If you’ve ever browsed the face wash aisle in search of a cleanser that would calm your irritated, inflamed, or blemished skin, you’re probably familiar with salicylic acid. Though it may sound menacing at first, the skincare ingredient is actually very effective at deep cleaning the skin’s surface and ridding it of sebaceous oils (the stuff that contributes to acne). But it’s not just used for acne. Salicylic is a beta-hydroxy acid, meaning it’s an excellent natural exfoliator that can penetrate deep down into your pores and break up the oil and dead skin cells that can cause pesky pimples down the line.
According to NYC-based dermatologist Rachel Nazarian, M.D, salicylic acid is oil soluble and can slough off the outermost layer of skin by breaking apart the bonds between the skin cells. This leads to a gentle exfoliation that’s also useful for preventing acne. Dr. Nazarian also notes that it is an anti-inflammatory ingredient, which can be especially helpful for decreasing the redness and inflammation associated with tender pimples.
So when it comes to fighting clogged pores, whiteheads, blackheads, and angry zits, salicylic acid is your go-to ingredient.
But if you have chronic, cystic acne, Coloarado-based holistic cosmetic surgeon and skin care expert Manish Shah, M.D., says a salicylic face wash won’t do much to clear you up completely.
“Using this ingredient only in your face wash is not maximizing its potential because the product is only on your face for a matter of seconds,” he explains. “If you incorporate an additional product like a gel or lotion with salicylic that remains on your face all day or overnight, your skin will reap greater benefits.”
Just be sure to monitor the way your skin reacts, as salicylic is known to be drying and can irritate sensitive skin.
Can I use salicylic acid face wash everyday?
The telltale sign of too much salicylic acid is skin dryness.
Dr. Nazarian explains that because of this, and because of the natural exfoliating action, she recommends using salicylic acid washes at most once daily for most skin types. If you tend to naturally be on the drier or more sensitive side, it’s advised to use the wash every other day until your skin builds up tolerance.
Bottom line: Do what feels right for your skin. “It’s a wonderful ingredient,” Dr. Nazarian says. “Just look for signs of over-drying to determine whether to decrease use.”
The best salicylic acid face washes:
1Best salicylic face wash with glycolic acid: SkinCeuticals Glycolic Renewal Gel Cleanser
Named one of our 2020 Beauty Crush Award winners for its ability to brighten complexion and unclog congested pores, this powerful gel cleanser is made with glycolic and phytic acids along with salicylic acid to promote cellular turnover and remove impurities. It also contains aloe leaf extract for extra nourishment and soothing properties.
2Best foaming salicylic face wash: The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Acne + Pore Cleanser
Grab this lightly foaming (and affordable) cleanser to remove dirt, makeup, and more while gently exfoliating thanks to its 2% salicylic acid. It will help quell those nasty breakouts with zinc, too, a compound that helps to reduce excess sebum and minimize inflammation. It’s non-drying and formulated without any harsh sulfates, so it deeply washes skin while leaving it soft and refreshed.
3Best drugstore salicylic acid face wash: CeraVe Renewing SA Face Cleanser for Normal Skin
A favorite of Dr. Nazarian’s for sensitive skin, this salicylic acid face wash also contains ceramides, which nourish and soothe skin to help prevent it from over drying. Ceramides are also instrumental in replenishing your skin’s natural barrier, so this option is less irritating than some more harsh formulas that strip that layer of essential oils. Plus, it’s fragrance free.
4Best natural salicylic acid face wash: Neutrogena Naturals Purifying Face Cleanser
In this face wash, natural salicylic acid is derived from Willobark bionutrients. It detoxifies skin without any harmful chemicals or ingredients like parabens, phthalates, or sodium laureth sulfate. It works into a rich lather that gets deep down into your pores to banish breakouts and shine.
5Best salicylic acid for oily skin: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser
Dr. Nazarian especially recommends this pick for people with oily skin because of its combination of 2% salicylic acid and 0.05% LHA (lipo-hydroxy acid), which exfoliates on a deeper cellular level. It’s oil-free and targets excess oil, pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads, while removing dirt and grime. If you’re looking for a salicylic acid face wash that will aid in a less shiny appearance, this one’s it.
6Best salicylic acid face wash for sensitive skin: Mario Badescu Acne Facial Cleanser
Made with a soothing blend of botanical extracts including aloe, chamomile, and thyme, this salicylic acid face wash is great for those with sensitive skin. It dissolves surface build-up without stripping the skin’s natural oils and leaves throbbing, problem skin feeling clean.