Welcome to the beauty glossary. In this new regular series, the Bazaar beauty team breaks down the hottest ingredients in the industry today, exploring exactly how they work on the skin and the products you’ll find them in.
The star of many teenage skin rituals, salicylic acid may just be one of the first skincare ingredients you’ve come to know and relied on.
But now, with the increase in adult acne across the country, you might want to welcome this cleansing acid back into your routine. Fortunately, the formulations have come a long way since you first chose that sticky, drying out gel and salicylic acid can now be found in a bevy of awesome products, from targeted treatments to toners, from serums to creams.
Here, see everything you need to know about salicylic acid, including Bazaar verdict on the best products to try now.
What is salicylic acid and how does it work?
Salicylic acid belongs to the family of skin care acids, but it is different from others. Glycolic, lactic and mandelic acids are all alpha-hydroxy acids, while salicylic is classified as a beta-hydroxy acid: in fact, it is the only one used in skin care.
âComing naturally from willow bark, this fat-soluble beta-hydroxy acid penetrates the follicles to break down oil build-up, reducing and preventing pore blockages,â explains the dermatologist. Dr Dennis Gross.
Of course, salicylic acid is renowned for its stain-fighting powers, but a good product will actually do a lot more than reduce an angry spot, as Dr. Gross explains. âA keratolytic agent, salicylic acid reduces the pH of the skin and increases hydration as well as the process of desquamation (the shedding of dead skin cells). It can also directly dissolve keratin plugs (known as keratosis pilaris) and regulate skin cells to fight acne and blemishes. “
What are the differences between an AHA and a BHA?
AHAs and BHAs act at different levels on the skin, hence their different classification. AHAs are water soluble acids (usually derived from sugar cane, milk, and citrus fruits). They work on the skin’s surface, dissolving the desmosome bonds – think of them as the glue that holds dead skin cells together – revealing fresher skin just below. BHA is oil soluble and therefore works both on the surface and deeper inside the pore, dissolving trapped debris and excess sebum that lead to rashes.
What skin types should use salicylic acid?
“Salicylic acid is suitable for all skin types, but is particularly effective on blemish and patchy types because it helps prevent pore blockages and contains anti-inflammatory properties.” Dr Gross said. However, anyone with an aspirin allergy should avoid products containing salicylic acid, as they both belong to the same family of compounds (and therefore your skin may be intolerant).
How to use salicylic acid at home
Traditionally, salicylic acid has been used extensively in gels and spot blemish treatments, but its powers are now being harnessed for prevention and healing. A salicylic acid cleanser is a good ally for acne-prone skin, as it will help keep pores always clear, thus preventing breakouts before they occur. A serum is another great option, while easily overloaded skin types will love a treatment tonic or mist.
The Best Salicylic Acid Products To Try Now
The booster serum
10% BHA / AHA night switch
This nighttime serum contains a trio of acids that work together to clarify breakout-prone skin. Lactic (a milder AHA than glycolic) acts on the surface, while salicylic penetrates the pores and azelaic acid reduces inflammation. Use it a few nights a week, ideally under the brand’s simple yet effective style. Universal emulsion Moisturizer.
Anti-blemish and anti-aging cleanser
This smart cleansing gel provides an instant feeling of freshness on congested skin. It’s formulated with both glycolic and salicylic acids, providing multi-level exfoliation while removing dirt and pollution.
2% BHA liquid exfoliant
This BHA toner is one of Paula Begoun’s most beloved products. Refreshingly simple but highly effective, the almost gelatinous liquid contains beta-hydroxy acid which cleanses the pores along with a handful of hydrating and calming ingredients. He’s a cult hero for a very good reason.
Freeze in place
Breakout Clarifying Gel by Dr Dennis Gross
There are plenty of spot salicylic acid treatments that line the shelves, but many tend to dry out the skin around a spot, leaving redness or flaking appearing.
This extremely fast-acting gel contains both salicylic and glycolic acids, so it works on multiple layers of the skin to unclog, soothe and heal a rash.
The multi-acid mask
Super Pore-Detox Purifying Black Clay Mask
This weekly cleansing mask contains a host of ingredients that work together to absorb dirt and excess oil, dissolve dead skin cells, and calm rash inflammation. A combination of glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acids is infused with a base of kaolin clay: it’s not for the very sensitive, but most skin types should see amazingly brighter, clearer skin.
EradiKate Salicylic Acid Blemish Treatment
Kate Somerville’s widely regarded Salicylic Acid Serum combines BHA with moisture-absorbing seaweed extracts and hyaluronic acid, which balance the skin barrier while removing impurities. Slide it over areas of congestion or use it all over to refine excessively large pores.
KILLA â¢ Kit
US $ 31.50
There are several pimple patches on the market today, but these are by far the most advanced. Each emergency sachet contains a pre-treatment pad to clean the area, infused with tea tree and salicylic, and a “ Killa ” adhesive patch, which uses microdart technology to deliver a dose of niacinamide and acid salicylic acid directly at the root of the break. Call them when you need a reliable solution overnight.
Treatment of blackheads
BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
Leader of K-Beauty, Cosrx is a benchmark for no-frills skin care that truly deserves its cult status (even Emily Ratajkowski is a fan of it). The ingredient list for this blackhead treatment is exemplary – it contains a mild, diluted level of salicylic acid alongside humectants and soothing willow bark water. There is an excellent salicylic acid cleanser in the line, too.
Blemish control buttons
These slip-on salicylic acid swabs are one of the easiest ways to clarify skin – they’re pre-soaked so you get the perfect dose every time.
Basically, they don’t contain drying alcohols which can make rashes worse and are loaded with salicylic acid as well as glycerin and allantoin to reduce redness and inflammation. Use one each night, letting the solution dry on the skin before applying a mild moisturizer.
Alpha Beta Exfoliating Body Treatment
Dr. Dennis Gross has reformulated his cult Alpha Beta Exfoliating Wipes specifically for the body. Apply them to areas of keratosis pilaris, body acne or just stubbornly rough skin for a quick and satisfying transformation.
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