Spotlight on... SALICYLIC ACID |

3 mins

Spotlight on... SALICYLIC ACID

Salicylic acid is a skincare ingredient often used in the treatment of oily skin, blackheads, acne and breakouts. Ellen Cummings speaks to the skin experts to understand how it can be used in salon and at home

How does salicylic acid work?

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA – meaning it is only one carbon atom less than the more populous alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic and lactic. Like both of those acids, salicylic acid also has a natural origin. “It’s a derivative of willow bark and belongs to a group of naturally made, plant-derived chemicals called salicylates,” explains Be Loasby-Smith, national educator for Xpert Professional which distributes skincare brand Dibi Milano.

Salicylic acid’s structure means it’s more oil soluble than AHAs, which are water soluble, making it effective on oily skin and resulting skin concerns. “It mixes with the lipids and sebum on skin’s surface, disrupting cellular junctions. This action helps slough off dead skin cells and remove the contents of clogged pores – decreasing the appearance of pore size and improving skin health,” says Victoria Evans, education manager at Dermalogica UK.

Evans says that salicylic acid is something of a multitasker: “It has a keratolytic effect, softening and loosening the bonds that hold keratinocytes in place; a comedolytic effect by dissolving follicular impactions; and an anti-inflammatory action.”

This means it’s great for clearing out blackheads and whiteheads, as well as bringing down redness when breakouts do occur. Salicylic acid can also prevent future breakouts because it decreases the spread of acne-causing bacteria.

How should it be used?

In salons or clinics, salicylic acid can be used in a number of different treatment stages. Rebecca Jones, trainer and ambassador for Noon Aesthetics, explains, “It works to de-oil the skin and remove surface build up, so it is a great prep choice before extractions, lymphatic massage and oxygen infusion.” It’s a good ingredient to use alongside LED light therapy treatments “due to the combination working effectively at combating breakouts”, according to maskology+ national trainer Deborah Carrington. Salicylic acid can also be incorporated into a facial or chemical peel in clinic, and is often implemented as a peeling agent.

Outside of the salon, salicylic acid can be used by clients at home in concentrations of 2% or less. The ingredient is widely available in products such as cleansers, exfoliants, serums, spot treatments and masks. Although it’s safe for clients to use at home in this percentage, they do need to be careful not to overdo it.

What can you pair it with?

Hyaluronic acid is a great pairing with salicylic acid – it helps to boost moisture and restore the skin’s barrier – but there are a few other ingredients which will help to either soothe the aftereffects of salicylic acid or increase its efficacy in treating certain skin concerns.

“Water-soluble ingredients like niacinamide make a fantastic pairing with salicylic acid because it will complement the oil-soluble acid beautifully, locking in moisture all day and avoiding skin dryness, redness or vulnerability,” explains Loasby-Smith Evans says that “other anti-acne ingredients and other AHAs to complement the skin clearing and anti-inflammatory benefits” also pair well with salicylic acid, although care should be taken not to overload the skin with actives; clients can work them into their routines at different times of the day.

If salicylic acid is being used to treat existing mild acne issues and breakouts, Jones adds that “skin-brightening ingredients like azelaic acid will reduce the chances of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation” resulting from these skin concerns.

Are there any contraindications?

Identifying whether someone might be sensitive to this ingredient can be easily established in a treatment consultation because of its relation to a common medication – aspirin. Loasby-Smith explains, “Aspirin is prepared by chemical synthesis from salicylic acid, so the acid should be avoided by anyone with an aspirin allergy.”

" WATER-SOLUBLE ingredients like niacinamide MAKE A FANTASTIC PAIRING with SALICYLIC ACID because it will complement the OIL-SOLUBLE ACID BEAUTIFULLY "

People with eczema or sensitive skin should also exercise caution because the ingredient can increase dryness and irritation. If this is the case, “usage should be kept to either once a week or alternate days if you are sensitive,” says Carrington.

Although retinoids and salicylic acid are both well known for their acne fighting abilities, using the two together should be avoided – especially high-strength retinoids being used to treat acne.

This article appears in December 2022

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This article appears in...
December 2022
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