Ask Curology: Is salicylic acid actually bad for your skin?

Is it safe to use salicylic acid every day? Here’s what we know.

Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C
Sep 24, 2020 · 4 min read

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We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Welcome to Ask Curology, penned by one of our in-house medical providers in response to your questions about all things skincare. This week, we’re talking about everybody’s favorite beta hydroxy acid: salicylic acid. You might have heard this ingredient is tough on acne, but is it too tough? One of our medical providers has the scoop on salicylic acid safety.

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Dear Curology,

When I was younger, I’d get the occasional pimple, but lately, I’ve been breaking out intensely all over my face, neck, and back. My mom told me salicylic acid is good for acne, so I looked for products with that ingredient. I’ve been using a face wash, body wash, and spot treatment with salicylic acid every day. At first, my skin started to clear up. But now, my face is as red as a tomato. It’s even getting dry and flaky in areas, and I definitely didn’t have that problem before. It’s like I took one step forward and two steps back. What should I do?


Sally Silly Acid

Dear Sally,

I’m glad you reached out! Your mom is right, salicylic acid can be great for acne. It’s a powerful ingredient that cleans deep down into pores to help treat breakouts.

That said? Not all salicylic acid products are created equal. Some products that contain salicylic acid can be too intense for everyday use. And, when it comes to salicylic acid, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. It sounds like the amount of salicylic acid products you’re using daily is too much for your skin to handle.

How does salicylic acid work?

Salicylic acid is an exfoliant. To be specific, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), which discourages the build-up of dead skin cells. Plus, it’s oil-soluble, so it can penetrate through the sebum of a clogged pore to the lining of the pore. In this way, salicylic acid helps to prevent and treat blocked pores. This makes it a great option for saying goodbye to whiteheads and blackheads (and other types of acne!).

Fun fact: though salicylic acid is usually made synthetically these days, it was originally extracted from willow bark, and has a similar chemical structure to aspirin.

How to use salicylic acid

People with all skin types can use products with salicylic acid, but we often recommend them for those with oilier skin. No matter what your skin type, though, it’s important to go slowly when introducing a new product with salicylic acid. In general, we suggest starting with 1–2 times per week (increasing the frequency as tolerated).

You can use either a cleanser with salicylic acid or a different salicylic acid product, but I wouldn’t recommend using both. If you opt for a toner or wipe with salicylic acid, prep your skin by washing with a gentle, non-SA cleanser first. Remember to allow your face to dry completely before applying any prescription acne medication (like your Curology medication).

Salicylic acid can be helpful, but exfoliation is easy to over-do! Redness, tightness, soreness, and sensitivity can occur. If you experience any of these symptoms, your skin likely needs a break. Stop any exfoliating products (including salicylic acid) until your skin returns to normal, and then slowly reintroduce the salicylic acid product. Of course, if you feel your reaction is more significant, please reach out to your Curology provider or an in-person medical provider!

Do you have skin allergies or just sensitive skin? Click here to learn more.

Salicylic acid product recommendations

Salicylic acid cleansers

Salicylic acid body wash

Salicylic acid exfoliating treatments

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I hope you find this information helpful! Feel free to sound off in the comments with questions or get in touch with your Curology medical provider. If you’re not a member yet, you can sign up for a free month of Curology*. Members get paired with an in-house medical provider (like me!) for a skincare consultation and customized formula for their skin’s needs.

All my best,

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).

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Nicole Hangsterfer Avatar

Nicole Hangsterfer, PA-C

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