Most over-the-counter acne treatment products contain either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Both agents can irritate and dry your skin, making it crucial for you to use a gentle cleanser and moisturizer as part of your acne treatment regimen. If you strip your skin of too much oil, your body will only produce more, believing there’s a shortage. Balance your salicylic acid use with an oil-free, noncomedogenic moisturizer.
Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring beta-hydroxy acid used to treat a variety of skin conditions, including acne. Classified among a group of medicines called “keratolytics,” it works to unclog pores and keep new acne from forming. According to the New Zealand Dermatological Society, salicylic acid keeps dead skin cells from shedding at a pace rapid enough to clog hair follicles.
Pimples, blackheads and whiteheads form under a combination of circumstances involving too much oil production, the presence of bacteria and an overload of dead skin cells that clog your skin’s hair follicles. Your skin produces an oil called sebum, a natural moisturizer that travels through hair follicles up to the surface of your skin. When one or more of these irritants block the follicles, the oil has nowhere to go. It becomes trapped, where it produces either a whitehead or a blackhead when it’s exposed to air. If the follicle becomes infected, you’ll see a pimple.
When applied topically, salicylic acid helps reduce the swelling and redness associated with a pimple. According to the U.S. government’s MedlinePlus website, the acid also unblocks your pores and follicles, reducing the likelihood of future pimples. The acid may dry your skin, causing localized redness or irritation. Adjusting the amount you apply and the number of times you apply it can usually reduce or remove any such irritation. You may not notice an improvement right away, notes Medline Plus, adding that the acid “may take several weeks or longer” to improve your skin.
Popular mass-market brands that offer salicylic acid acne treatments include Noxzema, Stridex, Clearasil, Olay and Neutrogena. Products range from cleansers to spot-treatment gel. When shopping for salicylic acid products, pay close attention to the percentage of acid in the formula. According to the New Zealand Dermatological Society, strengths range from .5 percent to 30 percent, with higher percentages available only through a prescription. Most over-the-counter products contain between .5 percent and 5 percent salicylic acid.
In addition to commercial creams, soaps, gels and wipes, you may also want to try a natural source of salicylic acid to treat your acne. According to Janice Cox in “Natural Beauty at Home,” strawberries contain natural salicylic acid. When combined with the antibacterial properties of honey, they can make an effective all-natural acne treatment. She suggests blending ½ cup strawberries, 1 egg white and 2 tsp. honey into a paste and using it as a facial mask to treat acne as needed.
- New Zealand Dermatological Society: Salicylic Acid
- MedlinePlus: Salicylic Acid
- "Natural Beauty at Home"; Janice Cox; 2002