Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Nancy Agrahari (Journalist) on 14th Aug 2020

Does Salicylic Acid in Face Wash or Cleansers actually work?

Salicylic Acid in face washes or cleansers

If you have been struggling with oily, acne-prone skin, then a gentle face cleanser is what you need. Good Face cleansers are the ones that gently cleanse and exfoliate the skin without drying them out.

But, the best cleansers are the ones that have potent exfoliants such as ‘Salicylic acid’ in them.

Salicylic acid or beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) is an age-old remedy that works by dissolving dead skin layers on the skin's surface. A 2013 study by the American Academy of Dermatology showed that 2% of the salicylic acid cleansing formulation when used daily significantly reduced acne without causing dryness or irritation.

It acts as a gentle exfoliator that digs deep into our skin to clear away dead skin cells and blocked pores giving you smooth, baby-soft skin.

Though it is a friendly acid, it is challenging to select the effective one from the lot. Read along to know how salicylic acid in face washes helps clear acne, choose the right face wash for all skin types, and tips for acne-prone skin. 

What causes acne? 

Our skin has tiny holes or pores when blocked by oil, dirt, dead skin cells, or bacteria develops pimples. When our skin is regularly treated to such conditions, then it has acne.

Though acne can be found anywhere in the body, it mostly develops on the face, neck, or back.

Since each pore has an opening to a follicle, they are made of hair and sebaceous or oil gland. These oil glands are the getaway to soft, hydrated, beautiful skin.

So, these glands have a job that includes taking sebum (oil) from the skin to the surface, resulting in soft, glowy skin. When these sebums trip through the way and miss reaching the skin's surface, it causes acne.  

Types of acne that can get benefits from Salicylic Acid

Acne-prone skin usually has blackheads or whiteheads on the surface. If you have been struggling with any of the following, using face washes with Salicylic acid is the right choice.  

  • Pustules or small red pimples with puss
  • Papules or small red bumps caused by inflammation or infected follicles 
  • Nodules or lumps usually caused beneath the surface of the skin 
  • Follow it up with a good non-comedogenic moisturizer.
  • Cysts or large lumps filled with pus that are often painful and red

Although Salicylic acid helps in preventing and reducing acne, it is not an acne-treatment for persistent acne. To get rid of stubborn acne, you can consider treatment serums such as 2% benzoyl peroxide facial serum or 2% Retinol serum. Salicylic acid, along with acne treatment serums, can work wonders.

Acnes are often developed during puberty when our body undergoes hormonal changes. Exposure to environment/pollution also triggers oil production, leading to acne.

Acne can also be due to certain medications or genetics. If you have a sugary tooth or love to eat chips and have acne, then a change in diet is long overdue.

Acne is more common in people with oily skin, but people with dry skin can develop acne more often than we think. Especially when skin becomes too dry, the oil glands beneath the surface produce excess oil to counteract it, which, if trapped along with dead cells, might result in acne. 

Minimalist Tip

Do not use Salicylic based face wash for dry skin with acne as it may further increase dryness. Instead, go for a mild SLS free cleanser and follow up with hydration and moisturizer. Yes! Both. 

Acne and Oily skin are BFF 

Usually, acne-prone skin goes hand in hand with oily skin. The acne-causing bacterias live deep inside pores and feed on oil. Thus, oily skin needs frequent cleaning to keep a check on the growth of these bacteria else they can wreak havoc on your skin. Dealing with oily skin can be frustrating as makeup does not stick, and most skincare products don’t suit you. If you, too, have replicated a mirrorball on enough occasions, you need a Minimalist approach.

Focus on key ingredients and formulation than marketing claims. One such magical ingredient for oily skin is Salicylic acid. It is clinically proven to unclog pores from inside by dissolving excess oil and dead cells and flushing out skin debris. It keeps your oil in check, thus cutting out food for C.acnes. But, salicylic acid in oil-based formulations might not be that effective or even can further worsen acne. Stay clear from non-comedogenic ingredients and oil-based formulations.

Another ingredient that helps to balance sebum activity and reduce excess oil is Niacinamide. Niacinamide serum in combination with zinc not only keeps your oil in check but act as anti acne serum and prevents breakouts.

Is Salicylic acid good for face wash? 

Salicylic acid or beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) is an incredible exfoliant that sheds off dead skin cells by penetrating deep into the pore lining and inhibiting the sebum production. It is an oil-soluble exfoliator and is often considered better than Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) for pore cleaning.

