Along with redness, broken blood vessels, and dry skin, one of the possible symptoms of rosacea is acne-like lesions¹. So, it may seem logical to use over-the-counter acne treatments, many of which contain salicylic acid, to help treat it. But that’s not the case! Acne and rosacea are completely different skin conditions, and what you use to treat one may not work for treating the other. People who experience rosacea also often have skin that’s too sensitive to be treated with many salicylic acid products. That’s why salicylic acid and rosacea typically aren’t a good match.
Here, we’ll take a deeper look at the best uses for salicylic acid and explain why rosacea isn’t one of them. We’ll also share insightful tips on identifying possible rosacea triggers to help prevent flare-ups.
Rosacea is a chronic skin condition that causes symptoms such as persistent redness, which usually appears across the cheeks and nose, and frequent flushing and blushing. Acne-like lesions (pustules and papules) and dilated or broken blood vessels (telangiectasias) can also occur.² A burning or stinging sensation is sometimes associated with rosacea flare-ups, and in more severe cases, the skin can also become thicker, most commonly on the nose. Dry or rough patches can also occur. While effective treatments can help control the symptoms, currently, there’s no known cure. Experts have yet to determine what exactly causes rosacea, but we do know of specific triggers that can cause flare-ups³ (more on that in a bit).
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that works as a chemical exfoliant to clear pores of dead skin cells and excess sebum. For many people, salicylic acid creams, cleansers, lotions, and gels can help reduce inflammation and redness from acne. It’s also used to help reduce certain signs of aging. Thanks to its exfoliant and anti-inflammatory properties, products with salicylic acid often give the skin a more even, brighter appearance.⁴
While salicylic acid is often used to treat acne, using products that contain salicylic acid for rosacea is a different story, as they can be drying and too harsh for people with sensitive skin.
Knowing exactly what can trigger your rosacea symptoms can help you avoid flare-ups in the first place. Triggers vary from person to person, but some common ones include:⁵
Vigorous exercise: This isn’t your “pass” on working out! Exercise is essential to keeping your body healthy. But if heavy exercise is a flare-up for you, consider skipping that sweaty HIIT class and take a long walk in the woods or on the beach instead.
Weather, including extreme heat and humidity in the summer or intense cold and wind in the winter. Identify the specific climatic conditions that seem to trigger flare-ups for you. If possible, use humidifiers to help reduce dryness in the air during winter and air conditioning to keep things cool during warmer months.
Stress. Research shows that emotional stress triggers a nerve pathway that can exacerbate rosacea symptoms,⁶ so learning to manage stress may help prevent rosacea flare-ups. Do whatever works for you: mindfulness, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, or simply going for a relaxing stroll outdoors.
Certain skincare products and ingredients: Products that contain alcohol, witch hazel, and added fragrance can also trigger rosacea flare-ups for some (more on these in the next section).
Some alcoholic beverages. Potential culprits include red wine, beer, bourbon, vodka, and gin. While alcohol can trigger rosacea flare-ups in some people, that doesn’t mean you have to skip happy hour. Mocktails can be delicious drinks too!
Spicy food. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid spices altogether. On the contrary, you can still use many spices to add delicious flavor to your food—just avoid the ones that add heat if this seems to be a personal trigger. Try using herbs like thyme, oregano, and rosemary instead.
People with rosacea often have sensitive skin, so you need rosacea-friendly cleansers and other rosacea-friendly products that don’t contain potentially irritating ingredients. Along with salicylic acid, here are some other potential irritants to keep an eye out for:⁷
Menthol. Menthol is a naturally occurring alcohol extracted from peppermint. It has a cooling and analgesic effect on the skin, but it can cause irritation. It’s found in products such as cleansers, lotions, scrubs, and washes.
Glycolic acid. This ingredient is used to exfoliate the skin, but like salicylic acid, it may be too harsh for sensitive skin. Glycolic acid can be found in a variety of products including cleansers, creams, lotions, gels, masks, toners, and serums.
Added fragrance. Natural and artificial fragrances can also cause irritation (and they’re often unnecessary in the first place). We typically recommend passing on products that contain added fragrance, regardless of the source.
Alcohol. A common irritant in cosmetics, alcohol is commonly listed among the ingredients as ethyl alcohol, alcohol Denat, or SD alcohol (followed by numbers like 23-A, 40, and 40-B). Other “fatty” alcohols include cetyl, stearyl, Cetearyl, or lanolin alcohol, and they’re often included in products labeled alcohol-free. Their effects are much different than denatured alcohol and may be good for your skin.⁸
Here are some additional dermatologist-approved skincare tips and products for rosacea-prone skin.
Everyone’s skin is unique, which is why it’s important to know what products work for you and which don’t. Led by dermatologists, Curology offers full-service skincare subscriptions that include customized solutions formulated for your unique skin. At Curology, we can address not only rosacea but also acne and signs of aging.
As a Curology member, you’re paired with a licensed dermatology provider who’s with you every step along your skincare journey. Curology uses ingredients such as ivermectin, metronidazole, and/or azelaic acid to create a personalized prescription formula—a rosacea treatment by dermatologists that’s just for you. It’s easy to get started, and your first month’s free. You’ll get a custom prescription formula and other recommended skincare products delivered right to your door for just $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling.
Rosacea is a chronic skin condition that causes symptoms such as persistent redness, which usually appear across the cheeks and nose, and frequent flushing and blushing. Acne-like lesions (pustules and papules) and dilated or broken blood vessels (telangiectasias) can also occur.
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that works as a chemical exfoliant to clear pores of dead skin cells and excess sebum. For many people, salicylic acid creams, cleansers, lotions, and gels can help reduce inflammation and redness from acne. It’s also used to help reduce certain signs of aging.
Knowing exactly what can trigger your rosacea symptoms can help you avoid flare-ups in the first place. Triggers vary from person to person, but some common ones include:
Certain skincare products and ingredients
Some alcoholic beverages
Gallo, R. L.,et al. Standard classification and pathophysiology of rosacea: The 2017 update by the National Rosacea Society Expert Committee. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2018).
Oge', L. K., et al. Rosacea: Diagnosis and Treatment. American family physician. (2015).
National Rosacea Society. Factors that may trigger rosacea flare-ups. (n.d.).
Arif, T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: A comprehensive review.Clinical Cosmetic and Investigative Dermatology. (2015, August 15).
National Rosacea Society. Factors that may trigger rosacea flare-ups. (n.d.).
Buddenkotte, J., et al. Recent advances in understanding and managing rosacea. F1000 Research. (2018, December 3).
American Academy of Dermatology. 6 rosacea skincare tips dermatologists give their patients. (n.d.).
Food and Drug Administration. “Alcohol Free.” (n.d.).
* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.
Kristen Jokela, NP-C