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Is salicylic acid good for acne?

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Managing acne prone skin can be a challenge. You might have tried all manner of creams, lotions and potions to help clear up the whiteheads, blackheads and angry pus filled spots that are common among acne sufferers. Some might have worked for you, whilst others might have had no effect, or even made your stressed out skin worse.

If you’ve been wondering if salicylic acid is good for acne prone skin, here’s our lowdown on this popular acne treatment.

Does salicylic acid cure acne?

For many people, using products that contain salicylic acid can be an effective way of managing their acne spots and breakouts.

However, here at Sönd, we believe that any first step to treating any kind of problem skin, including acne prone skin, is to take a holistic approach. This means looking at your diet and lifestyle, to see if there’s anything you can change that might help your skin.

But if changes to your diet, managing stress, getting enough sleep and using alkaline skincare products designed specifically for problem skin types doesn’t help, then there are products that can, including salicylic acid products.

What does salicylic acid do for acne?

Salicylic acid is a type of fruit acid, called an alpha hydroxy acid, or AHA. As acids go, it’s a fairly gentle acid, that won’t cause skin scarring.

It works by removing the uppermost layer of skin to reveal, newer, younger looking, clearer skin underneath. This is similar to the action of a mechanical exfoliant, such as a face scrub or exfoliating brush in that it removes dead skin, but a salicylic acid product produces better, more noticeable results.

Salicylic face products can benefit anyone looking for fresher skin, but particularly in the case of acne prone skin, they help to unclog the pores of the excess sebum, dirt, old makeup and cellular debris that can lead to spots and acne breakouts.

How is salicylic acid used to treat acne?

You’ll find salicylic acid in a wide range of skincare products including cleansers, scrubs, toners, moisturisers, masks and targetted spot treatment solutions. These can all be bought in pharmacies and from beauty counters and will contain a relatively low concentration of salicylic acid.

However, even at lower concentrations, it’s important not to use more than one product that contains salicylic acid as it can still be too much for the skin, especially if your skin is sensitive or dry.

Chemical face peels that contain salicylic acid are also available, both from shops and at beauty salons and skin clinics. The salicylic peels available from licensed practitioners at beauty salons and skin clinics will generally be stronger than those available to use yourself at home.

How effective are salicylic acid peels for acne prone skin?

If you’ve tried to manage your skin holistically and by experimenting with skincare and you’re still experiencing acne spots and breakouts, then you may benefit from a salicylic acid chemical face peel.

Not only can they help to clear blocked pores, they can also help to kill the skin bacterium, Propionibacterium acnes, that’s a major cause of acne in many people. They’re especially suited to those with oily acne prone skin, as they can be quite drying.

If you have dry or sensitive skin as well as acne, you may be better suited to a different kind of chemical skin peel that contains a different AHA called glycolic acid.

Should you decide to have a salicylic peel carried out professionally, rather than using weaker products designed for use at home, then make sure you do your homework. Only choose a practitioner or beauty therapist that’s qualified and experienced in using chemical face peels and treating problem skin. If you use a home kit, make sure you follow the instructions carefully.

How effective is a salicylic acid peel for acne scars?

Salicylic chemical face peels can also be effective at treating the scarring that can be caused by acne. As they effectively remove the top layer of skin, they can also help to reduce light acne scarring, by smoothing out the skin.

They’re also effective at stimulating the production of the protein collagen, which is responsible for keeping the skin plump. The boost in collagen production can help to plump the skin up from the inside, helping to ‘fill in’ light acne scarring.

Do salicylic acid peels help severe or pitted acne scars?

As with most skin care products and treatments, there is a limit to what salicylic acid chemical face peels can do in terms of scarring.

If you have severe or pitted acne scarring, then a salicylic peel designed for use at home is unlikely to make a visible difference to your skin as the effect is too superficial. However, you may benefit from a medium or deep AHA chemical peel that can be applied by a qualified practitioner or beauty therapist. They will be able to provide details on what kind of result to expect, depending on your skin type and your level and deepness of acne scarring.

Is salicylic acid effective if I have severe acne outbreaks?

If you’re suffering from severe acne and have a current outbreak, salicylic acid can still be used and can still be effective.

In your case, it’s probably better to seek advice from a qualified practitioner or therapist, as you’re likely to benefit more from products containing stronger solutions of salicylic acid than the ones available for use at home.

Are there any side effects from using salicylic acid?

The main side effect you may experience after using any product containing salicylic acid is that your sin may become more sensitive to sunlight. This means that it can burn more easily than you’re used to.

So make sure you take steps to protect your skin from the sun to avoid sun damage. Repeated overexposure to the sun and sun damage can lead to skin cancers later in life.

AHA chemical peels can also cause some redness, irritation, itching and peeling, which is normal and should clear up after a week or so. In some cases, they can lead to a darkening or a lightening of the skin, which in some cases can be permanent. Very rarely, salicylic acid products can cause scarring, but this really isn’t common.

Can salicylic acid make acne worse?

There are times when using products that contain salicylic acid can make the skin appear worse before it gets better. This is down to a process called ‘skin purging’ that can occur after treatment with salicylic acid.

Skin purging causes the skin cells to renew faster, bringing the new skin cells to the surface, pushing up all the old skin cells, dirt, oil and cellular debris. This is exactly the reason for using AHA products, to refresh and renew the skin.

But sometimes this can cause the skin pores to become temporarily clogged, causing spots and acne breakouts. If this happens to you, know that in a few weeks, your skin will clear again, revealing clearer, fresher skin.

What's better for acne, sulphur or salicylic acid?

Most people find that salicylic acid works better at managing their acne prone skin than products containing sulphur. Sulphur is often found in acne treatment creams that can be bought from a pharmacy and has a very strong, distinctive smell that puts most people off using it.

Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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