Salicylic Acid is known as a Beta Hydroxy Acid. In fact Salicylic Acid is the Beta Hydroxy Acid. So what is it? What does it do? Well it’s an oil-soluble Keratolytic, an exfoliant, and actually one of my favourite cosmetic ingredients, it’s in my skincare, it’s even in my shampoo and conditioner. It originates from the bark of the White Willow but these days it tends to be artificially produced.

Salicylic Acid breaks down and loosens the bonds between dead skin cells. An often accompanying motion then proceeds to remove the cells such as, rubbing, sweeping with a cotton pad or massaging. Furthermore, it’s a bactericide and is therfore beneficial for anyone suffering with surface skin complaints such as Acne Vulgaris, a widespread hyper-production of p.Acne bacteria.

So why is it useful? Due to changes in diet, quality of food, stress and environment, most people could benefit from a boost in natural keritisation. This can be ahieved using manual exfoliators, beaded or grained scrubs, but these can be too harsh for our skin’s delicate surface and ‘rip’ away skin cells often damaging the fresher cells underneath. Salicylic Acid ensures that the dead skin cells are weakened and fresher skin cells remain relatively safe. Therefore this is a great ingredient for anyone with dry skin concerns.

  • Removes dead surface skin cells
  • Fights bacteria
  • Unblocks pores
  • Reduces further outbreak
  • Blemish healing time is reduced
  • Allows easier absorption of treatment serums and moisturisers

What precautions do you need to take? Well look at it in the same way you do a manual exfoliator. When you remove dead surface skin, you expose newer cells that will immediately start to loose moisture so it’s important to hydrate the skin with both oil and water (depending on skin type) to restore the skin’s moisture barrier.

Salicylic Acid is the feature ingredient of many popular, liquid exfoliators such as Clarins Gentle Exfoliator (they call it a toner, yet it’s listed on their site under ‘exfoliators’?) and Clinique Clarifying Lotion. These are not in fact toners, the mistake made by most, they are genuine exfoliators which should often be used twice a day. The times I have heard how drying Clinique Clarifying Lotion is astounds me when in most cases, it’s due to it being used very incorrectly, trust me. With these products, never use them like toners. Instead, still using a cotton pad or ball, apply one splash of product and then sweep across the face, avoiding the eye area and never going over the same area twice. Otherwise you are risk of over-exfoliation which will cause dryness, redness and often itching/burning. This would be exactly the same if you went berserk with your favourite granule scrub.

The latest range from Aveda, Invati, uses lashings of Salicylic Acid to help restore hair volume. It works by helping to unblock pores on the scalp, blockages which often prevent weaker and thinner hair from coming through. When the scalp is well exfoliated hair is able to move more freely and appears infinitely more volumised. Cool right?

So what about the bad? We all know that there are many scare-mongering tactics used in cosmetics, for the very reason that if a brand ‘circulates’ that a particular ingredient is bad, they then magically bring a product to market that is formulated without this ‘bad’ ingredient, it’s likely they’re going to sell a lot. Also the chemists will often use other ingredients to outweigh any side-effects. For example Sodium Laureth Sulfate, a cleansing surfactant, can cause dryness in high doses, therefore most products containing it are formulated with moisturising agents that will usually cancel out these effects, but it differs from person to person.

Salicylic Acid in cosmetics (we’re not talking Acid Peels here) is usually formulated at around 2-3% concentration which is quite mild. Often hyaluronic acids and glycerin et al are never too far being in products formulated with SA to combat any drying effects, instantly replacing moisture lost. So here are some great products to start with that harness the power of Salicylic Acid:

Which are your favourites?

Posted at 16:48 September 22, 2014

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Posted at 17:04 March 21, 2013
Bare Faced Chic

Thom, you’re totally right. It is something we won’t agree on but it’s one if the things that makes looking at skincare interesting. No product or ingredient will suit everyone (hey there are people allergic to sunlight, every ingredient will cause someone somewhere a problem) and there have been products I have loathed which other bloggers I know and respect adore. Nothing will float everyone’s boat! It’s finding what works for you and sometimes people will find non-SLS products helpful and sometimes SLS will work better. After all if we all liked the same thing, life would be really, really dull!!

Posted at 05:59 March 20, 2013
Beauty and the Chameleon

Hi Thom,

Congrats on the piece regarding Salicylic Acid. A very informative read and quite factual.

Sadly, I would have to agree with the others regarding Salicylic Acid and Sodium Laureth Sulfate as I found it quite in favour of chemicals. Unfortunately my skin doesn’t tolerate synthetic ingredients (such as SA and other AHA/BHAs) as well as it use to and being a huge fan of radiance and exfoliating ingredients, I had to find alternative solutions.

