If there is one ingredient that stands out as a clear winner in the battle against breakouts, it is Salicylic Acid. This versatile ingredient is easy to use and when used correctly, works for a wide range of skin types to help soothe acne-prone skin, cull active breakouts, diminish scarring and clear the skin of spots and bumps.
BUT WHAT, EXACTLY, IS SALICYLIC ACID?
Salicylic Acid is a derivative of Willow Bark and belongs to a class of acids known as salicylates. It is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (aka BHA), which means that the hydroxy part of the molecule is separated from the acid part by two carbon atoms as opposed to an alpha hydroxy acid (also commonly known as AHA) where they're separated by one carbon atom. This unique structure of Salicylic Acid is where its actual benefits lie, since that makes it oil-soluble and gives it the ability to penetrate into the deepest layers of the skin.
Since Salicylic Acid can penetrate through the lipid layers of the skin more easily, it helps unclog pores more effectively than other exfoliators and makes it a potent ingredient to target acne, especially blackheads and whiteheads (once it penetrates into the skin, Salicylic Acid helps dissolve the debris that clogs pores, acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent and helps red, inflamed pimples and pustules go away faster).
AS AN EXFOLIATOR:
If you're new to chemical based exfoliators, Salicylic Acid is a great ingredient to start with: this works-for-all-skin-types chemical exfoliator can penetrate so deeply into the skin that it actually helps break down some of the intracellular bond that helps keep two cells glued together. This breakdown is what promotes the exfoliation in the deeper layers of the skin. Salicylic Acid also works to loosen and break apart desmosomes (the bonds between cells in the outer layer of skin), encouraging the exfoliation of skin and unclogging of pores in the exterior of the skin as well.
FOR BLACKHEADS & WHITEHEADS:
Acne is believed to be the result of two main factors: excessive oiliness in the skin and an irregular shedding of dead skin cells. Salicylic Acid helps with the latter by dissolving the debris that clogs pores and causes acne, helping break down keratin plugs (bumps on your skin that are white or pink in color and develop when hair follicles get clogged with dead skin cells and a protein called Keratin) and regulate your skin cycle.
Salicylic Acid is also believed to be effective on cystic acne, but less so as compared to blackheads and whiteheads.
SIDE-EFFECTS & APPLICATION:
While Salicylic Acid can result in redness, peeling and some irritation (especially if you have extremely dry skin) depending on the concentration of the product and the number of applications, Salicylic Acid-based products are completely safe to use - even more so for those with oily and acne-prone skin - when used appropriately and in-line with what your skin needs and can tolerate. However, if you are pregnant, nursing or on certain medications (including blood thinners), make sure to check with your doctor before incorporating a Salicylic Acid-based product in your routine. And as always, ensure that you do a patch test before starting on any new ingredient or product to help minimize the risk of reaction.