‘Salicylic acid’ – how many of your beauty products have this name in their ingredient lists? Even though the composition of the chemical compound makes it an acid, it can actually turn out to be the ‘savior’ for your skin. So, many skincare products now use salicylic acid in their formulations, and face wash is the most common one among them. A very low concentration of salicylic acid is used in face washes to treat the skin in a gentle yet effective way. But how does this chemical compound actually work? Should your face wash really contain it? How does salicylic acid face wash benefit the health of your skin? We got you covered.
What is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a certain type of beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that works as a ‘multi-tasking ingredient’ in skincare. It is named after the Latin name of the white willow tree i.e. ‘Salix alba’, and is derived from a complex carbohydrate found in the active extract of its bark called salicin. Basically, the willow barks are turned into a fine powder, processed with oxidants and finally, filtered to collect the acid. (1) The colorless crystalline organic acid is mostly known as a plant hormone. It is found in various plants in the forms of free acid and salicylates (carboxylated esters and phenolic glycosides). Some common dietary sources of salicylic acid are sweet potato, nuts, olive oil, coffee, tea, beer, etc. (2) Studies have proved that the acid extracted from these plants in measurable quantities may easily be metabolized by the human body (3). Being an acid from the ‘hydroxyl group’, it contains the OH elements that make it reactive to human body cells. However, the optimal use of salicylic acid is found as a topical acne medicine.
When taken internally, salicylic acid work as a highly effective pain reliever. It improves the circulation of blood throughout the body and helps in easing out the feeling of pain. Hence, it was once given the name ‘vitamin S’ by researchers.
Topical Uses of Salicylic Acid
Widely available over-the-counter, topical salicylic acid is categorized as keratolytic agents. It is used mainly to treat skin ailments, such as acne, sunburns, psoriasis (scaling or overgrowth of skin cells), ichthyosis (dryness and scaling), corns, calluses, and warts (hands and feet). As salicylic acid has great exfoliating properties, it unclogs pores from deep within and prevents future breakouts from developing. It also shrinks existing pimples and reduces redness around them. These help the chemical make its way through the list of ingredients in some of the best acne treatments. In fact, it is one of the primary ingredients in the popular acne treatment called ‘aspirin’, which is often prescribed by doctors. For conditions like psoriasis, ichthyosis, etc., it softens and loosens dry, thick, and scaly skin to make sure that it falls off. However, you should not try using it on warts, moles, birthmarks, etc. in sensitive parts of the body like nose, face, and genitals. (4)
How Does a Salicylic Acid Face Wash Work?
Being one of the biggest enemies of acne, salicylic acid in face wash may dry up your zits overnight (5). Acne is caused by the excess production of sebum, which is the oily substance produced by sebaceous glands in the skin for preventing it from drying. Salicylic acid does not stop sebum production but it aims at making the skin free from acne and other skin ailments in combination with other products used in the face wash. The structure of the acid makes it an oil-soluble ingredient that penetrates through the lipid layers between the skin cells more readily. When you use a face wash containing salicylic acid, it not only exfoliates the outermost layer of the skin but also goes deep into the pore linings to offer deep cleansing effects. In other words, a salicylic acid face wash works in the following two ways:
- Breaks down the excess sebum and averts it from clogging the pores.
- Breaks down and dissolves the bonds (‘intercellular glue’) that make the dead cells cling together.
As a result, both the surface of the skin and the pores get squeaky clean. However, a salicylic acid face wash is effective mostly on pimples, blackheads, whiteheads, etc. It does not have many positive effects on cystic acne.
Make sure that you do not wash your face more than twice a day with a salicylic acid face wash or simply use the way you are advised by your doctor.
Strength of Salicylic Acid In A Face Wash
While choosing a face wash containing salicylic acid is good for your oily acne-prone skin, you should always be careful about how much of the chemical you are putting on your face. Go through the label of your face wash before applying in order to ensure the safety of your skin. Typically, anything applicable to the face should not contain more than 2% of salicylic acid. If it contains up to 3%, it is better to be used for other parts of the body excluding the face. If a product has 10% to 30% salicylic acid, it can easily cause ‘salicylic acid poisoning’.
