorial, with documented anecdotes and clinical trials for its efficacy.

We have mentioned the use of salicylic acid previously in a separate blog, which you can refer to, and you'll know precisely what salicylic acid does in your cleanser.

Our article is dedicated to helping you understand the science behind salicylic acid present in beauty products and the beauty that it promises.

Today, we'd like to broaden your salicylic acid spectrum because of its omnipresence. It is present in face washes, cleansers, shampoos, serums, lotions, creams, gels, etc. These products have salicylic acid in varying concentrations because they are used for specific skin-related issues. To deconstruct this broad spectrum of salicylic acid, we'll today tell you how three main salicylic dominant products are different from each other:

Salicylic face wash, cleanser, creams and serums.

Before we hop on to the main topic, let's rewind a bit and recall what salicylic acid is and how it works?

Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant of the group called BHAs, i.e., beta hydroxy acids. BHAs, unlike its brethren AHAs are oil-soluble acids known to be used for many skin disorders.

Due to its exceptional property of solubilizing in oil, it has been used for treating oily acne-prone skin for a very long time now. Being a chemical exfoliant, it does not harm the skin leaving rashes or pits like physical exfoliants. Instead, it works on the grass-root level and penetrates deep into the epidermis layers to slough off the dead cells present on the outermost layer. It does so by softening keratin, a protein that provides structure to the skin. It is thus called a keratolytic agent.  

Salicylic Cleansers

Let's get started with the most widely used product, irrespective of age and gender; a cleanser. Moreover, salicylic acid cleansers are the most admired cleansers among teenagers and young adults.

Cleansers are cleaning agents that work superficially on the skin to remove, treat and prevent skin woes like acne, dirt, debris, sebum, etc.

The term superficially needs to be kept in mind when using a cleanser or face wash to treat any issue because most skin disorders need a comprehensive treatment, which seldom has an exogenous cause. Acne, whiteheads, blackheads, cysts, etc., are often caused due to endogenous and exogenous factors.

When targeting to treat different acne types caused due to bacterial overgrowth, sweating, excess oil on the surface, dirt, open pores, or an unhygienic and unhealthy environment, salicylic acids work the best.

With concentrations ranging from 0.5 - 2% and a pH range of 3.5 to 5, salicylic acid is prescribed and advised by acclaimed dermatologists and estheticians for acne.

All age groups and genders can use salicylic acid cleansers with a concentration of 0.5% to 2% without fear. It is highly compatible and effective for oily and acne-prone skin.

Any over the counter product works just fine unless your skin is highly damaged due to other forms of acne. Most OTC cleansers have a concentration of 1 % or 2%, which is also very safe to be used twice a day or as per your need.

It leaves your skin fresh, tight, and blemish-free with continuous use. While starting with any salicylic acid cleanser, you might feel a little stinginess and dryness, which signifies that your product works well on the skin.  

NOTE: dryness, stinginess, slight itching is no doubt the most symptoms of salicylic acid. If any sign persists for more than three weeks, discontinue the product or consult a professional.

Although oily skin individuals mostly use salicylic acid, people with dry skin can also include salicylic acid if they suffer from acne caused due to exogenous factors.   


when using salicylic acid, always use a moisturizer or any product that balances the dryness. This tip is for all skin types. 

Salicylic acid creams

Creams, lotions, or gels dominantly containing salicylic acid have a concentration of more than the safest one, that is 2%. They usually contain salicylic acid in a more free and active form with more than 2% concentration.

The cream is a semi-solid substance for topical application with an emulsion chemical state that is either water in oil emulsion or oil in water emulsion. Salicylic acid being oil soluble, is very useful with oil-based carrier vehicles as it solubilizes in oil and also dissolves the oil or sebum on the epidermis.   

Salicylic acid creams and spot treatment: 

Due to the high concentration in creams, ointments, or gels, they are mostly used as a spot treatment for acne, blemishes, acne scars, etc.

