Salicylic Acid; what it does, how it works, and what skin concerns it works for

Salicylic Acid; what it does, how it works, and what skin concerns it works for

Salicylic acid, informally known as acne’s arch nemesis has gained some serious street cred for banishing breakouts, and for good reason. If acne is one of your main skin concerns, then in terms of key ingredients you should be incorporating into your skincare, salicylic acid should be just about at the top of the list. 

Salicylic acid is commonly found in spot treatments due to its acne-fighting abilities, and if you’ve ever used one, you’ll know that in the morning pimples appear noticeably smaller and more dried up. But fewer people know how it works. So here is our step-by-step guide to salicylic acid including what it can do for your skin, and how best to reap its many benefits. 

What is salicylic acid?

Let’s start with the basics. Salicylic acid is derived from willow bark and belongs to a class of ingredients called salicylates. If you’re at all familiar with acids used on the skin, you’ve likely come across the two main classes of acids found in skincare; beta hydroxy acids and alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs and BHAs). Salicylic acid belongs to the BHA family due to its carbon atom structure (we won’t bore you by delving too deeply into the details). 

All you need to know is that the structure of BHAs is important because it means that it is more oil soluble, being it can penetrate the skin and the pores more deeply. AHAs and BHAs are most commonly known for their exfoliating properties but AHAs are water soluble, whereas BHAs are oil soluble. As a general rule, oil-soluble ingredients tend to be able to penetrate the skin more deeply through the lipid layers. So basically, AHAs work to loosen dead skin on the surface, whereas BHAs such as salicylic acid work more deeply to unclog pores. 

What benefits does salicylic acid have for the skin?

Because salicylic acid can get deep into the skin, this makes it a particularly beneficial ingredient for targeting acne - especially blackheads and whiteheads. Once it penetrates the skin, salicylic acid works by dissolving skin debris that clog pores and acts as an anti-inflammatory which helps deflate pimples and make them disappear faster. 

As we mentioned earlier, it also works well as an exfoliant. It works by softening and sloughing away the top layer of the skin cells, which reveals newer more glowy skin beneath. Salicylic acid also works to unclog pores - which is a known contributor to acne and breakouts. So basically, it’s just an effective deep clean for the skin that helps to get to the root of the problem. 

Is salicylic acid safe to use?

Absolutely, while its abilities may seem drastic salicylic acid is completely safe to use on most skin types. However, try to avoid using too much too soon. We always recommend introducing any active ingredients slowly to the skin at first and building up over time to avoid any adverse reactions. If you notice any irritability, cease using it immediately and speak to your doctor or dermatologist. If you have severely dry or sensitive skin it’s best to consult an expert before use. 

This being said, the concentration for most skincare products including salicylic acid is relatively low so if used appropriately, it is usually tolerated well. But less is definitely more, start with a small amount and build up over time. Also, avoid layering it all over and instead focus mainly on the areas that are prone to breakouts. 

How often can you use salicylic acid?

Once you’ve established that your skin isn’t going to react badly to the ingredient, you can eventually start using it daily if your skin tolerates it. If you have oily skin, for example, salicylic acid is usually ok to use each day. If you have sensitive or dry skin, it might be best to use it every few days instead to avoid any irritation. Test the product every other day before you start committing to using it on a daily basis. 

What are the best salicylic acid products for acne-prone skin?

As with a lot of things in life, the answer depends largely on the individual. But as a general rule of thumb, you can incorporate salicylic acid into almost any of your skincare products from cleansers through to serums. If you’re experiencing severe breakouts on a semi-frequent basis then it might be good to incorporate the ingredient over a range of your skincare products. Whereas if you are only getting the odd pimple, you can probably break this down to a single serum or even a spot treatment. This can work really well for mild acne, especially if you apply it early on. 


Cleansers are often the unsung heroes of the skincare world. But, the first step in your skincare routine is equally as important as the last and it begs respect, especially if you suffer from acne. Cleansers, by nature, are designed to prep and purify the skin and while it may not be as exciting as the latest serum sweeping social media by storm, it can be the difference between a good skincare routine and a great one. 

Incorporating salicylic acid into your cleanser is a great way of giving your skin a deep cleanse. Our Purifying Gel Cleanser does exactly that. This water-activated gel formula provides a deep and clarifying cleanse that helps calm and restore balance to oil skin. It will unclog pores with exfoliating salicylic acid while also combatting oil imbalance with niacinamide and matmarine extract, both known contributors to acne and breakouts. 

It also includes calming ingredients such as chamomile and cucumber which will help reduce redness and help calm painful pimples. 


An at-home peel can be exactly what the doctor orders when it comes to resetting your skin. Our multi-acid Resurfacing AHA/BHA Peel is up for the job, inspired by the clinic to resurface and revitalise your skin for a clearer and more radiant complexion. Salicylic acid is incorporated to penetrate the skin deeply to exfoliate, decongest and clear breakout and clogged pores. This, coupled with lactic acid (a gentle AHA) will get to work on the surface layer of the skin promoting a more youthful-looking glow. 


It is also often found in serums, it works well in this format as serums tend to sit on the skin for long periods of time, meaning it can penetrate the skin and get to work clearing acne. 

Are there any ingredients you can’t use with salicylic acid?

Glycolic Acid 

Both salicylic and glycolic acid work by removing dead skin cells from the upper layers of the skin, but more is not always better. While you can use both glycolic and salicylic acid throughout the day, it is recommended not to use them at the same time. Mixing the two can lead to irritation and cause a reaction in your skin, which could lead to damage to the skin barrier. If you still want to incorporate a glycolic acid we recommend using it in the morning and your salicylic acid products in the evening to be on the safe side. 

Ready to banish breakouts for good?

If it sounds like salicylic acid could benefit your skin but you’re not too sure where to start then we have just the thing. Our range of essential kits gives you exactly what you need to be your own Skinsmith at home for specific skin concerns. They come with everything you need to achieve glowing, healthy skin with a consistent routine. Our Banish Breakouts PRO Essentials Kit comes jam-packed with everything you need to treat acne-prone skin. 

Combat oil imbalance and clogged pores to reveal a clearer complexion with the Purifying Gel Cleanser, Active Clarifying Toner, Resurfacing AHA/BHA Peel, PRO Niacinamide, Rebalancing Moisturiser and Daily Antioxidant Defence SPF30. All of these products have been expertly crafted and chosen to combat blemishes, including the use of salicylic acid as one of the main active ingredients. It truly is the holy grail for those wishing to make acne and breakouts a thing of the past! By bundling all the ingredients you can not only save significantly, but you can ensure you have all the right ingredients and formulations to target your specific skincare needs. 

Find out more about the products included in the stellar lineup here