Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Aheli Sen (Fashion & Beauty Expert)  on 11th Jan 2021

Salicylic acid for acne? How it helps acne-prone skin to prevent future breakouts 

How it helps acne-prone skin

Salicylic Acid for Acne

More often than not, we resort to various products and are in a huge hurry to get rid of our acne. The impatience makes sense! No one wants to live with pimples on their face, or anywhere else for that matter! But it is not the solution.

Everything takes time; skincare takes 4 to 5 weeks to show results, and acne takes longer because the root cause needs to be corrected. Holding patience is key, along with switching from one to another product because we think that the product is not working is a huge mistake. Please choose the right product, check the ingredients at the back, consult a dermatologist, do what you need to select the right or at least right-ish product, and then give it time.

Now to the discussion; salicylic acid is a tried and tested product to eliminate acne, blackheads, and whiteheads and oil and prevent the same.  

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

Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum

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When to use: PM

Frequency: Alternate days

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What is salicylic acid? 

Let us first discuss the two types of chemical exfoliants – AHA (Alpha Hydroxy Acid) and BHA (Beta Hydroxy Acid). Both can dissolve the glue that binds dead skin cells to help a new, glowing skin surface.  

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

AHA PHA BHA 32% Face Peel

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When to use: PM

Frequency: Once in 2 weeks

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Salicylic acid is BHA. It is derived from willow trees. It can dissolve in oil. It is thus golden for the treatment of blackheads, whiteheads, and oily skin.

Salicylic acid helps the skin decrease its irritation and redness from acne. Being an anti-inflammatory agent, it helps soothe skin affected from getting pimples. It also helps break down dead skin cell binding to ensure that bacteria cease to infest the skin and cause pimples. Thus, salicylic acid not only helps treat acne, but it also helps prevent the same.  

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So, how does acne dissolve under the influence of salicylic acid?

So how do pimples occur generally? It generally occurs and in the most common way when hair follicles get clogged with dead skin cells on the face. The binding of the dead skin cells on the face is by the oil produced by the skin called sebum. This results in blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, etc.

This is where salicylic acid saves the day. It dissolves away dead skin cell slough, thus freeing pores from clogging. It prevents the buildup of oil and dead skin cells, which contribute to the formation of bacteria. It takes salicylic acid six weeks approximately to get under the skin and solve all your acne problems. 

How to use salicylic acid and in what dosage: 

The best way to learn about your skin-specific dosage and form is to consult a doctor. The doctor will understand the correct format and dosage per your skin’s requirement.

The application area is usually limited to the area or patches of skin affected, and the application period is usually only for a couple of days (2-3 days). 

According to most skin clinics, adults should use a topical product to clear their acne, such as: 

Form Percent(%) of salicylic acidFrequency of usage
lotion 1–2% 1 to 3 times per day
gel0.5–5% once per day

pads0.5–5% 1 to 3 times per day
solution0.5–2% 1 to 3 times per day
ointment3–6% as needed
soap0.5–5% as needed

Products that contain higher concentrations of salicylic acid is usually used as exfoliants. 

Salicylic acid, when used in higher concentrations as a peeling agent, is for the treatment of: 

1. Pimples –

salicylic acid treats, heals and prevents the formation of a pimple. As an exfoliant, it prevents acne-causing bacteria from infesting the skin. How does this happen? As an exfoliant, it breaks the skin bonds of dead skin cells and excess oil, and in this process, the bacteria fails to find a place as its habitat. This is how acne is prevented. It also helps to soothe the skin well to heal and treat acne conditions. 

2. Pimple scars –

Again. The exfoliant side of salicylic acid helps remove dead skin cells and, in doing so, helps the skin increase cell regeneration. This helps old, scarred skin from acne or pimple peel away and bring into a light well, healthy, new, and smooth to feel and look skin. 

3. Dark spots –

Just as salicylic acid exfoliates skin to heal scars, it fades away dark spots by peeling off old, dead skin with age and sunspots to reveal bright, new skin. 

4. Melasma –

Ethanol solutions of salicylic acid act as the best forms of the acid as a peeling agent of dead skin cells. Thus, often salicylic acid in this format is used to treat melasma

5. Age spots -

Just as salicylic acid exfoliates skin to heal scars, it fades away dark spots by peeling off old, dead skin with age and sunspots to reveal bright, new skin. 

6. Blackheads and whiteheads –

directly targeted by salicylic acid, while it exfoliates the skin, it removes the excess skin that holds the said blackhead and whitehead. This is how it removes and prevents the skin from accumulating both black and whiteheads. It dissolves keratin plugs to regulate skin cell regeneration.

Does salicylic acid cause any side effects? 

A mostly safe-to-use product, salicylic acid is an ingredient that is good to use in less concentration. However, when used in higher concentrations and left on the skin for too long, it has the potential to dry skin out aggressively and lead to inflammation and skin irritation.

In some cases, the skin has been seen to peel off or break out into hives (this happens especially when the skin type in question is sensitive skin). Higher concentrations also cause the skin to sting or feel tingly. 

Precautions to go through before using salicylic acid 

Even though salicylic acid is just something that is available over the counter, it is best to consult your dermatologist before using it. As mentioned above, it would be the best as the doctor would know how much of it use and in what format by you for your skin type and condition. 

The following considerations to discuss must include: 

  • Allergies - Having your doctor aware of your allergies is key. Let her/him know if you have experienced allergies to salicylic acid or any other topical medications. 
  • Usage by children -. It must not be used by children below the age of 2 years. 
  • Drug interactions - A lot of medicines do not react well with salicylic acid, so letting your doctor know about the medications that you are under would be great. 
  • Pregnancy – It has been certified that salicylic acid cannot be used by women who are pregnant or they are breastfeeding. The reason? Salicylic acid is highly similar to aspirin, and aspirin is strongly not recommended for such conditions. Again, if really required, it is best to take advice from the doctor to treat acne and realize what is ok to use and what is not. 


Although there’s no complete cure or treatment for acne, salicylic acid has been shown to help clear breakouts for many people. Cystic acne also can be solved with the help of salicylic acid to a certain extent.

People with sensitive skin should stick to the lowest concentrations of salicylic acid and, first and foremost, do a patch test before going in full on.

Talk with a doctor or dermatologist(dermal) to see if salicylic acid is appropriate for your skin and your current health condition.