Active Ingredients: Salicylic Acid

Chloe Song Beauty Expert
Active Ingredients: Salicylic Acid

A must-have exfoliating ingredient for acne-prone and oily skin

Even if you’re new to skincare, chemical exfoliating is definitely something you’ve heard about, or is already a part of your skincare regime. When it comes to chemical exfoliating, the main benefits it boasts are helping to get rid of dead skin cells, boosting cell turnover and improving the skin’s overall texture and complexion.

If you’re new to chemical exfoliating, head over to our Chemical Exfoliating 101 blog.

In the world of chemical exfoliating, there are a few options available for you. It all depends on your skin type and skin concerns. Salicylic acid is a BHA, short for beta-hydroxy acid, a chemical exfoliant that does wonders for acne-prone, oily and congested skin. Salicylic acid belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates that includes aspirin and is often used to relieve inflammation. Salicylic acid is a desmolytic ingredient, meaning it targets certain protein bonds in the skin (desmosomes) that keeps dead skin cells holding onto the skin which affects the skin’s natural turnover process.

If you’re curious about the differences between AHAs and BHAs, click here to find which suits you more. A key difference is that AHAs works better for surface-level concerns (pigmentation) whilst BHAs works better at a deeper level.

Salicylic acid is extracted from willow tree bark which is why sometimes you’ll see some BHA products marketed to contain Willow Tree Bark extract, which is essentially salicylic acid. Comparing to the infamous glycolic acid and other AHAs (water-soluble), salicylic acid is oil-soluble meaning it is able to penetrate through sebum and exfoliate deep within the pores. Hence, why salicylic acid is recommended for people with oilier skin types, and promises to reduce whiteheads, blackheads and acne.



Exfoliates the skin

  • Being a chemical exfoliant, salicylic acid removes dead skin cells, buildup in the cells and encourages cellular turnover that contributes to improved complexion and skin texture.
  • Salicylic acid is also a keratolytic that helps break down the outer layer of the skin and allow your skin to better bind moisture, as well as preventing excessive skin from forming. 

Combats all acne

  • Acne has various types, not just pimples. In fact, whiteheads and blackheads are also considered acne. Salicylic acid has the ability to break down the buildup (bacteria, dirt, sebum) in your pores that would have led to breakouts, whiteheads and blackheads, making it easier for them to be cleansed.

Soothes inflammation

  • You might think it weird that a chemical exfoliant can help calm inflammation, but salicylic acid is a type of salicylates that is often used to help calm inflammation which is why they are effective against inflamed acne.

Regulates excess sebum

  • As salicylic acid can penetrate through the oil in the skin and remove them, it can lead to reduced oiliness and overtime balance the skin’s sebum production. 

Tighten enlarged pores

  • Enlarged pores are often caused because the pores are filled with buildup and oil and aren’t cleansed properly. By cleaning deep into the pores, the appearance of enlarged pores will reduce after consistent use.


What to note?

  • Although salicylic acid is a relatively gentle acid, it should still be approached with caution, especially those with dry, sensitive or eczema skin. With all acids, you should start with a low percentage and slowly increase concentration and use after your skin has grown a tolerance.
  • Common side effects of using salicylic acid is a tingling sensation, dryness or irritation. These are all common at the initial stage but should not persist. If the side effects continue, please cease use and consult a doctor.
  • Salicylic acid causes the skin to be more sensitive to UV rays as it causes thinning of the skin, hence, it is important to follow up with sunscreen or limit sun exposure.
  • You can find salicylic acid at various concentration levels. The most common is 1-2%, usually a toner. Higher concentrations usually range from 4-9% and are used to treat persistent concerns regarding pores and aging. Products with 0.5% do provide slight exfoliation but works better to soothe the skin.


Products we recommend and where to find them


COSRX Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser

cosrx Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser

One of our bestsellers, you can never go wrong with this. This daily salicylic acid cleanser by COSRX helps remove excess sebum, impurities and leaves the skin feeling smooth and soft. Other than salicylic acid is also contains botanical ingredients that purifies the skin without over-drying it. 

