Can salicylic acid help treat acne?

Can salicylic acid help treat acne?

There are several different skincare acids out there, many of which are linked to treating acne. One of the most popular is salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that exfoliates the skin, treats acne, and helps keep pores free from debris. Originally derived from willow tree bark, its medicinal properties were first noted over 2,000 years ago.

Salicylic acid can be found in an array of over-the-counter (OTC) skincare products (ranging in concentrations from .05% to 2%). Let’s dive into more details about salicylic acid and how this acne-fighting active works.


Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that encourages dead skin cells to loosen and shed, which helps to clean out all that acne-causing debris inside your pores. When your pores (also called hair follicles in some cases) become clogged with dead skin cells and oil, blackheads (open comedones), whiteheads (closed comedones), and pimples of all types can form. It’s important to note that salicylic acid doesn’t kill acne-causing bacteria — that’s where an active like benzoyl peroxide comes into play.

While it’s always important to never use too many active ingredients at once, with the right balance and concentration level, salicylic acid can work hand-in-hand with benzoyl peroxide to help prevent and treat acne. Here’s a basic guideline for salicylic acid acne treatment percentage and frequency. Note that it’s not uncommon to experience redness, itching, stinging, and peeling as your skin adjusts to acne actives, but if you feel anything more severe (or if the side effects don’t dissipate), you should discontinue use and consult a doctor. It’s possible you just need to adjust how much and how often you’re using the product formulated with salicylic acid.

  • Lotion or Cream: 1-2%; 1-3 times per day
  • Gel: 0.5-2%; once per day
  • Toner or pads: 0.5-2%; 1-3 times per day
  • Soap: 0.5-2%; as needed
"Salicylic acid acne medicine helps keep pores clear"

Salicylic acid benefits for skin

Salicylic acid’s benefits for the skin are wide ranging, and include fighting acne by clearing out pores, dissolving excess oil, removing dead skin cells, and reducing inflammation and redness. Additionally, this BHA can be used to brighten and rejuvenate your skin as it helps shed those old, dead skin cells. Without that buildup of dead skin cells, your pores may look smaller, and your skin can appear more radiant.

Is salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide better?

Since salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are both found in so many acne products, people sometimes debate which is best for acne-prone skin. However, many would argue that each has its own distinct advantages — salicylic acid for clearing the pores and benzoyl peroxide for killing acne-causing bacteria. Both ingredients complement each other and work together to help keep skin clear and prevent future breakouts, especially when combined with a moisturizer.

Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment Products

All of proactiv’s multi-step skincare routines harness the power of the best over-the-counter acne-fighting ingredients you can find. If you’re looking for a skincare system that combines salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, our Proactiv + Complete Kit is a great option. Our Blackhead Dissolving Gel is a quick 5 minute mask with .5% salicylic acid, perfect for helping to unclog your pores. Try these formulas and you’ve got nothing to lose but your breakouts.