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How does salicylic acid treat acne?

Dr. Doris Day, MD
Dermatology
Salicylic acid is a great ingredient for treating acne; it exfoliates effectively down in the pores that get clogged and cause pimples. Watch as I explain why salicylic acid is an effective topical solution for acne.
Acne comes from oil, bacteria and dead cells building up on the skin, clogging hair follicles and creating pimples, cysts and blackheads. Regular washing with soap is enough to prevent most acne, but some people require a more aggressive treatment. Lotions, creams and gels containing salicylic acid treat and prevent acne by accelerating the skin shedding cycle. This helps prevent buildup of the irritants that can cause a breakout.

Salicylic acid is both an exfoliate—removing dead skin cells that can clog pores—and an anti-inflammatory. It’s significantly less irritating than benzoyl peroxide, which is why I prefer salicylic acid.

If your skin is prone to dryness anyway, start with salicylic acid (a creamer lotion, not a wash) and give it two or three weeks to work. If that isn’t enough, add benzoyl peroxide for a couple of weeks. If that combination isn’t enough, don’t start doubling or tripling products and treatments—your skin will overreact and get even worse. If you’re still getting new breakouts, it’s time to see a dermatologist. You need prescription-strength help.

When you’re buying salicylic acid products, look for maximum strength, which is 2 percent. That’s actually pretty mild. You can use salicylic acid products on your whole face, if you’d like; they’ll act as an exfoliant and calm any redness. (Two other exfoliators, resorcinol and sulfur, have been used for years, but there isn’t much evidence of their effectiveness.)

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.