Putting an “acid” on your face sounds like something you wouldn’t want to do, but that’s not always the case. When it comes to skincare, some of the most effective ingredients you can use are alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). The most common BHA is salicylic acid. You can find it in salicylic acid lotions (which are often really toners) as well as salicylic acid creams for the body and face. Here’s a look at what it does, what kind of skin its best suited for, and should you use salicylic acid lotions in your beauty routine?
What is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that is derived from willow bark, and is closely related to aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) as well as lactic acid. While AHAs are water soluble, BHAs like salicylic acid are oil soluble. This means they can penetrate the skin more deeply than a water soluble ingredient.
What Does Salicylic Acid Do For the Skin?
Salicylic acid works as an exfoliator, which means it helps dissolve the dead skin cells on the surface of the skin. Exfoliation is a key part of any beauty regimen, as it helps accelerate skin cell turnover to reveal fresher, smoother looking skin. If you don’t shed dead surface skin cells, the face can look dry and dull. Dry, clogged pores also exaggerate the look of fine lines and wrinkles.
Physical exfoliators, such as a chunky scrub, also work to remove dead skin cells but they can be overly abrasive on the skin and cause micro-tears, which means they may do more damage than good. A chemical exfoliator, such as salicylic acid, is a more gentle way to exfoliate the skin as it isn’t abrasive. No scrubbing is necessary, and all you have to do is apply the product and let it work its magic – and by magic we mean that it breaks down the “glue” that keeps skin cells together, so they can easily be swept away. Although chemical peels don’t have the same instant gratification as a physical scrub, they do work to make skin smoother and softer over time. The results are cumulative, so a little patience is necessary.
Salicylic acid in creams and lotions also helps to unclog pores as it can penetrate deep into the skin; it basically extracts the gunk from inside the pores in addition to whisking away the skin’s surface cells. Like aspirin, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties which can help calm and soothe the skin, and minimize any irritation. Salicylic acid also dries quickly, which means it can be applied and there is no waiting time until the next product is used.
Salicylic acid targets blemishes, and helps clear up white heads and blackheads. Any bacteria on the skin’s surface is also zapped away thanks to salicylic acid, which helps keeps future breakouts at bay. It is one of the key ingredients in Formulyst’s Blemish Clearing Complex, which also contains camphor and colloidal sulphur. Beyond the blemishes, salicylic acid improves the look and feel of skin texture, and helps hydrate the skin which is why it is also found in body lotions. Because salicylic acid penetrates deeply into the skin, the rest of your skincare products will absorb better.
Who Should Use Salicylic Acid Creams and Lotions?
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 especially good 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 important to 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.
How Often Should Salicylic Acid Creams and Lotions be Used?
The general rule of thumb with any exfoliation, is to start off slowly, say once a week, and build up to doing it two to three times a week. Anyone with sensitive skin should proceed carefully to see how their skin reacts to it. If you are already using an exfoliator, whether that is a retinol or a scrub, you may want to take a break from these products before introducing a cream or lotion containing salicylic acid.
If you’re using a pad containing salicylic acid or a toner (often called a salicylic acid lotion), it should be applied after cleansing. Normally when applying skincare products you should wait to let it soak in before moving on to the next one. But after using a toner or pad with salicylic acid, no waiting time is needed. You can move directly to your next product such as a hydrating serum or moisturizer.
Are There Any Side Effects With Salicylic Acid Creams and Lotions?
As with anything, there can be too much of a good thing. If you use too much salicylic acid it can dry out the skin, cause redness or irritation, as well as peeling. Anyone with sensitive skin or redness should use salicylic acid cautiously. It’s common for skin to feel stinging or mild irritation when it is first applied. Using a product with salicylic acid can also increase sensitivity to the sun – so if you’re using products with it, make sure you are using a sunscreen with a high SPF. It can also be drying, which is why its best suited for oily skin. Anyone with an aspirin allergy should avoid using salicylic acid.
Can Salicylic Acid Creams and Lotions Be Used with AHAs?
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 and some products do 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 off 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 little trial and error to see how your skin reacts to it, and what works for you.
Here’s a look at some of the top salicylic acid creams and lotions:
The Ordinary 2% Salicylic Acid – Cult favorite The Ordinary has a strong fan base for this simple, affordable solution which contains 2% salicylic acid along with hamamelis Virginiana leaf water, a leaf derived witch hazel. The solution can be applied as a spot treatment or applied all over the face, but should not be rinsed off.
CeraVe Salicylic Acid Lotion for Rough & Bumpy Skin – If your body has rough, bumpy patches, a lotion with salicylic acid can help. Packed with salicylic acid as well as moisturizing ceramides, this body lotion from CeraVe leaves skin smooth and hydrated. It is gentle enough to be used every day.
Drunk Elephant TLC Sukari Babyfacial – This product is formulated to be applied as a weekly mask, and 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 along with milk thistle to soothe the skin. The mask can be applied once a week.
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Exfoliating Astringent Toner – Spiked with salicylic acid as well as camphor oil to gently unclog pores and give the skin a gentle exfoliation, this toner from La Roche-Posay can be used daily. Use it after cleansing and before moisturizing. It’s normal to feel a tingling sensation on the skin after application.
Origins Zero Oil Deep Pore Cleanser – Skin will be left feeling squeaky clean and smooth thanks to this foaming cleanser which contains salicylic acid, as well cooling mint and sage leaf extract. Saw palmetto, a type of palm tree, is another key ingredient that is thought to help calm skin. The cleanser is gentle enough that it can be used twice a day, in the morning and at night, but is best suited for oily skin.
Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Toner – Grape water and rose water help soothe and hydrate the skin, while 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.
Paula’s Choice Clear Acne Body Spray – The Clear Acne body spray contains 2% salicylic acid, and the lotion is delivered in a spray form for easy application. The spray helps to fight acne and exfoliate the skin. Other key ingredients include calming barberry extract and skin soothing licorice.