Spot treatment means to treat or heal only the affected area by applying a concentrated source of the active ingredient, which will work effectively on a particular damaged area or scarred tissue without damaging or affecting the rest of the face.

Spot treatments are supposed to be prescription treatments. Still, with advanced research and development, there are various generic spot ointments now available in the market for you to give a shot if needed. Spot treatments should be preferably used when your skin is clean and not exposed to any irritant at night before bed.

Different spot treatments include benzoyl peroxide, arbutin, niacinamide, clindamycin, salicylic acid, retinoids, etc. 

Granactive Retinoid 2% Face Cream
Granactive Retinoid 2% Face Cream
Granactive Retinoid 2% Face Cream
Granactive Retinoid 2% Face Cream

Granactive Retinoid 2% Face Cream

₹ 689

When to use: PM

Frequency: Twice a week

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NOTE: targeted lotions or ointments are recommended only for individuals who have specific damaged tissue or skin and not for people with oily but clear skin.  

Salicylic acid serum:

Serums are the newly added line of treatment in our beauty world. With marketing tricks, it also is a magnificent treat for a wide range of users. Many brands & companies have come up with their formulation of different AHAs, BHAs, vitamin serums, and whatnot. But what genuinely are serums?

A serum is a concentrated form of active ingredients in a liquid phase. The active ingredients are suspended with water or compatible gels that are highly absorbable into the epidermis layers. This makes serums highly efficient in delivering potent active ingredients at the cellular level. Creams and serums are drastically different with the same purpose to serve the skin because of their formulations. Serums skip the addition of oils, emulsions, or thickening agents that give bulk to the product, making serums very lightweight.  

What makes salicylic serums special? 

Now that you know what a serum is and its highly potent formulation, salicylic acid serums are what you should know about. With advanced technology, serums' molecular size is also reduced drastically, which is very beneficial, especially for chemical exfoliants like salicylic acid. This makes their penetration super effective and comfortable, allowing the salicylic acid to work its way on the softening and breaking of keratin, the structural protein. This keratolytic ability of serums is also achievable because of their high concentration.

According to a study, salicylic acid containing 2% to 5% concentration is more effective than more than 5% concentration. With lightweight, small molecular size, and top quality raw salicylic acid, a serum can be of high value.

The salicylic acid serum is a multipurpose product when compared to face washes and lotions. Any ingredient that stays on the skin for a more extended period and is highly porous is much more effective in treating and preventing acne, whiteheads, blackheads, etc., than products like cleansers or creams which stay on the skin for not more than 20 secs or few hours. Additionally, creams can be irritating for oily skin; thus, salicylic acid cream might not be the first choice for most oily and acne-prone skin individuals.

Moreover, the feel-good texture, lightweight, and easy application of serums make it more tempting. The salicylic acid serum can be used in the AM as well as PM. 4-5 drops dispensed via a dropper are usually enough to apply evenly all over the face. When operating in AM, complete the step with a minimum of 30 SPF sunscreen as acids have photoreceptive properties. When used in the PM, salicylic acid can be either used alone or clubbed with other ingredients if you need it because it is compatible with a few products like niacinamide and other BHAs.  


We don't recommend combining acids like salicylic acid with retinoids as they both have a similar mechanism of action. 

In the end, now that you know the difference between the three exciting products of skincare, choose wisely. A salicylic acid cleanser can be combined with a serum for oily skin and acne-prone skin, but people with dry skin should not go overboard. Salicylic acid lotion and serum should not be used together for any skin type as too much of anything can be destructive.  


As a teenager, I have had acne in the past and was not aware of this fantastic ingredient. Still, thanks to the internet and my curiosity, I've been using salicylic acid for quite a long time now to treat acne. I can't emphasize more on its effectiveness, and it's definitely the least irritating serum for your face, which serves various purposes mentioned here 

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

View details

At Minimalist, we have tried to make the serum more appealing and beneficial for our users by adding aloe juice instead of any water or aqua base. Aloe, as we all know, is our in house remedy to a plethora of woes, thus making your skin clear and less vulnerable post usage.