When it comes to face wash or cleansers, 2% Salicylic acid cleansers are clinically proven to perform better than 10 % benzoyl peroxide (hero ingredient for acne) cleanser or soap for reducing acne. Not to confuse here, the comparison is between effectiveness as face wash, not serums.

Thus, for oily skin, acne-prone skin salicylic acid face cleansers are a must. Our skin loves good exfoliators. SA refines pores by solubilizing with oil/keratin present in the pores, resulting in clean, bright, and blemish-free skin.

Research also shows that SA has anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties that help to reduce and prevent mild acne.

A high concentration of SA in face washes can reduce inflammation or acne to some extent, but for best results, 2% Salicylic acid serum can be included in the routine.

Since the leave-on serum is not washed away, it penetrates deep and provides exfoliation by promoting cell turnover from inside. Serums will also help keep your oil in check for a longer duration, giving you a much-desired matt look. 

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

Can you use Salicylic acid face wash and serum together? 

Minimalist Expert's Advice

People with normal and oily skin can use both (not more than 2% SA in each) in their skincare routine. Use the cleanser at AM and PM while serum once at night. People with dry skin or sensitive skin shall not use both to irritate the skin or increase dryness.

Best face wash for oily acne-prone skin 

Face Washes are known for good looks and clear skin. Although they are less drying than soaps, they often contain ingredients like sulfate, which cause dryness. You might think, isn't it the purpose - remove oil from the face? The truth is you do not want your oily skin to get dehydrated or lose natural oil completely. Balance is the key! If you rip off all oil and moisture from your skin, then your oil glands produce more oil to counteract. That is why your skin shines like a mirror even after cleaning it a few times.
Salicylic based cleansers are best for oily skin as they can control excess oil without causing dryness.

Tips for choosing the best face wash 

  • pH Balanced: Look for cleansers with a low pH value between 4.5 - 7, which helps maintain the skin’s pH, which is slightly acidic (avg 4.7). Soaps usually have high pH that can damage your skin’s delicate acid mantle on longer runs.
  • SLS Free: Find an SLS free formulation as sulfates can be too drying for the skin resulting in more oil production. SLS free formulation might foam less but are equally effective in cleaning. 
  • 2% Salicylic Acid: Read the declaration. Face washes with salicylic acid less than 2% might not be that effective. Concentration is much more important than 
  • Fragrance & Dye Free: Sadly, many anti-acne products, including cleansers, are full of fragrance & dyes that irritate and leave your skin dry. They are added for sensory appeal with zero impact on performance and sometimes added to give the product a more natural look for marketing.

Honestly, there are so many cosmetic companies that claim dramatic transformation or no more acne skin overnight. But the truth is there is no magic; it's all science.

Read labels and choose the right one for you! If it suits you, then continue for at least 2-3 months to see actual results. The best skincare products take time for sustainable results.

Other than choosing the right skincare products, avoid touching your pimples, squeeze them only when they need to be otherwise gently cleansed, and leave them alone. Stay hygienic and keep changing your pillow covers too.

How to use Salicylic acid cleanser?

Cleansers that contain 1-2% Salicylic acid are safe to use twice daily. Follow the instructions mentioned on the product. Wash your face with water and take out a coin size SA cleanser on your palm. If consistency is too thick, mix 1-2 drops of water and gently rub your face in a circular motion for 1 minute to spread it. Wash out with cold water.

Follow it up with 2% hyaluronic acid at night for plump, healthy skin.

People with hypersensitive or compromised skin are not advised to use Salicylic acid-based products.  

Sun Alert: Always wear a broad spectrum SPF 30 and above sunscreen while using Salicylic acid in your routine.

Get a Gentle SA Cleanser Now

The perfect skincare routine for acne-prone skin is a minimalist one. The simple one where you do not need to spend your fortune trying out different products from every brand out there!

The face wash or serum that delivers your hero ingredient (Salicylic acid) in a balanced, gentle formulation is all you need.

Along with using a gentle cleanser, take care of your skin every single day. Taking care of your overall health and following a skincare routine really pays off in the future. Always choose the products that your skin feels are right.

Every skin is different, so choosing one product for a family won’t really work. Be excited yet a minimalist, and choose what's best for your skin, every single time!