While some people are more prone to dealing with pimples compared to others, the reality is that we all experience breakouts at some point. Equipping yourself with the right ingredients and following a consistent skincare routine can make a notable difference in the appearance of your skin.
Salicylic acid is one of the most effective ingredients you can add to your skincare arsenal to help unclog pores and promote visibly clearer skin. So what is salicylic acid, and what does salicylic acid do for your complexion? We’re exploring all the salicylic acid benefits, including everything you need to know about this exfoliating active ingredient—like how often you can use it and how to add salicylic acid to your current regimen.
Salicylic Acid Fast Facts
- Ingredient type: BHA exfoliant (beta-hydroxy acid)
- Benefits: Visibly reduces active breakouts and future breakouts, makes skin look less shiny and oily
- Best for: People with blemish-prone or oily skin types
- Pair IT: Salicylic acid plays well with ingredients that soothe and hydrate skin. Pair it with skin Bye Bye Dark Spots Niacinamide Serum in the evenings to soothe and tackle dark spots and with Bye Bye Lines Hyaluronic Acid Serum in the mornings for plump-looking skin. For makeup, pair it with an oil-free foundation, such as the award-winning* CC+ Cream Oil-Free Matte Full-Coverage Foundation with SPF 40.
- Skip: Stick to just one exfoliating product during your skincare routine to help keep your skin barrier feeling healthy and strong.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble, beta-hydroxy acid that’s a real hero when it comes to zapping pimples. Long story short: It helps visibly improve current and future breakouts by visibly exfoliating skin, unclogging pores, and easing inflammation.
For a mighty yet gentle salicylic acid product that puts pimples in their place, reach for Bye Bye Breakout Salicylic Acid Acne Serum. This blemish-fighting powerhouse contains 2% salicylic acid, which is the highest concentration allowed in over-the-counter products. Our formula also contains 3% lactic acid, an alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) that further exfoliates to help reduce the appearance of lingering pimple marks and reveal smooth, soft skin. This game-changing formula also includes a postbiotic ferment that supports calm, balanced skin.
While powerful, this lightweight and layerable serum is still gentle enough for everyday use to help fight active breakouts and prevent future breakouts. And because it won’t pill or dry out under makeup, you can use it morning and night.
Real Talk: What Does Salicylic Acid Do for Skin?
Along with benzoyl peroxide and retinoids, salicylic acid is considered one of the core over-the-counter active ingredients you can use to tackle existing breakouts and reduce future breakouts. Here’s what salicylic acid does for your skin:
1. Targets Active Breakouts
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, salicylic acid targets different types of active breakouts, including papules and pustules.1 Papules are small bumps that may or may not be red or inflamed, and pustules are raised bumps that contain a white or yellow fluid. You can also use salicylic acid for blackheads and whiteheads to help dissolve plugs and unclog pores.
2. Minimizes Future Breakouts
You know that salicylic acid stops your current breakouts, but the beauty of this acid is that it can help prevent new blemishes from forming, too. That said, even if your complexion becomes clear after using salicylic acid products, you’ll want to maintain the regimen to continue promoting clear skin. Just three to four drops per application is all you need!
3. Visibly Fades Old, Stubborn Blemishes
Even after whiteheads and pustules say sayonara, it’s common to deal with red or brown discoloration that lingers on your skin. Salicylic acid treatments can help fade these stubborn spots, also known as post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. A clinical study found that Bye Bye Breakout Salicylic Acid Serum fades the look of these marks in eight weeks.**
4. Exfoliates Like a Champ
Salicylic acid is a genuine hero when it comes to exfoliating the skin’s surface, notes a study in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.2 Unlike physical exfoliators, which use tiny beads or granules to buff away skin, salicylic acid visibly refines the skin by gently dissolving dead skin cells. Also, while AHAs are water soluble, salicylic acid is oil-soluble to unclog pores more effectively. All this helps create a clear-looking complexion that’s vibrant, bright, and healthy-looking.
5. Makes Pores Look Smaller
All that pore-clearing action can actually help your pores look smaller. Large pores are, unfortunately, genetic. However, when your pores are free of dirt, gunk, and oil, they appear smaller.
Is it OK to Use Salicylic Acid Daily?
As is the case with any exfoliating ingredient, salicylic acid can potentially cause some irritation, including dry skin, sensitivity, irritation, or light peeling. If you’re new to salicylic acid we recommend using a gentle formula such as Bye Bye Breakout Salicylic Acid Acne Serum, which is dermatologist-tested for safety and is suitable for sensitive skin.
It’s also a good idea to do a patch test by placing a small amount onto clean skin in a discreet spot, like the inside of your forearm. Allow the product to fully absorb and monitor the reaction on your skin over the next 24 hours. If sensitivity occurs—such as redness, burning, or itching—don’t use the product.
Another way you can ease into salicylic acid is to use it sparingly at first—roughly once or twice a week—and observe how your skin reacts. If the side effects are bothersome, reduce frequency and as your skin adjusts to the formula, ramp up again. Once your skin has completely adapted, you can apply salicylic acid daily to maintain your clear and even-looking complexion.
How Is Salicylic Acid Used in a Skincare Routine?
Now that you’re up to speed on what salicylic acid is, it’s time to incorporate this powerful ingredient into your skincare routine. Our preferred method is to use a gentle formula, like Bye Bye Breakout Salicylic Acid Acne Serum, that you can apply to your entire face. This helps target current breakouts, curbs future breakouts, and tackles any existing hyperpigmentation.
Here’s how to use it:
- Step one: In the morning and evening, use a gentle cleanser on your face and gently pat dry. We recommend Confidence in a Cleanser and Bye Bye Makeup Cleansing Balm.
- Step two: Apply three to four drops of Bye Bye Breakout Salicylic Acid Acne Serum onto your face and gently press it onto your skin using your fingertips. Avoid the eye area.
- Step three: Layer your serums for even more skin-nourishing goodness. In the morning, use Bye Bye Lines Hyaluronic Acid Serum, and in the evenings, we recommend pairing Bye Bye Breakout with Bye Bye Dark Spots Niacinamide Serum. Always apply salicylic acid first when using other serums.
- Step four: Both morning and night, follow your serum step with a moisturizer approved for oily or blemish-prone skin types. We like Confidence in a Gel Lotion Moisturizer, a water-light liquid that delivers three days of hydration. The formula is also infused with ceramides, glycerin, and cactus flower extract to nourish your skin.
- Step five: During the day, apply CC+ Cream Oil-Free Matte Full-Coverage Foundation with SPF 40. In addition to keeping oil at bay and delivering a poreless, natural-looking matte finish, the formula contains mineral sunscreen to protect your skin.
A Few More Pointers
It’s important to be mindful when adding a new ingredient to your skincare routine since not all ingredients play well with others. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t combine salicylic acid with the following:
- Abrasive cleansers formulated with physical and/or chemical exfoliants.
- Other topical pimple treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, and retinoids.
- Products formulated with alcohol or ingredients that are drying.
- Medicated topical products
Learn more about how to tackle breakouts if you have sensitive skin, then take a moment to dive deeper into the connection between 'bad skin' and your mental health.
1. “How to Treat Different Types of Acne.” American Academy of Dermatology Association. https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/acne/diy/types-breakouts.
2. Decker, Ashley, and Emmy M. Graber. “Over-the-Counter Acne Treatments.” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, vol. 5, no. 5, May 2012, pp. 32–40.
*The NPD Group/U.S. Prestige Beauty Total Measured Market, Makeup Product Sales, January-December 2021.
**Based on an 8-week clinical study.