12 of the Best Salicylic Acid Products for a Clear Complexion

SKIN CARE REVIEWS

07.28.21DISCLAIMER

If you’re dealing with clogged pores, breakouts, pronounced fine lines, or an overall dull complexion, then it’s about time you added a salicylic acid cleanser or salicylic acid lotion to your skincare routine. While putting an “acid” on your face sounds ominous, when appropriately used, SA is an evidence-based ingredient that’s both safe and effective.

Of course, the key is using the best salicylic acid products. This powerhouse additive can be found in just about every type of skincare formulation — even a salicylic acid cream or salicylic acid moisturizer to help counteract any potential dryness.

If you find yourself asking, “how does salicylic acid work?” or you’re not sure what type of products to look for, we’ve got you covered. Here at Deep Science, we’ve reviewed hundreds of formulations with a scientific lens to ensure you’re creating a results-driven skincare routine.

Whether you’re battling age or acne, here are 12 of the best salicylic acid products for a clear complexion. 

Salicylic Acid Products: The List 

BEST OVERALL
Carrot & Stick The Brightening Pads, $40

FULL LIST
Formulyst Retexturizing and Perfecting Serum, $39

The Ordinary 2% Salicylic Acid, $6.50

Vichy Normaderm Purifying Lotion, $15

Murad Clarifying Oil-Free Water Gel, $44

Strivectin New Daily Reveal Exfoliating Pads, $45

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Exfoliating Astringent, $23.99

Drunk Elephant TLC Sukari Babyfacial, $80

Origins Zero Oil Deep Pore Cleanser, $25

Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner, $28

Peter Thomas Roth Acne-Clear Matte Moisturizer, $38

SkinCeuticals LHA Toner, $40

The Science Behind Salicylic Acid Products 

Salicylic acid is the most commonly used beta hydroxy acid or BHA in cosmetics and skincare products. BHAs are a class of acids that exfoliate the skin, removing dead skin cells and lifting dirt and oils. For this reason, salicylic acid is well known for its ability to help reduce blemishes and acne, which is why it’s found in many over-the-counter or OTC acne products.

Additionally, salicylic acid is used in anti-aging skincare products due to its brightening abilities. It functions as an exfoliant by softening and dissolving keratin, thus allowing dead skin cells to shed naturally.

Studies suggest that the exfoliating properties of salicylic acid may reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. Over time, exfoliation helps to reduce the thickness of the layer of dead skin cells, giving the skin a brighter, more glowing appearance.

In terms of chemistry, salicylic acid is an organic compound made up of a carboxylic acid functional group (-COOH) and a hydroxyl functional group (-OH) separated by two carbon atoms. The hydroxyl and carboxylic acid groups are attached directly to an aromatic benzene ring rather than along a linear carbon chain with salicylic acid.

What to Look for in the Best Salicylic Acid Products 

 

The Type of Product

A salicylic cleanser will work differently than a salicylic acid moisturizer, so think about your routine, skincare goals, and where salicylic acid products fit in. For example, a salicylic acid lotion may be of interest if you want to control oil and blemishes, whereas a peel is a more desirable choice for those looking to improve skin texture. Suppose you’re worried about drying out your skin. In that case, a salicylic acid moisturizer is a better place to start. 

 

Moisturizing Ingredients

You can’t go wrong with using a product of any kind that’s also formulated with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acid and vitamin E. These additives can help counteract dryness without aggravating an oily, acneic condition. 

 

Clean Formulas

Salicylic acid on its own can cause skin sensitivities for some people. Don’t exacerbate the risk of irritation with a formula that’s riddled with artificial colors and fragrances and other offenders such as parabens, silicones, SLS, denatured alcohol, and chemical screens. 

How to Use Salicylic Acid Products

The general rule of thumb with any exfoliation is to start slowly, about once a week, and build up to three to four times a week.

  • Anyone with sensitive skin should proceed carefully to see how their skin reacts to it. Suppose you are already using an exfoliator such as retinol or scrub. In that case, you may want to take a break from these products before introducing a cream or lotion containing salicylic acid.
  • Typically, it would be best if you waited a couple of minutes for each skincare step to soak in before moving on to the next one. However, no waiting time is needed after using a toner (often called a salicylic acid lotion) or peel pad formulated with SA. You can move directly to your following product, such as a hydrating serum and moisturizer.
  • If you’re using a salicylic acid moisturizer or cream for the face, use it at night when the skin is not exposed to the sun’s rays — SA makes the skin more sensitive to burning. 

