Salicylic acid: what it is and the skincare products to stock up on

Inflammation? Clogged pores? Breakouts? Meet the wonder ingredient that helps to get rid of them all

salicylic acid
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Inflammation? Clogged pores? Breakouts? Meet the wonder ingredient that helps to get rid of them all

It doesn't exactly sound like something you'd readily slather on your skin, but salicylic acid is super beneficial for a whole host of reasons.

You'll see it on the label of many of the best spot treatments and skincare products for oily skin. So what exactly is it, where does it come from, and how exactly does it work on our skin? Read on to find out all about it.

What is salicylic acid?

'Salicylic acid is a BHA – beta hydroxy acid – exfoliating acid that is considered the gold standard for blemish prevention,' explains Daniel Isaacs, Director of Education at Medik8.

'Oil-soluble, it can penetrate the skin with ease and is able to soften and dissolve keratin, a protein naturally found in the skin that can block pores by causing skin cells to stick together.' It's these properties that enable salicylic to tackle blemishes so effectively.

salicylic acid

(Image credit: Getty Images)

'Salicylic acid is a natural plant hormone that helps fend off environmental nasties,' adds Mark Curry, co-founder of The Inkey List. 'However, we can use this to remove dead skin cells and sebum from our skin and pores.

'Removing old skin cells and debris – like sebum and oil – and ensuring new skin cells can thrive, it therefore supports acne-prone skin and helps it look more evenly toned.'

What does salicylic acid do to your skin?

As mentioned above, one of the biggest benefits of this ingredient is its ability to de-clog pores, making light work of blackheads and blemishes over time.

'Salicylic acid penetrates deep into pores to break down skin cells and sebum to clear blockages,' explains Isaacs. 'This not only helps to diminish existing blemishes, but also prevents their appearance in the future. It is also in the aspirin family and has a host of anti-inflammatory benefits. It is able to reduce the inflammation of red and sore blemishes to help speed up the healing process.'

It's also a great ingredient for irritation. 'Alongside this, salicylic acid is also able to calm our skin, as it kick-starts cells to produce anti-inflammatory products at the same time,' Mark adds.

If you're using acids for the first time your skin might feel a little tingly, but over time it'll get used to them. Which brings us to...

Avoid over-using

As with any new active, it's important to remember that your skin may find acids irritating initially and that they should be introduced gradually. 'With exfoliating acids, balance is key. It is very easy to sensitise the skin depending on your choice of daily AHA or BHA,' explains Isaacs. 'Therefore it is important to know your skin type and, if you have sensitive skin, it's important to limit your use of twice daily products to maybe once a day, or two to three times a week.

'However, our Medik8 our products that contain exfoliating acids are enriched with hydrating, moisturising and calming ingredients to enhance the experience of using our products and to reduce any irritation.'

Remember that if you're using acids during the day, it's even more important that you follow up with an SPF. Keep reading for the Marie Claire-approved list of BHA products below. Happy shopping!

Lucy Abbersteen
Beauty Contributor

Lucy is a freelance beauty editor and contributor at Marie Claire, and has written for titles including Glamour, Refinery29, Popsugar, woman&home and more. She was previously Marie Claire’s junior beauty editor. During her career, she’s covered everything from backstage beauty at fashion week to interviews with famous faces like Drag Race royalty and Little Mix. As for her beauty ethos, she’s a big advocate for not having to spend a fortune on beauty products to get good results, and when she’s not got beauty on the brain you’ll find her reading or hanging out with dogs.