Main content

A Guide to Using Salicylic Acid Products for Acne

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that is utilised in skincare products to help reduce concerns such as acne. It is a potent active ingredient with multiple uses for your skin. A naturally occurring molecule found in different plant species, salicylic acid is most predominantly sourced in the bark and leaves of willow trees. It was scientifically extracted as an active ingredient in the early 19th century1 and has been utilised for medicinal2 and dermatological purposes ever since.



Salicylic acid is a natural exfoliant. It loosens the bond between skin cells and gently removes dead skin. The external layer of skin (called the stratum corneum) is the primary barrier between the body and environmental forces. This external layer of skin shields the underlying healthy skin and is constantly exposed, rendering itself vulnerable to UV exposure and external aggressors. The stratum corneum’s skin cells are constantly being shed and this continuous cycle of replenishing dead skin cells is vital for maintaining healthy-looking skin.

Several skin concerns are caused or exacerbated when this cycle is interrupted, including3:

  • Acne (the appearance of pimples and blemishes)
  • Psoriasis
  • Dandruff

As an exfoliating agent, salicylic acid encourages the removal of dead skin and promotes a healthy rotation of natural skin rejuvenation. It achieves this by disrupting the desmosomes, a bonding structure within the skin’s formation. This purposeful disruption of intercellular junctions results in a gentle shedding and exfoliation of the outer layer of skin.4

Salicylic acid’s inherent exfoliating abilities make it the ideal ingredient for topical skincare formulations. The ingredient is often found heroed in face washes, gels, cleansers and moisturisers.



Acne is a skin concern that can range from mild and infrequent, to more severe and persistent. Natural oils, also known as sebum, are naturally produced by the body to protect and moisturise the skin.5 Sebum is released through pores, a small opening in the surface layer of the skin which allows for sebum secretion and hair growth. When dead skin cells are not properly removed they block the pores, causing an oil build-up in the glands below the pores. This can result in comedones.

There are two types of comedones:

  • Open comedones are widely known as ‘blackheads’. These occur when pores are enlarged, allowing airflow to interfere with the skin pigment or melanin of the dead skin cells.
  • Closed comedones happen when the pores block any airflow. The enclosed gland results in the appearance of whiteheads, pimples and blemishes.

Comedones can worsen as sebum continues to accumulate and bacteria begins disrupting the skin’s surface, leading to inflammation and redness. Acne is the frequent and continuous occurrence of comedones on the skin. Many people have the misconception that acne only affects teenagers. However, acne-prone skin is prevalent among adults too.

Salicylic acid’s ability to gently exfoliate dead skin cells can help reduce acne, as it prevents dead skin from blocking pores and disrupting the skin’s barrier. Try incorporating salicylic acid skincare products into your skincare routine for acne and unwanted blemishes.



When topically applied to the skin, salicylic acid penetrates the outer layer and targets sebum, fats and lipids. This results in the exfoliation and removal of external skin cells. Salicylic acid’s ability to penetrate fats and sebum makes it extremely effective for use on oily skin.

When removing excess dead skin, salicylic acid reduces comedones. It does this by clearing the path for normal sebum secretion from the pores. Salicylic acid’s exfoliating properties also minimise scarring or redness once the trapped comedones have cleared up.

Salicylic acid has been used in skincare products primarily for exfoliation. However, it has also demonstrated anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties that help the skin recover.6  

Salicylic acid acts by exfoliating the pores, helping to reduce acne, spots and blemishes. By establishing a natural flow of sebum, salicylic acid allows natural oils to moisturise the skin without causing blockages, supporting its compatibility with oily skin types.  



The ideal concentration of salicylic acid will vary depending on the product’s use. Different dosages will yield varying results on the skin. Under cosmetic regulations, the European Commission has deemed a salicylic acid concentration of up to 2% effective, with 3%  for rinse-off hair products7, which the Australian government has aligned with as of 2014.8

As a potent beta-hydroxy acid, salicylic acid can interfere with the efficacy of other active ingredients, (such as antioxidants) when applied together. When using skincare products formulated with salicylic acid and L-ascorbic acid (vitamin C), try to apply them at different times of the day.

You should also avoid combining salicylic acid with ferulic acid whenever possible. Hydroxy acids can make the skin more sensitive to UV exposure, so you are better off using them at night. If you prefer applying your salicylic acid in the morning, be sure to apply SPF protection after application. 



To benefit from salicylic acid, it’s important to incorporate the right skincare products properly formulated with this active ingredient. SkinCeuticals offer a range of salicylic acid skincare products to help exfoliate your skin and tackle unwanted acne breakouts. 

SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense Serum

An innovative facial serum, the SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense Serum is an oil-free formula designed to help manage acne breakouts. Dermatologically tested with 1.5% salicylic acid, this serum unclogs pores and reduces excessive sebum production in the skin. The SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense Serum is suitable for acne-prone skin, oily and combination skin types. 


Blemish and Age Cleansing

Blemish and Age Cleansing will wash away dirt and dead skin build-ups while exfoliating the outer layer of skin. This twin action simultaneously brightens the skin and helps clear acne-breakouts. It’s formulated with salicylic acid to gently remove impurities to reveal healthier and brighter looking skin. The Blemish and Age Cleansing is suitable for dry, normal, oily and combination skin types and benefits those prone to acne breakouts.


SkinCeuticals Blemish And Age Toner

The SkinCeuticals LHA Exfoliating toner rebalances the skin after the cleansing process and removes any residual dirt and impurities. Formulated with salicylic acid, this toner can brighten the skin’s tone and texture while minimising enlarged pores. The SkinCeuticals LHA Exfoliating toner is suitable for normal and oily skin types and can help soothe acne-prone skin.

SkinCeuticals LHA Gel Facial Cleanser with lipo hydroxy acid 240ml

Another non-skincare routine-related option to explore for acne-prone skin is LED Light Therapy. Read our guide on What is LED Light Therapy, its benefits and aftercare to learn more. As next steps, learn more on How to Remove Blackheads and Unclog Pores.



1 Hormone Metabolism and Signaling in Plants 2017; 273-289

2 W. S. Pierpoint (1997) The natural history of salicylic acid Plant product and mammalian medicine, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 22:1, 45-52, DOI: 10.1179/isr.1997.22.1.45

3 US National Library of medicine. PubMed Health. Acne Overview July 2016

4 Arif T. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. 2015:8 455-461

5 US National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Accessed 12/10/2018

6 Hartog E. J Antimicrob Chemother 2010; 65: 888–896

7 European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety. CAS 69-72-7 December 2017

8 Australian Government Department of Health. Therapeutic Goods Administration. 27 February 2014. Accessed 11/02/2021 



Find a skincare professional near you

Orientation message
For the best experience, please turn your device