Precautions When Using Salicylic Acid  

As with anything, there can be too much of a good thing. An overabundance of salicylic acid can dry out the skin and cause redness, irritation, and peeling. Start slow — about two to three times a week, once a day — as you gradually build up your tolerance.

  • Anyone with sensitive skin or redness should use salicylic acid cautiously. However, it’s not uncommon for skin to feel a slight tingling or mild irritation when a salicylic acid product is first applied.
  • Due to its exfoliative properties, salicylic acid can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight. For this reason, the FDA recommends using a sunscreen containing SPF 30 or more in conjunction with any product containing salicylic acid. The FDA even has a labeling law that requires a sun sensitivity warning on all salicylic acid products.
  • Despite its anti-aging properties, salicylic acid can be drying, so it’s best suited for oily skin. Lastly, anyone with an aspirin allergy should avoid using salicylic acid.

Best Salicylic Acid Products

BEST OVERALL
Carrot & Stick The Brightening Pads, $40
Reveal a fresh, smooth, and radiant complexion with these pre-saturated pads. A concentrated blend of salicylic, lactic, and mandelic acids sweeps away the build-up of dead skin cells, gently exfoliating to promote clarity, refine texture, and rid pores of impurities. Herbal extracts fight visible photodamage and help keep the appearance of redness in check. Resurfaced skin is smoother, brighter, and more receptive to products.

FULL LIST
Formulyst Retexturizing and Perfecting Serum, $39
When it comes to exfoliating and deeply cleansing your skin, soluble acid groups like alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) are more effective than physical exfoliants, which can scratch and irritate your skin. Expertly formulated to exfoliate, clean gently, and refine pores, This serum maximizes an active AHA complex, which helps remove dead cells and visibly reveals the brighter, healthier skin beneath.

The Ordinary 2% Salicylic Acid, $6.50
Cult-favorite The Ordinary has a solid fan base for this simple, affordable solution containing 2% salicylic acid and hamamelis Virginiana leaf water, a leaf-derived witch hazel. The solution can be applied as a spot treatment, or it can be used all over the face but should not be rinsed off.

Vichy Normaderm Purifying Lotion, $15
Salicylic, and glycolic acid are the hero ingredients in Vichy’s Normaderm Purifying Lotion. The acid duo help to treat acne and unclog pores. Skin is left feeling matte and clean, as well as balanced. Apply to a cotton pad and swipe across the face.

Murad Clarifying Oil-Free Water Gel, $44
Yes, oily, acne-prone skin can also be plagued with dryness, but this salicylic acid moisturizer targets both concerns. Hyaluronic acid deeply hydrates while SA exfoliates and refines pores for a balanced, non-greasy finish. Korean red pine extract helps stop quorum sensing, a process known to cause microbiome imbalance and irritation.

Strivectin New Daily Reveal Exfoliating Pads, $45
Four different types of acids (alpha hydroxy, beta hydroxy, polyhydroxy, and tranexamic) boost the skin’s natural exfoliation rate in just three days, resulting in a more even skin tone and glowing complexion. Because the peel solution is saturated in micro-peel fiber pads, you benefit from physical exfoliation, too.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Exfoliating Astringent, $23.99
Favored by dermatologists, the La Roche-Posay brand is known for producing effective skincare products suitable for all skin types, including our oily friends who are sensitive. Not only does this results-driven salicylic acid lotion smooth skin texture and control oil, but it also gently exfoliates with an impressive blend of LHA (a typical exfoliant for oily skin types), citric, and salicylic acids.

Drunk Elephant TLC Sukari Babyfacial, $80
This product is formulated to be applied as a weekly mask. It contains a cocktail of skin exfoliating and softening ingredients, including glycolic, tartaric, lactic, citric, and salicylic acids. Rounding out the ingredients list are antioxidants such as matcha tea and apple fruit, and milk thistle to soothe the skin.

