What Does Salicylic Acid Do?

What Does Salicylic Acid Do?

Our skin is constantly changing, creating new skin cells every 30 days.

And harnessing this renewal cycle is key to revealing your best, brightest skin yet.

One of the most effective ways of doing that is by adding an exfoliant into your daily skin care routine. Salicylic acid is the holy grail exfoliant they’ve been missing for many people.

Wondering what it is, or what does salicylic acid do? The skin care experts at Skin Pharm are here to discuss.

A brief overview of the skin renewal cycle

The skin is a finely tuned machine. Most bodily functions happen unconsciously, like the heart beating and the lungs taking in oxygen.

The skin quietly does its job as well, keeping the inside of the body safe and keeping external dangers out. The skin works hard to replace its cells to stay at its most efficient. Although we are mostly unaware of the process, the cycle repeats itself about every 30 days.

To put this in perspective, scientists estimate that around 19 million skin cells make up the body, so constantly turning them over is quite the undertaking. That also means that we shed between 30,000 and 40.000 dead skin cells every single day.

While we have three main layers of skin — the hypodermis (or subcutaneous), dermis, and epidermis — new skin cells are only produced by the latter. The epidermis is divided into five distinct layers, each with a different job.

New skin cells (or keratinocytes) are made in the lowest layer, the stratum basale. They are then slowly pushed up through the other epidermal layers until reaching the top of the skin, the stratum corneum.

If you’ve been investigating skin care for a while, you’re likely already about the stratum corneum, even if the name doesn’t sound familiar. We focus most of our skin care on the stratum corneum, as it is the gatekeeper for our skin’s physical appearance. This epidermis layer is more commonly called the “moisture barrier,” one of the most crucial parts of maintaining hydrated skin.

The importance of exfoliants

Just like most skin care products, exfoliants focus on the stratum corneum. Although they have been around for many years, they’re not the same abrasive products you may remember from your younger years.

In many cases, exfoliants exist in “chemical” form instead of “mechanical.” This means most skin care products rely on chemicals instead of physical scrubbing, making them far more gentle on the skin.

When we talk about exfoliants, we primarily refer to a category known as hydroxy acids. As a whole, exfoliants are skin care products that have been designed to help expedite the renewal process to prevent clogged pores, pimples, and excess sebum.

They achieve this goal by more effectively removing the build-up of dead skin cells from the skin’s surface. There are two subcategories of hydroxy acid — alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs) — each works slightly differently.

Alpha-hydroxy acids are considered water-soluble, which means they dissolve most efficiently in water. This makes them better for skin care concerns that exist mainly on the skin’s surface.

On the other hand, Beta-hydroxy acids are oil-soluble, so they are slightly more efficient at traveling into the pores and tackling things from the inside. Salicylic acid falls into the beta-hydroxy acid category, while other common skin care ingredients like glycolic acid are considered alpha-hydroxy acids.

Salicylic acid 101

Now, let’s talk specifically about salicylic acid. What does salicylic acid do that is unique to exfoliants, and how precisely does it work?

As an exfoliant, salicylic acid works by softening keratin, the main protein that makes up skin cells. The dead skin cells (and the bonds between them) dissolve with softer keratin.

This makes it far easier for you to sweep them gently off the surface of the skin, leaving it clear and open. Although this process is one that the skin does on its own, using exfoliants like salicylic acid can speed up the time it takes.

The benefits of salicylic acid

Because of how salicylic acid works and its status as a BHA (versus AHAs), it has benefits that target specific skin types. At the top of the list is acne-prone skin.

In general, three factors lead to a breakout — oil, a build-up of debris, pore-clogging and a bacteria known as P. acnes. Salicylic acid can target the first two, creating a much less hospitable environment for the third factor.

The caveat is that salicylic acid works for more surface forms of breakouts, like blackheads and whiteheads. Deeper types of blemishes, like cystic blemishes, are best treated by prescription medication through a dermatologist.

Salicylic acid is also excellent for helping to even out the overall skin tone. The skin can suffer from all kinds of different skin care concerns and issues, like hyperpigmentation (dark spots) and irregular texture (bumps).

Most of those concerns can be minimized by helping to promote skin cell renewal. What this does is to effectively “push out” the older, damaged skin cells to make way for fresher, newer ones. Another side effect of this evening process is smaller, less visible pores.

The same concept can be applied to aging concerns, like thinning or sagging skin. This is part of the normal aging process, although one that can impact self-esteem.

While nothing can stop the aging process, regular use of exfoliants (like salicylic acid) can help to promote the growth of new skin cells. Over time, you may notice brighter, tighter skin.

Are there any side effects of salicylic acid?

In addition to an allergic reaction (which can happen with any ingredient you haven’t used before), there are a few other — mostly minor — side effects that can occur with salicylic acid use.

In most cases, salicylic acid is well tolerated by people. However, if you introduce the ingredient into your routine too quickly, use higher concentrations of salicylic acid, or if you have areas of broken skin, you may experience some (or all) of the following side effects:

  • Skin irritation
  • Stinging
  • Redness
  • Peeling
  • Dryness

These side effects may indicate a damaged skin barrier in some situations.

Remember, the moisture barrier is the most crucial component involved in keeping the body safe from external harm. It also works to keep water inside the skin to hydrate the body. When damaged, it can’t be nearly as effective at performing any of those jobs.

To help heal that barrier, you need to stop using any irritating skin care products and go back to basics. Using a gentle skin care product without fragrance and a thick, effective moisturizer for a few days can help your body heal itself.

Then, you can try to reintroduce any exfoliants slowly or switch up the types of products you are using.

Although it may seem like a good idea to use multiple exfoliants to speed up the process, too much of a good thing can work in the opposite direction. Introduce products slowly and listen to your skin — especially sensitive skin.

How to integrate salicylic acid into your skin care routine

You can find salicylic acid in nearly every skin care product, which can be overwhelming if you’re just starting out with the ingredient.

To simplify, it’s a good idea to choose a single product to start to integrate salicylic acid into your routine. Using too much too fast can lead to redness and discomfort, so slowly introducing it to your skin is crucial.

Our Crystal Clear clarifying pads are an excellent product for beginners. Containing both salicylic acid as well as glycolic and lactic acids (which are also exfoliants), we designed these pads to be rubbed directly onto the skin.

Make sure that you avoid the eye area, however. Start by using them just once weekly, after cleansing your skin, so that you can see how your skin will react and give it time to adjust. Once the product has been thoroughly absorbed into your skin, you can apply any serums and top with a moisturizer.

If your skin reacts well, you can slowly increase your Crystal Clear clarifying pads usage until you’re using them once a day (if desired). If you experience any sensitivity or redness, cut back or stop entirely to allow your skin time to heal.

For a salicylic acid-based skin care product that you can use all over your body, try our Clay Time polishing charcoal mask. Like our Crystal Clear clarifying pads, the mask contains salicylic acid alongside quartz to clear your skin’s pores.

People who suffer from blemishes on other body parts besides their face will significantly benefit from these acne treatments.

To sum things up...

What does salicylic acid do? Salicylic acid can significantly benefit those with blemish-prone or oily skin in the right skin care products, like cleansers.

With regular use, you’ll notice clearer, brighter, more radiant skin in as little as a few months. However, it’s important to integrate this powerful ingredient into your routine slowly to reduce the risk of irritation or sensitivity.

If you have additional questions, we’re here to help!


Skin: Layers, Structure and Foundation | Cleveland Clinic

Salicylic acid treats acne vulgaris by suppressing the AMPK/SREBP1 pathway in sebocytes | PubMed

The skin: an indispensable barrier | Experimental Dermatology


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