The INKEY List Salicylic Acid Cleanser

the inkey list salicylic acid cleanser

This cleanser by The INKEY List is my go-to cleanser. It isn’t drying, lightly foaming and suitable for day and night. It contains 2% salicylic acid and helps to reduce breakouts, sebum production and removes all buildup.

Paula’s Choice Clear Pore Normalizing Cleanser

paula's choice Clear Pore Normalizing Cleanser

A gentle, acne-fighting cleanser is completely non-irritating and guarantees to not strip the skin of its natural oils. It contains 0.5% salicylic acid meaning it would also soothe inflamed skin and will be particularly helpful for those with inflamed acne.



Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

paula's choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

A cult favorite. The #1 Paula’s Choice worldwide. This toner + exfoliant is suitable for daily use and visibly evens out the skin, reduces fine lines and wrinkles and minimize pore buildup.

Pixi Clarity Tonic

pixi clarity tonic

This toner by Pixi features a blend of AHAs and BHAs (glycolic, lactic and salicylic acid). It helps to promote clearer looking skin by gentle exfoliating the skin and unclogging pores. It also has aloe vera extract that hydrates and soothe the skin so that your skin won’t feel dry.  

Benton Aloe BHA Toner

benton aloe bha toner

This aloe vera infused toner also contains snail secretion filtrate and 0.5% salicylic acid that all work together to moisturize and exfoliate the skin for improved skin texture.



The INKEY List Beta Hydroxy Acid Exfoliant

the inkey list beta hydroxy acid

This exfoliating serum is potent, yet gentle. It works to “unglue” dead skin cells clinging on to your skin and other debris. This serum is great for targeting blackheads, reduces excess sebum and helps unclog pores.

The INKEY List Succinic Acid Blemish Treatment

the inkey list Succinic Acid Blemish Treatment

This blemish cream contains 2% succinic acid that works to reduce the blemish size, 1% salicylic acid that unclogs and exfoliate pores, and 0.4% hyaluronic acid that delivers hydration to the skin as well as helping your skin to better absorb the product. Just apply a pea-sized amount to wherever your blemishes appear.

The INKEY List C-50 Blemish Night Treatment

the inkey list C-50 Blemish Night Treatment

A PM-only product that helps to treat active blemishes and prevent future breakouts by fighting acne-causing bacteria and regulating sebum production. It also helps to soothe inflammation and reduce redness caused by inflamed acne. 

The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

the ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution

A formulation of both AHA and BHA that has found massed following in the skincare realm. This leave-on exfoliating treatment improves the appearance of skin texture, reduces blemishes, clears pore congestion and results in a brighter and more youthful looking skin.



CeraVe SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin

cerave SA Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin

Containing ceramides, hyaluronic acid, salicylic and lactic acid, this moisturizer improves skin texture, and even hydrates and restores the skin’s barrier.

La Roche Posay Effaclar Mat Sebo-Controlling Moisturiser

la roche posay Effaclar Mat Sebo-Controlling Moisturiser

Formulated for oily skin. This mattifying moisturizer targets excess oil and reduces enlarged pores. It is formulated with micro-exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid that hydrates the skin, whilst leaving it looking and feeling shine-free.



The Ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque

the ordinary Salicylic Acid 2% Masque

This mask by The Ordinary contains salicylic acid, charcoal, clay and squalane that is perfect for those with congested and acne-prone skin as it works to exfoliate the skin of buildup, dead skin cells and also soothe any inflammation.


Chemical exfoliating can seem complicated and even more so the type of chemical exfoliant that you should be using. A short summary of salicylic acid is that it is more suited for those with oilier, congested and acne-prone skin types. Those looking to reduce hyperpigmentation and other surface-level concerns should look towards AHAs. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment down below.

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