Salicylic Acid a.k.a. BHA: The Complete Guide

Salicylic acid isn't the gold standard in acne treatments without reason. In the images below you can see the results some of our clients experienced using salicylic acid for their acne. However, salicylic acid does more than just treat pimples.

In this post I'm going to tell you all you need to know about what salicylic acid is, how to use it and what to expect when you start using it. I'll cover the following topics:

What is salicylic acid and how does it work?

Salicylic acid, also called beta hydroxy acid or BHA, is a chemical exfoliant. Chemical exfoliants dissolve the "glue" that holds dull, dead skin cells to the surface of the skin, allowing them to shed off more easily. This results in smoother, healthier looking skin. Salicylic acid also has anti-inflammatory properties. and some studies suggest that it helps protect the skin from sun damage as well.

How is salicylic acid different from AHAs like glycolic acid and lactic acid?

AHAs are also chemical exfoliants. While salicylic acid is oil soluble however, AHAs are not. Salicylic acid's oil solubility allows it to penetrate your pores where it dissolves clogs and exfoliate the pore lining. This makes it especially beneficial for acne, which includes blackheads, whiteheads and pimples, and for helping minimise the appearance of enlarged pores.

Salicylic acid, acne and fungal acne

Acne occurs when your pores get clogged with oil and dead skin cells. Acne that is not inflamed takes the form of blackheads and whiteheads, while inflamed acne, take the form of pimples and cysts. Salicylic acid attacks acne on multiple fronts. It has antibacterial properties and helps kill off the C. acne bacteria implicated in inflamed acne; helps reduce inflammation; and it also helps break up clogs in your pores and keeps new clogs from forming. For those who prefer illustration to text, here's a nice one that shows how a pimple forms and gets infected and how salicylic acid - the blue spheres in the video - then saves the day.

Fungal acne, on the other hand, is caused by the malassezia fungus that lives on your skin. This fungus is an opportunistic pathogen. This means that it only tends to cause disease when our immunity is in some way compromised. Among other things, fungal acne can also be triggered by prolonged antibiotic use and tends to get worse in hot and humid climates. Salicylic acid also has potent anti-fungal properties that make it an exceptional choice for individuals with fungal acne as well, but only when used in a fungal acne safe formula.

While salicylic acid is an exceptional treatment for both acne and fungal acne, bear in mind that it's not enough to just use the ingredient though. The formulation and ingredient concentration matter and could mean the difference between exceptional results and skin that's irritated and visibly worse than it was before. Proper use matters too - overuse can irritate the skin while using too little might not give you the results you're looking for. Lastly, make sure that your skincare routine is built on a solid foundation. You can learn more about how to build a skincare routine from scratch here.

What else is salicylic acid good for?

In addition to the treatment of acne and fungal acne, salicylic acid is also used to treat dandruff, psoriasis, calluses, corns, keratosis pilaris and warts. Salicylic acid, and other chemical exfoliants such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, also help pigmentation, and other signs of skin ageing.

AccuFix Salicylic Acid Moisturiser and AccuFix Salicylic Acid Emulsion

How to use salicylic acid

If you want complete sample routines based on the type and intensity of acne you have, you can find them here for acne vulgaris, i.e. bacterial acne, and here for fungal acne. If you're only looking for general guidelines on how to use salicylic acid, I'm going to cover those now.

Over-the-counter salicylic acid products tend to contain the ingredient at a concentration of between 0.5% and 2% and come in a variety of formats from cleansers to serums. When starting out with any chemical exfoliant, including salicylic acid, start slowly and see how your skin responds - this entails starting by using a low to moderate strength product 2 to 3 times per week and slowly building up to as much as your skin is able to tolerate. Everyone is able to tolerate different levels of exfoliation and its important to ensure that you don't overdo it so you don't end up irritating your skin and compromising your skin barrier.

Refrain from using multiple exfoliating products in your routine, especially if they contain high concentrations of exfoliants. If at any point your skin feels dry, tight or irritated, take that as a sign of over-exfoliation and cut back. Also avoid combining too many actives together to avoid irritation and always introduce them into your routine one at a time, with the space of a few weeks in between. If you have very little to no acne, salicylic acid in a wash-off format, such as a cleanser, might be all you need to gently exfoliate and prevent acne.

If your skin is sensitive, build up your skin barrier before you start using actives by using a gentle cleanser, loading up on moisturiser, and using ingredients like niacinamide, that help support and rebuild a compromised skin barrier. Avoid exfoliants if your skin is prone to eczema and be diligent with sunscreen, since exfoliation can often make your skin more sensitive to the sun, to ensure that you get the most out of the time, money and effort you put into your skin care routine.

Salicylic acid is pregnancy safe in concentrations of up to 2% and is safe for daily use on the face if your skin is able to tolerate it. However, it is not the best ingredient to use if you’re looking to exfoliate or treat large areas of your body over a prolonged time period.

Bear in mind that persistent use of a good salicylic acid product is necessary to maintain results even if after your skin has cleared. Skincare is like a diet - you only stay thin as long as you stay on the diet. Acne doesn’t have a universal cure and returns if you stop taking care of your skin. In my experience this holds true even for individuals who've been through courses of aggressive medications like isotretinoin. If they don't maintain a good skincare routine, they often see their acne return around a year down the road.

Salicylic acid and purging


Ingredients like salicylic acid, retinol, and AHAs, that increase skin cell turnover, can sometimes lead to a purge when you first incorporate them into your routine. Purging is normal and subsides on its own, typically within 4 to 6 weeks. It tends to happen in areas where you usually get breakouts. While it can look unpleasant initially, the clear skin that follows after a purge makes it well worth tolerating it. However, a purge can sometimes be avoided, or its intensity reduced, by introducing actives into your routine slowly.

Our salicylic acid product range

Scroll to the end for a table that summarises the key characteristic of each product.


Product

Description/Format

Salicylic Acid Concentration

Other Beneficial Ingredients