What is Salicylic Acid

Mar 29, 2021

What is Salicylic Acid and What Does it Do for Skin

Acne is the most common skin condition in the United States. Affecting up to 50 million people annually, acne can occur at any stage of life but is most common in adolescents and young adults. While there are many skincare ingredients that claim to treat acne, salicylic acid is one that is backed by extensive research that validates its effectiveness in clearing skin.

What is Salicylic Acid? 

Salicylic acid, which comes from willow bark, is a chemical exfoliant that is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). In scientific terms, the hydroxy part of the molecule separates from acid part by two carbon atoms. With an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA), such as glycolic acid, they are separated by one carbon atom. The molecule structure enables salicylic acid to deeply penetrate the skin.

Both BHA’s and AHA’s are exfoliators but BHA’s are oil-soluble, rather than water-soluble like AHA’s. Oil-soluble acids are able to penetrate the lipid layers between the skin skills easier than water-soluble acids. Salicylic acid can get so deeply into the skin that it can break down the connections between skin cells and dissolve some of the intracellular tissue that holds them together. This means it can get deeper into pores to unclog them. It also acts as anti-inflammatory that helps reduce puffiness and redness in pimples.

How Should it Be Used?

Salicylic acid is mainly used as an exfoliant to get rid of dead skin and excess oil and can be found in both cosmetics and drugs (OTC). People that want to treat acne or have oily skin usually benefit from using salicylic acid. It can cause irritation in some users’ skin so it should be used in small amounts to start until it can be determined how it is tolerated. Those users that are going to use it in the sunlight should only apply it at night.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends that the salicylic acid level for acne-fighting products be between 0.5 percent and 2 percent. The amount of concentration of salicylic acid varies by user so it recommended that the label includes information on how to best use it for those that have not used it before. Since it does react with everyone’s skin in a different manner, caution should be used when starting a salicylic regime. Cosmetic manufacturers should combine this ingredient with one that soothes the skin to help minimize irritation it might cause the user.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the amount of salicylic acid that can be used daily depends on its strength and the type of form.  For example, a lotion that is 1-2% salicylic acid can be used up to 1 to 3 times a day to treat acne.

What Products Can Salicylic Acid Be Used In

As a powerful acne fighter, salicylic acid is most often found in acne spot treatment products.  The ingredient is also found in cleansers, toners, serums, and peels. It can be used to target certain skin issues in addition to acne, such as oily skin. It should not be used in products for those with dry or sensitive skin because depending on the number of applications, it could be too harsh and cause dryness, redness, and irritation.

It does not only treat facial skin issues like acne and blackheads, however.  It can also be found in products used to treat dandruff and warts. At lower levels, this ingredient can increase the desquamation process and help with dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, which occur when skin cells are slow to slough off.

Benefits of Salicylic Acid

Cosmetic brands might consider incorporating salicylic acid as it has a number of benefits.

  • Exfoliator: Salicylic acid is a keratolytic medication, which means it sloughs off dead skin cells and increases cell turnover. This improves skin texture by softening the top layer of skin cells.
  • Unclogs Pores: Salicylic acid penetrate pores and loosens clogged pores that lead to acne like small pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads.
  • Prevents Whiteheads and Blackheads: Salicylic acid treats existing acne, but also dissolves skin debris that clogs pores, so whiteheads and blackheads do not return to the skin’s surface.
  • Decreases Oil: Since this acid is oil-soluble it goes beneath the surface of the skin to clean out excess sebum from pores, which reduces oiliness. This can also lead to smaller pores.
  • Anti-inflammatory: Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties that reduces redness, puffiness, and irritation that accompany acne breakouts.
  • Peeling Agent: In higher concentrations, this ingredient can be used as a peel to treat acne, acne scars, age spots, and melasma.

What Skin Types Should Products with Salicylic Acid Target

Salicylic acid works well for those with oily skin that is prone to superficial acne and blackheads and whiteheads. (Cystic acne might need oral therapies in conjunction with this ingredient). It is best marketed for those that suffer from acne either on a regular basis or for spot treatment.

It should not be used on damaged skin or skin that has been irritated with conditions such as eczema.  Since it can be drying, it is recommended to include a caution about performing a patch test before using on skin.

Label Requirements for Salicylic Acid

The FDA has label requirements that are required for all over-the-counter topical acne products.  The label must include warnings about skin irritation, peeling, and dryness, especially when used with other products. It is recommended to perform a patch test and then start with one application per day, and then gradually increase to two or three times a day. The label must also include directions on how to use the topical acne medication.  Because this acid is a strong and fast-acting ingredient, it is best to provide this information to the consumer.

If your product skin line does not include a product with salicylic acid, consider adding this powerful ingredient. Evora Worldwide can help you create a product that incorporates salicylic acid.

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