Origins Zero Oil Deep Pore Cleanser, $25
Your skin will be left feeling squeaky clean and smooth, thanks to this foaming salicylic acid cleanser formulated with cooling mint and sage leaf extract. Saw palmetto, a type of palm tree, is another critical ingredient to help calm skin. The formula is gentle enough to be used twice a day but is best suited for oily skin.

Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner, $28
Grape water and rose water help soothe and hydrate the skin. At the same time, salicylic acid works to unclog pores and provide a gentle exfoliation. Organic essential oils from peppermint and rosemary have antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Apply this toner after cleansing and before moisturizing.

Peter Thomas Roth Acne-Clear Matte Moisturizer, $38
Hormonal breakouts are tricky. It’s unpredictable, and it can often be associated with painful cystic acne that forms under the skin along the chin, jawline, and cheeks. Even so, it still needs ample hydration to soothe the look of dry, flaky, overly treated acne-prone skin. This matte gel salicylic acid cream for the face harnesses the power of 2% salicylic acid to help clear acne blemishes and prevent future breakouts.

SkinCeuticals LHA Toner, $40
Oily, acne-prone skin is no match for the LHA Toner from Skinceuticals. This toner is ideal for aging skin — because breakouts can pop up at any age. It’s formulated with three different types of acids — lipo-hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, and salicylic acid — to get rid of dead skin cells gently, unclog pores and fight acne. The low pH of the toner means skin will feel refreshed rather than dry and tight.

Salicylic Acid Products: The Bottom Line

Salicylic acid is the most commonly used beta hydroxy acid or BHA in cosmetics and skincare products. BHAs are a class of acids that exfoliate the skin, removing dead skin cells and lifting dirt and oils. For this reason, salicylic acid is well known for its ability to help reduce blemishes and acne, which is why it is found in many over-the-counter or OTC acne products.

Additionally, salicylic acid is used in anti-aging skincare products due to its brightening abilities. It functions as an exfoliant by softening and dissolving keratin, thus allowing dead skin cells to shed naturally.

When shopping for salicylic acid products, consider your skincare goals and routine. Look for formulas void of toxic ingredients like the suspicious six, but with hydrating additives like hyaluronic acid and vitamin E to help counteract any potential dryness.

As with anything, there can be too much of a good thing. An overabundance of salicylic acid can dry out the skin and cause redness, irritation, and peeling. Start slow — about two to three times a week, once a day — as you gradually build up your tolerance. Most importantly, don’t forget to pair SA with a sunscreen containing a minimum SPF of 30 to prevent burnt, sun-damaged skin.

 

FAQs

Just about anyone looking to make their complexion look smoother and more radiant can benefit from incorporating salicylic acid into their beauty routine. It is perfect for anyone with oily and acne-prone skin as it helps clear up blackheads and whiteheads and also helps to smooth out any facial bumps. Most products only contain 0.5 to 2 percent of salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid body lotions are designed to help smooth and soften rough areas of the skin, such as legs, elbows, and knees. It’s also helpful for bumpy skin on the body, but it’s essential not to use a body lotion containing salicylic acid on the face, and vice versa, as facial skin is much thinner than the skin around the elbows and knees.

As with many beauty questions, it depends, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to beauty routines. Yes, they can be used together. Some products contain a mix of AHAs and BHAs, such as serums from The Ordinary AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution and Drunk Elephant’s T.L.C. Sukari Babyfacial.

A good rule of thumb is to start with one type of acid and then alternate between the two and see how your skin reacts. But as both AHAs and BHAs perform the same function, they are both effective. It comes down to a bit of trial and error to see how your skin reacts to it and what works for you.

Vitamin C is extremely unstable, so the pH balance will be thrown off by layering it with salicylic acid, making it useless. However, you can use the ingredients during different periods or days of the week, providing your skin isn’t in a sensitized, irritated state.
While you can use salicylic acid every day, it could irritate the skin. With that said, many skincare professionals recommend using SA in moderation, beginning by applying it two to three times a week and working up from there.
Yes, you can either choose a salicylic acid moisturizer or apply a different formula after a product, such as a salicylic lotion. When you combine salicylic acid with a moisturizer, you’re chemically exfoliating your skin while giving it the hydration it needs to avoid additional breakouts due to an oil imbalance.

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