Ingredient Highlights

Get Rid of Acne: How Salicylic Acid Clears and Prevents Pimples

Salicylic acid is one of the best ingredients for preventing pimples and treating acne. Here is what you need to know about the ingredient.
Get Rid of Acne: How Salicylic Acid Clears and Prevents Pimples

Nobody likes a pimple. They always pop up at the least opportune times (as if there is an opportune time to get one), and they often stick around for weeks. No matter how much effort we make to prevent breakouts and blemishes—from minimizing stress to eating healthier foods—pimples still seem to persist. And because of that, salicylic acid has risen to the top of many people’s skincare needs.

The ingredient is getting lots of much-deserved attention these days: Salicylic acid is one of the most effective and efficient ingredients for treating and preventing breakouts. It has a number of benefits for your skin: It eradicates oil and debris from the pores, has anti-inflammatory powers as well as antimicrobial and antifungal abilities (making it terrific on shaving bumps or as an aftershave), helps remove dead skin cells for a brighter complexion, tempers oil levels in the skin, and more. Salicylic acid can be found in serums, peels, night creams, and spot treatments (like acne patches, such as Cardon’s new microneedle acne spot treatments). Salicylic acid is typically derived from willow bark, and is often referred to as a beta hydroxy acid (BHA). Unlike its close relatives, the alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and poly hydroxy acids (PHAs, for more sensitive skin), salicylic acid is oil soluble, which means it can seep into the skin and work correctively, versus the water-soluble AHAs that perform on the surface of the skin.

And that’s just the beginning. Here is an overview of why salicylic acid is the ingredient on everybody’s lips lately, and how it can help you maintain clear, smooth complexion.

The Benefits of Salicylic Acid

These are the primary benefits of salicylic acid, in no particular order.

It exfoliates: Salicylic acid dissolves dead skin cells at the surface of your skin (like AHAs, which themselves are more primarily used for this reason). This helps the healthier, brighter skin cells shine through. This in turn prevents future clogged pores and breakouts, by eliminating the dead cells that otherwise might accumulate inside the pores.

It unclogs pores: In tandem with the previous benefit, salicylic acid seeps into the skin and can unclog pores from within; this is why it is often paired with AHAs to provide a thorough approach to clear skin. It breaks down dead skin cells as well as any accumulation of sebum. It also prevents clogging by breaking these things down before a real backup occurs.

It reduces ingrown hairs and razor bumps: Because salicylic acid encourages cellular turnover and has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antifungal abilities, it helps frequent shavers prevent trapped and infected ingrown hairs as well as gnarly post-shave blemishes (like razor bumps and redness).

It quells pimples: When applied to existing pimples, salicylic acid can help lessen the mass from within. By breaking down the gunk from inside, salicylic acid brings peace to the area experiencing stress. (This is what Cardon’s Prickly Patch spot treatments do for pimples.) Salicylic acid is also excellent at quickly nixing and preventing blackheads.

It balances oil levels: In oily skin types, salicylic acid can help train the skin to produce less oil. When used regularly (every few days, typically), it can prevent a greasy, grimey buildup across the face.

It mitigates inflammation: Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory powers, too, so it can also help reduce redness and inflammation in the skin, particularly at the site of a breakout. Please note that some people will experience redness upon applying high-potency salicylic acid serums or peels; that’s why it is recommended to use salicylic acid at bedtime, so that the skin can recover overnight and maximize the ingredient’s benefits without concern for momentary redness. (Sensitive skin types should always spot-test serums and peels to make sure they do not react adversely.)

When to Use Salicylic Acid

How you use salicylic acid depends on the mode of use; for example, a salicylic acid pimple patch is very different from a salicylic acid serum or cream. (Keep reading to learn more.)

In general though, it is best to use salicylic acid in the evening. It is primarily a treatment ingredient (whether used to prevent breakouts or calm existing blemishes), and thus it helps to pair salicylic acid with a good night’s sleep. However, salicylic acid should not be used in tandem with other potent ingredients like retinol. Always center your regimen on the salicylic acid whenever it is used (though formulas that pair it with other treatment ingredients like AHAs are perfectly fine).

The most convenient option for blemish control is a spot treatment, including a pimple patch. In these forms, salicylic acid can be used nightly to help dry out and disappear a pimple.

Salicylic acid serums and creams can be followed with a night cream, though it’s ideal to let the ingredient absorb for 5-10 minutes before applying anything over top of it. (This doesn’t apply to pimple patches, though, which will pump the ingredient into the skin without interruption from other products, since the patch acts as a shield over that problem area.)

When salicylic acid is obtained via an all-over serum or peel (as opposed to a spot treatment / pimple patch), its use should be limited to 1-2 times per week. (It can dry out the skin if it’s used more, plus there won’t be as much dead skin or grime to dissolve.) In serums and peels, you should also pay attention to the concentration of salicylic acid used. Some peels might be as high as 20%-grade salicylic acid, which means they should be used no more than once a week (if not less). Some treatment serums are more in the 1-2% range and are less biting, but should still be used 1-2x per week at most.

Again, when salicylic acid is used as a spot treatment on problem areas, the aim is to break down the blemish; thus it’s ok to apply the salicylic acid-packed pimple patch or spot cream nightly. Only apply salicylic acid to freshly cleansed and dried skin.

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