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If you’ve dealt with breakouts, you probably have a few go-to products in your skincare drawers (looking at you, charcoal masks and glycolic peels). And these ingredients all work great for various acne or congestion-related concerns.
But the real MVP is salicylic acid. Here’s why and how to start incorporating it into your routine.
Let’s start with the basics. When it comes to skincare, there are lots of acids to choose from. The majority of these all into two main categories, alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs).
AHAs, which include glycolic acid, malic acid, lactic acid and mandelic acid, are gentle, water-based molecules that work to “unglue” the bonds that hold dead skin cells to the face, thereby evenly exfoliating the skin.
Naturally derived AHAs are generally derived from plants or fruits:
The most widely studied - and often considered to be the most effective - AHA of the bunch is glycolic acid (though malic acid and lactic acid are the most gentle). It’s the smallest molecule, which means that it can be absorbed more effectively than other, larger AHAs.
In any case, though, the fact that AHAs are water-based molecules means that they work most effectively on the surface of the skin, not deep within the pores.
Beta-hydroxy acids work in a really similar way, helping to “unglue’ the bonds that hold dead skin cells to the face. They also encourage cell turnover, thereby speeding up the appearance of healthy, newer cells.
That said, while AHAs are water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble molecules. This makes them much more capable of mixing with your sebum and penetrating deep within the pores.
Overall, salicylic acid is most suitable for areas of congestion - like blackheads or pimples - or for those with an oily skin type.
Now, there really is only one major BHA: salicylic acid. This powerful BHA is generally derived from the bark of the willow tree, and it has some major blemish-busting properties.
First thing’s first. As an exfoliator, salicylic acid really effectively and genty exfoliates the surface of the skin, lifting away any debris or dead cells that cause blocked pores and congestion. This not only helps reveal more hydrated, youthful skin, but also allows any other active ingredients that you use - like vitamin C or peptides - to effectively penetrate the skin and do their jobs.
While it exfoliates, salicylic acid also penetrates deep into pores and hair follicles. This is key to really getting rid of blackheads, pimples, and other forms of congestion. After all, if your products can’t reach deep into the pores - and to the source of the problem - then the same congestion will just keep reappearing.
Salicylic acid keeps this from happening by deeply penetrating pores and breaking down any excess sebum, debris, or dead skin build-up under the surface of the skin.
Believe it or not, salicylic acid also contains some of the same anti-inflammatory compounds as aspirin.That means that, even though it’s a strong antibacterial, it can also calm redness and inflammation rather than exacerbate it. This is key in the prevention of dark spots and acne scars, as these conditions are often caused by an out-of-control inflammatory response.
On the flip side, though, if you do experience redness, it’s probably a sign that the acid concentration is too high for your skin.
Salicylic acid can be found in basically all skincare products, including cleanser, exfoliants, moisturizers - you name it. Like retinol, though, this powerful ingredient can be drying if applied too frequently or in very high concentrations - particularly if you have more sensitive skin.
To combat this, start by using a salicylic acid spot treatment to target areas of congestion without possibly irritating the clear areas of your face. And start slow when it comes to frequency. Perhaps apply once a week until you see how your skin reacts, then slowly increase your usage accordingly.
Also, look for salicylic products - including spot treatments - that also contain good-for-your-skin, hydrating, and soothing ingredients like hyaluronic acid, aloe vera, gotu kola, clove, and dandelion, as these botanicals will help increase effectiveness and prevent over-drying of the skin.
In the same vein, the rest of your routine should include products that hydrate skin, provide antioxidant protection, and protect your skin’s natural barrier. Consider:
Remember, the key is to achieve balanced, happy skin - and a balanced routine is just the ticket.
And remember - don’t mix too many acids at once. These days, there are many options on the market, and users can end up mixing ingredients like salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and even maybe retinol without considering the consequences. This is too much for your skin, and it will likely end up damaging your skin’s barrier and causing redness and irritation.
Ready to get started? Check out Quality Control salicylic acid spot treatment here.