What would have made this blog absolutely perfect in my opinion, if you mentioned more about the natural alternative to Salicylic Acid which is Salicilin and you were right in saying that it is from Willow Bark. Often people have a misconception that natural ingredients aren’t as effective as their chemical counterparts. I am happy to report that that is a thing of the past. More brands are delivering high performing formulas without the use of synthetics.

As wonderful as these synthetic ingredients are at performing and delivering results, today more and more people are finding that their skin is becoming reactive and showing signs of sensitivity.

Working in the industry myself, I find that more people are driven towards skincare brands that utilise natural actives rather then synthetic and often I get presented with the question, “Which one is better?” To be honest – both. They promise results, you see the effects and ultimately it’s the user’s choice whether they want to use synthetic or natural solutions to treat their skin concerns.

Personally, the brands you use should reflect and compliment the lifestyle of the person. It’s like saying someone who is a vegan using animal ingredients in their skincare. Doesn’t make any sense…

My next point, Sulfates.

Yes, Sodium Laureth Sulfate has been used now for about 4/5 years. I don’t know if you remember that big Sodium Lauryl Sulfate scare. I think that was a huge “scaremonger” tactic personally, but it made people think about what they were using. I completely agree with Bare Face Chic about SLS, regardless on how effective they are when it comes to cleansing, it really strips your skin bare of hydration and disrupts the healthy metabolism of the skin. When I was younger I used SLS and found my skin very oily, only later to discover that my skin was so thirsty and when I changed cleansing agents to a more “natural” formula (look out for cleansing agents from oats and corn). Since changing, I find my skin behaving correctly and almost normal for best part of the year. I completely agree with you that it works, but I am more interested in ‘how it works’. I don’t agree with you that a product that strips the skin needs to be compensated with Hyaluronic Acid. We need that too… so why strip the skin and then replenish it. The product should work co-effiecently with the nature of how the skin behaviours. Sadly what is left is a yo-yo effect so I completely agree with Pampered Prince on this.

So the thought I leave you with: Cosmetics should compliment your lifestyle from how they work, to the results delivered and the joy it brings. Bare in mind that for most of the synthetic ingredients out there, there is usually a natural alternative. You just need to do a lot of research.

Posted at 14:55 March 16, 2013
Pampered Prince

Sorry Thom, but on this occasion I have to agree with the points Jen made.

SLS despite the rest of the formulation is only used because it’s a cheap sulphate. If it wasn’t so irritating on the skin in the first place then they wouldn’t need to add other ingredients to combat the negative effects. Again, I’ve said it before, regardless or how bad an ingredient is, why use it when there are many better alternatives. But we’re talking Salicylic Acid here so SLS can do one for a minute.

I completely agree salicylic acid is a great ingredient. You mention 2-3% concentration but it’s also worth mentioning, as with any acid, the pH of the overall product is just as important as the % when it comes to the products effectiveness. I guess this is why a lot of products contain alcohol, to lower the pH. Which is odd, as alcohol is drying and so is the acid.

I personally like the Bravura London salicylic peels which start at 5% / pH 3 and are alcohol free, they also do a lotion with 2%.

    Posted at 15:22 March 16, 2013

    I know I’ll never face total agreement with my love of SLS, but I’ll stress, it works for me and have enjoyed products containing it for many years; so have previous clients. I concede there are negatives but I will point you to the article I referred to in my reply to Jen.

    Totally agree with the pH balances, but didn’t want send an army of guys into Selfridges and Boots et al armed with Litmus paper. Yes it’s odd using alcohol particularly as it’s only a pH of 7, you’d think it would be more effective to add an alkali instead to really compensate the balance.

    I’ve read your reviews on these products and they sound great. I’m still in love with my clarifying which even Nadine Baggot voiced to me she isn’t a fan of, but as with SLS, these products work for me and without wanting to sound arrogant, I don’t think I could get my highly blemish prone skin (blemish free for around 18 months now) in a much better condition. I can only write about what I know and what I enjoy, giving my professional and experienced view on the subject, but I will never fail to concede that there are certainly negative effects these ingredients can have sometimes.

Posted at 21:20 March 14, 2013
Bare Faced Chic

I’m sorry, I’m going to totally disagree with you on a couple of points. I know I only comment when I disagree, for which I apologise!

SLS is not just one of those ingredients that people are scaremongering about. It is genuinely a skin irritant and incredibly drying. It interferes with the skin’s acid mantle and as a surfactant it strips the skin of all natural oil. On the face this can cause the skin to over-compensate and produce more oil than required thus leading to “oily” skin and on the body (where oil glands are not distributed as frequently) it causes dryness. The hydrating ingredients are not sufficient to compensate for this in pretty much any product I have ever tried containing SLS.

As for the Clinique clarifying lotions, I’m not a fan. I like salicylic acid as an ingredient and that isn’t the problem. The issue is more with the alcohol content. Given that I have seen people on Clinique counters using the clarifying lotions to clean the counters, I wouldn’t use it, or recommend anyone else to use it, anywhere near their face. Cleaning windows on the other hand…

Also, skin may need a boost in keritisation now and then but most people reading your blog may not know what that means. I’m not saying dumb it down but maybe put an explanation in there somewhere!

