Should you use salicylic acid every day? Skincare pros outline the *correct* routine to follow

It's one of the most popular exfoliators on the market but should you apply salicylic acid every day? We've put it to the experts...

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(Image credit: Getty Images/Anna Efetova)

Building a daily skincare routine is no easy feat, especially when tackling concerns like texture and clogged pores but when it comes to using salicylic acid - a popular solution for said concerns- reaching for the active too often can pose its own set of problems...

Unlike that of the best hyaluronic acid serums, which can be used daily to hydrate the skin, other potent skincare ingredients aren't quite so straightforward, particularly when it comes to a certain BHA. Salicylic acid is touted for its power of exfoliation, targeting breakouts, congested skin and pesky blackheads and while that might seem like something you'd want working its magic on your face daily, the application is a very commonly made salicylic acid mistake.

So, to dispel any question marks surrounding how often you should use salicylic acid, for best efficacy and to avoid irritation we've put it to the skincare specialists...

Should you use salicylic acid every day?

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) which penetrates deep into the pores, to remove impurities whilst regulating sebum production - making it ideal for those tackling breakouts and clogged pores. And while it's a very popular active, found in many forms (like the best retinol creams and serums), it does have its drawbacks.

As Dr Mahsa Saleki, aesthetic doctor and founder of SAS Aesthetics, explains: "salicylic acid can be drying and irritating, especially when used in high concentrations or on sensitive skin."

So with that in mind, should you use it every day? Mariam Abbas, Advanced Facialists says: "I would always use salicylic acid with caution because it can have a drying effect on the skin if used too often. Even when it is used as a spot treatment, over time it will have an effect on the skin around the spots. This can lead to a disrupted skin barrier that can cause further breakouts."

Abbas then explains that salicylic acid can also be sensitising and although it can be beneficial for acne, "it should be used sparingly and in low concentrations of around 2%. I would not suggest long-term or everyday use."

How should you apply salicylic acid in your routine?

  • Build up your skin's tolerance, listen to your skin, apply at night and always follow with moisturiser and SPF - to prevent dryness and protect your skin.

As mentioned, salicylic acid is a powerful ingredient that, when used too frequently or in too high of a concentration can cause irritation and skin sensitivity. Therefore, the experts don't recommend it for daily use. That said, there's no exact rule as to how often you should apply it, as Dr Saleki notes, it's important to listen to your skin and be mindful of how it is reacting.

"It's best to start with a lower concentration and gradually increase frequency as your skin tolerates it," says Saleki - like you would with a retinol serum - and adds: "Some people may find daily use too much for their skin and may need to use it less frequently or as part of a larger skincare routine. It's important to listen to your skin and adjust your usage as needed."

You can also use salicylic acid as a spot treatment: "My advice for clients with hormonal acne is usually to use it for a few days when they are expecting a breakout around their cycle," says Abbas and advises using the active in formulations with "hydrating and barrier repair ingredients that can work on nourishing the skin to prevent the skin from becoming dry and irritated," Abbas recommends using it as part of your nighttime routine, after cleansing and should always be followed by moisturiser. Also, remember to always apply SPF after using salicylic acid.

Our salicylic acid picks to suit your routine

If you're looking to incorporate a salicylic acid step into your routine, we've rounded up three options, ranging from low concentrations to more potent blends - to suit a variety of skin needs...

Naomi Jamieson
Digital Beauty Writer

Naomi is a Digital Beauty Writer from woman&home, where she covers everything from skincare to fragrance but specialises, particularly, in makeup and nail trends. Through her work, Naomi gets to share her trend expertise and share her own shopping recommendations and product reviews. Previously, she worked as a Lifestyle News Writer for My Imperfect Life magazine, where she used her savvy for TikTok to bring readers the latest beauty buzzwords, fashion movements and must-have products. 

Before that, Naomi split her time between both GoodTo and My Imperfect Life, whilst training for her Gold Standard diploma in Journalism with the NCTJ, for which she earned a Distinction. Interestingly though, Naomi actually has a background in design, having studied illustration at Plymouth University but leapt into the media world in 2020, after always having a passion for writing. Now, when she isn’t reporting on the best perfumes and latest beauty releases, you can find her drinking copious cups of coffee, drawing and probably online shopping...