The 5 best salicylic acid products for clearer-looking skin

Want to harness the benefits of salicylic acid in your skincare routine? These are the five best exfoliating products to try...

A selection of the best salicylic acid products from Soho Skin, La Roche-Posay and The Ordinary/ in a pink and purle watercolour template
(Image credit: Soho Skin, La Roche-Posay and The Ordinary)

Want to reap the benefits of salicylic acid in your skincare routine? We've quizzed the skincare pros on what the potent exfoliator can do - and rounded up the best salicylic acid products to add to your beauty arsenal...

If you have ever suffered from serious blemishes you may already be aware of this superpowered spot buster. To put it simply, salicylic acid (say it with us: sal-i-cy-lic) is acne’s arch-nemesis. Targeting everything from papules and pustules to nodules and cysts - no breakout is safe. It works by penetrating your skin at a deeper level, clearing congestion, unblocking pores and exfoliating the skin - salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant - which all help to prevent spots.

But how do you incorporate it into your skincare routine? And how do you choose the right one for you - to avoid any classic salicylic acid mistakes? The skincare experts weigh in.

The best salicylic acid products, as reviewed by a beauty expert

Why you can trust Woman & Home Our expert reviewers spend hours testing and comparing products and services so you can choose the best for you. Find out more about how we test.

How we tested the best salicylic acid products

Like with the best retinol cream and serums, we chose salicylic acid products in different formulations; from cleansers and toners to spot treatments and serums, and looked for concentration of at least 2%. We navigated towards products that were specifically targeted to skin types as well as formulations.

Meet the tester
Charley Williams-Howitt
Meet the tester
Charley Williams-Howitt

Beauty editor Charley Williams-Howitt has been pretty lucky with her skin when it comes to breakouts, until that is, recently. Entering perimenopause has caused her complexion to fluctuate and hormonal spots now appear more regularly so is keen to find gentle, non-drying targeted solutions.

What is salicylic acid? All your BHA questions, answered

“Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and is one of the most common and well-known acids for battling blemish-prone skin,” explains Faye Purcell, Head of Research and Development at Q+A.

Where AHAs, like glycolic acid or lactic acid, are ideal for treating the surface of your skin, salicylic acid is oil-soluble and its small molecular size allows it to penetrate deeper into the pores. “It helps to decongest and unclog pores, target spots, and speed up cell turnover to reveal smoother, brighter, and clearer skin,” explains Faye.

How can salicylic acid benefit the skin?

It is a brilliant way to help target unwanted breakouts. “It ‘un-glues’ the bonds that hold dead skin together, chemically exfoliating the skin for a smoother, softer surface,” describes Simone Shoffman, Head of Education at Healthxchange. It also has fantastic anti-inflammatory effects on the skin.

However, its greatest strength, according to Simone, is in helping to treat and prevent both black and whiteheads, otherwise referred to as congestion. “Think of it as a deep cleaner for your face, reaching into the pores (where spots form) and breaking down the debris which will cause these - stopping them in their tracks before they form.”

Who should use salicylic acid?

It is particularly good for those with acne or congestion prone skin, which many of us will suffer from at some point in their life. “Our modern environment means that our skin is constantly exposed to free radicals, in the form of pollutants, which cause inflammation and antioxidant depletion in skin,” explains Simone.

Salicylic acid can also be used to help treat a range of chronic skin concerns, such as psoriasis, due to its ability to encourage cellular turnover and a decrease in inflammation.

Can you use salicylic acid everyday?

A frequently asked question where the active is concerned is 'should you use salicylic acid everyday?' Well, according to the pros, this really depends on the strength and formula.

“Some salicylic acid products are designed for daily use, whereas others (often higher strength treatment products) are meant to be used a few times a week,” says Dr Eleanor Bradley, No7 Science Manager. If you have dry or sensitive skin, then it is best to start with a low percentage and use it gradually before committing to it daily, for example every other day. If any redness or irritation appears, stop immediately.

Can salicylic acid damage your skin?

“People often over-use salicylic for acne or oily skin, especially in cleansers and end up exacerbating the problem with more persistent breakouts from dry skin,” says Mariam Abbas, Advanced Facialist. “It is best used in formulations with hydrating and barrier repair ingredients that can work on nourishing the skin to prevent the skin from becoming dry and irritated.”

Those with skin congestion should choose a non-comedogenic moisturiser to prevent further blockage. “And protecting the skin daily with SPF is important, as your skin can be more sensitive to UV exposure when using active ingredients,” adds Simone.

Where will you find salicylic acid?

You can find salicylic acid in many skincare products, but it is most often seen in face cleansers, acne treatments and serums. Over-the-counter topical treatments come in concentrations between 0.5% to 2%. Leave-on products usually sit between 1-2 % BHA with no alcohol or fragrance.

Can you use salicylic acid with other actives, such as vitamin C?

When using two potent ingredients, it's wise to take precautions before combining them. However, if the correct type of products are used, this can be a winning combination for clear skin. “Vitamin C absorbs most easily when the skin is at a lower pH level, and as salicylic acid is an acid itself - it lowers the pH level of the skin,” explains Simone. “Applying Vitamin C after salicylic acid will help to increase its absorption and efficacy.”

While using salicylic acid and retinol in your skincare regimen is perfectly safe and can make it more effective, it may lead to dry skin when used too frequently. Applying salicylic acid first will produce an exfoliating effect that can help retinol infiltrate the skin more effectively, meaning that you will get the utmost benefits like firming, smoothing and brightening.

Charley Williams-Howitt

Charley Williams-Howitt has over 20 years of experience working in the beauty industry. As well as previously writing for lifestyle titles, such as woman&home, Woman and Woman's Weekly, Charley has worked for British institutions like Marks and Spencer, John Lewis, and Superdrug creating visual and editorial content cross-platform. Starting her career in the fashion cupboard at Cosmopolitan magazine, she eventually escaped the piles of clothes to discover a world of makeup, moisturizers, and models.