    Posted at 21:39 March 14, 2013
    Thom Watson

    Hey! Haha, there is a pattern but I like being kept on my feet.

    I’ll point you, in anxiety, to a post I wrote a few weeks back after doing some heavy research into SLS The results I felt were intereesting.

    Yes there is the alcohol content but that fact that it has worked for so many people (seriously, it’s their number 1 selling product around the world) for so many years, makes me think it’s something more than just good marketing.

    Finally, I completely agree, I thought I was being helpful by throwing in a derma-phrase in there in context but clearly it’s not as self-explanatory as it could be!


    Posted at 23:24 March 16, 2013
    Bare faced chic

    I have been and read the post and whilst I see that there is conflicting evidence on a scientific basis as to the degree of irritation that SLS can cause, I go on something less scientific but more real: the reaction of my skin and of others I have spoken to.
    To explain a bit, I spent my teenage years and early twenties under the impression that, like most other teenagers, I had oily skin. I was lucky enough to escape without the acne that plagues many teenagers but I was a bit of an oil slick. Blotting papers, powder, mattifying cleansers, toners, moisturisers… You name it, I tried it. But it was my mum who told me to stop using so many harsh products on my skin and gave me a bottle of clarins cleansing milk and a flannel. Changing nothing else, just changing a foaming cleanser (and a pretty reputable one at that) for a cleansing milk and my skin dried up within about two weeks.
    Equally, every winter I got ridiculously dry skin that flaked and itched to the extent that I would scratch through my skin but a couple of years ago, I changed to a non-SLS body wash and whilst my skin is still dry (we’re not talking miracles here!) but I’m not trying to remove my skin with my nails.
    I don’t have sensitive skin, I can use pretty much everything else without a problem and if it was just me, I would write it off as a weird me-thing. But it’s not just me. I’ve recommended dumping SLS products to a lot of people and I have not met anyone whose skin hasn’t improved by ditching the stuff. Now it may not be science but that says more to me than any scientific study whicch you can skew to show what you want (and believe me, they do skew them depending on who is sponsoring the study).
    So for me, SLS is great. For washing dishes. But it’s going nowhere nearer my skin than that.

    Posted at 23:34 March 16, 2013

    I love that story and completely understand where you’re now coming from. The funny thing is, I was in a remarkably similar position when I was younger, I had started getting spots and just that dreaded teenage-boy skin and it was my mum that gave me a bottle of Clinique liquid facial soap mild as well a few bits and pieces that really helped my skin.

    Everyone is different and we all have very different experiences. I’ve worked in companies for yeeaars that use SLS as a basis for so many of their products and even though yes, obviously I’ve seen reactions, I’ve seen what good products containing it can do and I hate to say but with the complete opposite experience to yourself.

    We are never going to agree on this which is good as it means the beauty industry still has so much to keep working on, but I suppose we’re all different and the studies are relatively inconclusive (agree about the study sponsorship by the way, have you read the book Bad Pharma? It’s a great book!). I completely understand where you’re coming from and it seems with such a controversial ingredient it’s a case of tossing the coin.

Posted at 12:33 March 14, 2013

Great article on the use of salicylic acid, just to let your readers know that FIT Skincare for Men utalise it in our revolutionary lip serum.

And here’s a link.

Thank you

Posted at 09:06 March 14, 2013

Love the blog – often read but never comment!

With the Clinique Clarifying Lotions, am I right in saying that it’s only numbers 3 and 4 that contain salicylic acid? I always used number 4 despite only really having combination to oily skin because I felt as though it kept my skin very clear but since I introduced another exfoliating step into my skin care – Clarisonic – I’ve been getting flakey bits around my nose and chin. I switched to number 3 and it seems to have made it better but I think I’m definitely guilty of using too much product and going over the same areas multiple times so thatnks for that tip!

I often get bored of products and buying the same thing multiple times so do you think the Clarins one is comparable for when Clinique runs out?

    Posted at 11:26 March 14, 2013
    Thom Watson

    Hi Tom, thanks so much for the comment and great to hear you often read!

    It’s all Clinique Clarifying Lotions that contain Salicylic Acid. Also the lower the number, the stronger it is as a dryer skin type needs a higher level of exfoliation than for someone who is oilier.

    If you’re getting flakey bits after exfoliation it means you’re not hydrating your skin correctly afterwards, make sure you apply lashings of moisturiser after every use of your Clarisonic. If you are very oily, make sure it’s a relatively oil-free moisturiser, you could also look at Hydraluron by Indeed Labs for that added boost.

    I’d say the Clarins is comparable, but whatever I use, I always seem to drift back to Clarifying Lotion! Let me know how you get on if you choose to get it!

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