In general, cleansers have come a long way since drying bars of soap (shudder) and the stripping, foaming face washes that we used to slather all over ourselves when we were teenagers. And for oily and acne-prone skin types in particular, it's fair to say cleansers have come even further. Thanks to great cosmetic chemists, formulations are more effective at removing grime and excess sebum than ever, plus they are far less irritating and don't strip the skin of necessary oil, which is no easy feat. The best cleansers for oily and acneic skin, however, contain salicylic acid as one of the main ingredients.
To find out exactly why the ingredient is so great for acne-prone skin, we spoke to top dermatologists who even let us in on their own favorite salicylic face washes.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) and is derived from willow bark. "Unlike alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), which are water-soluble, BHAs are oil-soluble, which allows them to penetrate our skin's oil glands to remove debris and dead cells from deep within the pores," Ife J Rodney, MD, of Eternal Dermatology + Aesthetics in Columbia, MD, told POPSUGAR. This deep penetration means salicylic acid is a total powerhouse when it comes to both exfoliating and decreasing excess oil and sebum production. "In addition to being an exfoliant, it also works as a comedolytic (reduces the formation of blemishes) and anti-inflammatory ingredient," Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD CEO of Vibrant Dermatology and Skin Bar MD in Greater Boston, said. This makes it ideal for oily, acne-prone skin types.
Salicylic acid also works so well, in part, due to its larger molecule size. As we mentioned earlier, the ingredient penetrates deeply into your skin, but because the molecule is on the larger side, it isn't as irritating as its fellow AHAs, which have a smaller molecule and can therefore penetrate even deeper into your skin. All of this makes salicylic acid an ideal option if you have an oily complexion and need a hardworking exfoliating cleanser to remove gunk from your pores but find that your skin can be on the sensitive side, too. Although it's a great option for a lot of people, Kristina Semkova, MD, consultant dermatologist at the Cadogan Clinic, warned that "salicylic acid and aspirin belong to the same family, so the acid shouldn't be used if you have a known allergy to aspirin."
Who Can Use Salicylic Acid?
As previously mentioned, salicylic acid is often best for oily and acne-prone skin types because "it's oil soluble and dissolves the contents of the pores and reduces inflammation," Dr. Rodney said. "In general, those with sensitive or dry skin should avoid salicylic acid as it can be irritating," said Dr. Imahiyerobo-Ip. Hiva Fassihi, MD, consulting dermatologist for La Roche-Posay, also noted that the ingredient is excellent for teenagers experiencing breakouts, as well as being a good option for breakouts on your body. "You can wash your back with salicylic acid or even your chest if you have slightly oily, spotty skin," she said.
Why Does Salicylic Acid Work Well in a Cleanser?
When it comes to a cleanser, the molecule size, plus salicylic acid being oil-soluble, means it gets to work immediately at breaking down grime and dead skin cells and clearing congestion. Dr. Fassihi said the great thing about using the ingredient in the form of a cleanser is you can simply use it when you feel like your skin needs it. "I actually have two face washes: I have a face wash for my greasy days, and I have face washes for not-so-greasy; it just depends on what my skin is doing," she said. "I know both are good for my skin, but I would use the one that suits me on that particular day on that particular part of my menstrual cycle."
Dr. Rodney recommended starting to use a salicylic acid cleanser once, maybe twice a week, and then increasing gradually as your skin needs it, provided you haven't experienced any irritation or a reaction.
Dermatologist-Recommended Salicylic Face Washes
If you want to start using a salicylic face wash in your routine, look no further than these dermatologist-recommended product picks ahead.