Benefits of a Salicylic Acid Face Wash
Now, let us have a look at all the benefits that a face wash containing salicylic acid offers to us:
1. Cleanses Deeply
Salicylic acid not just makes the face clean, but it works as a ‘deep cleanser’. It removes dead cells from the top layer of the skin, reaches underneath, opens up the clogged pores, and reveals a new layer of skin cells. This helps us look fresh and young immediately.
2. Prevents Dryness
If there is anything that can make our face look dull and aged, it is dryness. We are constantly exposed to the damaging rays of the sun, pollution, and stress, which causes significant damage to our skin. Salicylic acid works its way through the skin and eliminates dry, flaky cells so that our skin becomes brighter and more radiant.
3. Exfoliates Skin
The acid acts as a keratolytic medication that facilitates the exfoliation of the skin efficiently and effectively. It softens and sloughs off the top layer of skin cells, thereby helping to dissolve the blackheads and whiteheads. (6)
4. Unclogs Pores
A face wash with salicylic acid literally ‘unclogs’ skin pores and keeps them clean by dissolving the debris or keratin plugs while other face washes only make the surface of the skin clean instead of focusing on the pores.
Low concentrations of salicylic acid may treat dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis too. This ensures that your scalp does not remain dry and flaky, which is good for both the hair as well as the skin.
Side Effects of a Salicylic Acid Face Wash
It can cause irritation due to extreme dryness, especially when clubbed with multiple products constituting the same element to combat the same ailment. People with sensitive skin may also find it difficult to use.
2. Burning Sensation
You may experience a slight burning sensation during the first few times of application. If the sensation persists even after 5-6 applications, contact your doctor immediately.
3. Adverse Reactions
If used excessively, like any other chemical product, this acid in the face wash too can react with your skin and lead to adverse skin conditions. Some of these are excessive swelling, itching, hives, peeling skin, tingling, or even trouble breathing.
4. Not For All
If you are pregnant, prone to allergic reactions, or already taking any kind of prescription medicines like blood thinners, or others for treating infections or skin diseases, this product is a total no-no for you.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that is derived from a complex carbohydrate salicin found in the active extract of white willow bark. The colorless crystalline organic acid is mostly found in the forms of free acid and salicylates. Some common dietary sources of salicylic acid are sweet potato, nuts, olive oil, coffee, tea, beer, etc. Widely available over-the-counter, topical salicylic acid is categorized as keratolytic agents. It is used to treat acne, sunburns, psoriasis, ichthyosis, corns, calluses, and warts (hands and feet). Being one of the biggest enemies of acne, salicylic acid in face wash dries up zits overnight. It not only exfoliates the surface layer of the skin but also goes deep into the pores to unclog them and prevent future breakouts from developing. It also shrinks existing pimples and reduces redness around them. However, too much use of salicylic acid may cause excessive dryness, irritation, hives, burning sensation, tingling, and even trouble breathing.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How Long Does It Take Salicylic Acid to Work?
The pimple-drying effects of salicylic acid are visible immediately but it takes almost 10-12 weeks of regular use to experience the complete results.
Can I Use Salicylic Acid Face Wash Every Day?
It depends on the severity of your acne and the type of your skin. For severe acne, using it twice every day is recommended. But if your acne is mild or if you have sensitive skin, use it every alternate day to avoid adverse reactions.
Can Salicylic Acid Cause Acne?
As long as you use salicylic acid or its products in moderation (follow the instructions of your doctor), your acne will only go away. However, if you overuse it and experience dryness or irritation, your skin may end up breaking out even more.
Can I Use Moisturizer after Salicylic Acid Face Wash?
A salicylic acid face wash may turn your skin drier than a regular face wash. Hence, applying a good moisturizer right after using it is a must.
Can Salicylic Acid remove Acne Scars?
Spot treatment with salicylic acid is effective in healing as well as fading away acne scars to a large extent.
- “Salicylic Acid“, en.Wikipedia.org
- “Low Salicylate Diet“, Drugs.com
- “Naturally Occurring Dietary Salicylates: A Closer Look at Common Australian Foods“, ScienceDirect.com
- “Salicylic Acid Topical“, MedlinePlus.gov
- “Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments: A Review“, NCBI.nlm.nih.gov
- “Salicylic Acid As a Peeling Agent: A Comprehensive Review“, NCBI.nlm.nih.gov
- “Here’s Exactly What Salicylic Acid Does to Your Skin“, Allure.com