Salicylic Acid Face Wash: How It Works, Plus Our 3 Favorite Cleansers

Chances are that if you’ve ever had breakouts or blackheads in your life, you have at least heard of salicylic acid. (As for knowing exactly what it does or why it’s good…well, that’s why we’re here.)

So, What Exactly Is Salicylic Acid?

Short answer? It’s a type of chemical exfoliant. More specifically, it’s a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that’s derived from willow tree bark. It’s particularly effective at treating blackheads and whiteheads because it’s oil-soluble and thus able to penetrate the skin at a deeper level.

Once it gets into the skin, salicylic acid works by dissolving any dirt or oil that could clog pores, as well as the intercellular glue that holds cells together. It also decreases inflammation.

What’s The Best Way To Use It?

Most derms we’ve talked to recommend using a face wash or cleanser that contains between 0.5 and 2 percent salicylic acid daily. Consider this your first line of defense against blackheads, whiteheads and minor acne. It can also be used to help treat keratosis pilaris (aka the chicken bumps that show up on the backs of arms).

What Are The Best Salicylic Acid Face Washes?

Before we get into our favorites, it’s important to note that how you cleanse is just as important as what you use to cleanse.

Some best practices: wet your face before applying cleanser (this will create a better lather), take your time (really massage it into your skin using circular motions) and rinse thoroughly to make sure you don’t leave behind any residue. OK, now onto our picks:

1. For normal skin: SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel ($41) combines salicylic acid with glycolic acid to sweep away dead surface skin, while also going deeper to dissolve any debris that’s trapped underneath. The refreshing tingling sensation is an added bonus on drowsy mornings.

2. For sensitive or dry skin: Eminence Organic Skin Care Acne Advanced Cleansing Foam ($44) is a gentler (and non-toxic) option that uses encapsulated salicylic acid along with vitamin E and aloe vera to soothe and calm skin, while keeping breakouts at bay. We’re also partial to the crisp grapefruit scent and easy-to-spread foam formula.

3. For combination skin: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Deep Cleansing Foaming Cream ($23) starts off as a dense cream that morphs into a velvety lather. It’s particularly effective at removing makeup and excess oils without making your face feel tight or dry.

Any Final Words Of Precaution When Using A Salicylic Acid Face Wash?

This acid has similar properties to aspirin, so if you have an aspirin allergy, you should probably look into other proven acne-fighting options (like benzoyl peroxide). Doctors also advise skipping salicylic acid during pregnancy or breastfeeding, as trace amounts of the ingredient can be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Another thing to be mindful of is the rest of your skin-care routine. When using a strong exfoliant like sal acid, you should scale back on using other exfoliants (like a scrub, topical treatments and even cleansing brushes or devices), as over-exfoliation can damage your skin barrier, which will cause further inflammation.

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Jenny Jin Headshot Vertical 2023
Jenny Jin

Beauty Director

Jenny Jin is PureWow’s Beauty Director and is currently based in Los Angeles. Since beginning her journalism career at Real Simple magazine, she has become a human encyclopedia of...
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