Salicylic Acid for Skin Explained (34 Studies): Everything You Need to Know!

by | Last updated Nov 7, 2019 | 57 comments

Aww, salicylic acid. 🤓 One of my all-time favorite ingredients with a longstanding history of scientific data to back its effectiveness.

Today, we’ll be summarizing all the relevant studies on this sexy lad in an easy, comprehensive manner. You’ll learn what it is, what it does for skin, possible side effects, how to use it — and most importantly, what products are formulated correctly so you don’t miss out on all the benefits!

Come on along now young grasshopper, let’s begin!

NOTE: here’s a table of contents you can use to skip ahead to any section.

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic Acid, often referred to as BHA (beta hydroxy acid), is a naturally occurring hormone produced by plants as a defense mechanism against environmental or pathogenic stress. (1It can be synthesized from willow trees and brush, thus the term “willowbark extract” you might have seen in some cosmetic formulas.

willowbark extract

Dietary sources of salicylic acid are commonly found in fruits, vegetable, herbs, spices, tea, wine, fruit juice, and ketchup. Its nutritional content may also play a role in lowering the risk of a**hole cancer. (23)

I mean… colon cancer. Apologies.

Benefits of Salicylic Acid

  • Treats Acne

Unlike most AHAs, salicylic acid (BHA) is oil soluble allowing it to penetrate into pores and dissolve clogs. It also exfoliates superficially through desquamation of the stratum corneum. (4)

English translation = it removes dead skin cells from the outer most layer of skin.

It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, a keratolytic, and prevents clogged pores meaning it addresses all major causes of acne. (5)

Multiple clinical trails have shown that using 0.5% to 2.0% salicylic acid pads (like Stridex in a red box) reduce the severity of acne, with some studies showing it’s even more effective than benzoyl peroxide. (6)

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Salicylic acid creams are also effective, with one study showing improvement in 95% of patients within 30 days.

UPDATE 4/17/19: similarly, three other studies have found that salicylic acid cleansers “significantly” reduce acne lesions. (33, 34, 35) The first of which showed it was more effective than using a benzoyl peroxide wash. This has been true for me personally. In fact, I give all credit to CeraVe SA Wash for completely eliminating my body acne! 🙂

The efficacy of salicylic acid peels has also been studied, with a couple clinical trials showing a 30% peel used every two weeks significantly decreases non-inflammatory and inflammatory acne (in other words, clogged pores in addition to swollen pimples). (789) Cooler yet, the peels had minimal irritation and caused no changes to skin hydration, pH, and transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

With that said, I would highly advise that newbies DO NOT begin with chemical peels — that’s for the more experienced users who’ve become accustom to weaker BHAs. ;p

15% salicylic acid peel muac

 Treats Hyperpigmentation.

The combination of ellagic and salicylic acid produces comparable results to 4% hydroquinone, a potent melanin-inhibiting prescription drug. (1011)

BHA is also suitable for darker skin tones, unlike AHA which could cause erythema or worsen hyperpigmentation under the right circumstances. (14) In fact, a study involving 25 people of color showed that 20% and 30% salicylic acid peels were effective against melasma and post inflammatory hyperpigmentation by resurfacing sun damaged skin. (121314)

The lightening capabilities of salicylic acid peels has been replicated time and time again, and is suitable for lighter skinned folks too. (1516, 17)

  • Prevents Aging.

Salicylic acid may have some anti-wrinkle effects. This area has been less studied so take these next couple of studies with a grain of salt. The first, a study involving mice.

Yeah yeah, I already know what your thinking. “Rats? We’re not rats! How is this relevant to us dude?” Unfortunately, it’s the best science we currently have :p

Anyway, a study involving mice showed that a 30% salicylic acid peel helped rebuild the connective tissue on the surface of skin, thereby reducing wrinkle depth.

As for the human studies — there’s evidence a derivative of salicylic acid called sodium salicylate has great anti-aging benefits. (18) It’s made by neutralizing salicylic acid with sodium hydroxide (lye), and on three different occasions has shown to significantly reduce wrinkles and skin roughness without irritation, making it a suitable ingredient for those with sensitive skin.

As you may know, sun protection is the most important defense against premature aging. In fact, up to 80% of age-related wrinkling can be attributed to sun exposure. Case in point — look what happened to this truck driver over the span of his 28 year career!

Luckily for us BHA doesn’t cause photosensitivity (i.e. increased sensitivity to the harmful effects of sun exposure) like AHAs do. In fact, it may even provide photoprotective properties!

For example, salicylic acid peels have been shown to prevent tumor growth by removing sun damaged cells and reducing carcinogenicity. (19202122) BHA also inhibits UVB-induced sunburn cell formation, and has been recommended by researchers as a topical protectant against sun damage. (23)

Another study found that using 2.0% salicylic acid for 3.5 weeks didn’t increase erythema (redness), DNA damage, or susceptibility to sunburn. (24) The same did not apply to 10% glycolic acid.

With that said, err on the side of caution with any product and don’t forget to use sunscreen! I’m watching you….

  • Treats Warts.

WARTS! It treats WARTS. Indeed, in one study 81% of patients were either cured or saw vast improvement after only two weeks of using 26% salicylic Acid. (25) Other studies have had similar cure rates (about 70%).

A note on the percentage: 26% is chemical peel strength, not something to try out of the blue. If you decide to treat a wart this way, take proper precautionary measures and do your research first!

Side Effects:

BHA may be irritating, cause dry skin, and if used excessively disrupt the acid mantle. (26, 27) Worst yet, skin that has a damaged moisture barrier absorbs salicylic acid more easily which could further exacerbate irritation. As a pair of researchers put it, BHA has “an inherent pH-related irritancy potential which is even more exacerbated on sensitive skin.” (28)

It’s possible to overdue it with salicylic acid. People often have a more is better mentality, but with skincare it’s often the opposite: less is more. The trick is having the willpower to not jump the gun and play the waiting game. Patience trumps impulsiveness. Skincare isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon!

Is Salicylic Acid pH Dependent?

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately. For the newbies out of the loop, a lot of people think that salicylic acid requires an acidity level of 4 or lower to effectively exfoliate the skin. This is not true.

Several studies have shown that neutralized forms of salicylic acid are just as effective. (29, 30, 31) In fact, in some situations using a salicylic acid product with low pH works at cross purposes by unnecessarily irritating the skin. (32)

How to Use Salicylic Acid:

Introduce it slowly. Start using it once or twice weekly. The next week increase to three times. The following week, 4 times. Continue doing this until irritation in the form of dry skin, peeling, redness etc. begins rearing its ugly head. The absolute most you should be using it is twice a day.

It’s not uncommon that BHA causes a “purging period” when acne gets worse initially. Don’t fret, this is simply the salicylic acid decongesting what was already there. Depending on how frequently you’re using it, the purging period might last anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks before subsiding.

Product Recommendations:

Because a well-formulated BHA product may be hard to find when you’re just getting started on your skincare journey, here’s a list of products that I have tried and liked. My personal favorites are the Humane BHA Toner and CeraVe SA Cleanser.

Good for sensitive, dry, or dehydrated skin.Cosrx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
Good for oily, tough skin. Avoid if you have sensitivities to malassezia!Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid
Good for normal to oily skin.Stridex Strength Medicated Pads
Good for all skin types. Eliminated my body acne! 🙂CeraVe SA Cleanser
Good for all skin types, super gentle! (Personal favorite)Humane BHA Toner

Alrighty, folks. That does it for salicylic acid. Hope you found this helpful!

Cheers,

—f.c.

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