Salicylic acid face wash: All you need to know

When shopping for over-the-counter cleansers, you may encounter products containing salicylic acid. This ingredient is well-known for its acne-fighting abilities. A salicylic acid face wash could well form your first line of defence against acne. You may have questions, of course: How does it work? How should you use it? Are there any side effects? Let’s find the answers right here!


What is salicylic acid and how does it work?

Salicylic acid is extracted from the bark of willow trees. A chemical exfoliant, it is a type of beta-hydroxy acid (BHA).

BHAs like salicylic acid are oil-soluble. This enables them to cut through oil accumulated on the skin and in the pores. By dissolving the oil, a salicylic acid face wash penetrates deep within the pores, eliminates blockages, and clears away dead skin cells and grime.

If you have acne, a salicylic acid face wash tackles the issue on multiple levels. Here is a closer look at how it works:

  • It exfoliates the skin.
Being a chemical exfoliant, salicylic acid sloughs away dead skin cells and encourages cell turnover. This is why a face wash or cleanser containing salicylic acid reduces dullness and leaves your skin feeling smooth.
  • It clears and minimises pores.

A salicylic acid face wash dissolves excess oil, eliminates that sticky feeling, and clears out the pores. Salicylic acid also has astringent properties—it tightens the skin and makes your pores look smaller.

  • It fights mild to moderate acne.

By clearing the pores and exfoliating away any dead skin, salicylic acid helps prevent the formation of acne. If you have blackheads and whiteheads, a face wash with this powerful ingredient can clear them up directly.

  • It minimises inflammation.

Salicylic acid is a salicylate, as is aspirin! Like aspirin, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory powers. That’s why it brings down the redness and irritation caused by acne.


Salicylic acid face wash: Uses in acne care

 The job of any face wash is to cleanse the skin of impurities. With a salicylic acid face wash, you get the cleansing benefit, plus a little bit more. What are some of the more common salicylic acid face wash uses for acne-prone skin? Let’s have a look:


  • It serves as a cleanser. A salicylic acid face wash clears away the grime and pollution that accumulate on the skin as you go about the day. As long as the formula suits your complexion, a salicylic acid face wash could become the first step of your AM and PM acne care routines.
  • It is great for oily skin. Bringing down oil levels is a key element of everyday acne care. Salicylic acid face washes help with that. These formulations dissolve away the natural oils and blockages that build up in the pores. In doing so, they eliminate the sticky environment in which acne bacteria tend to thrive.
  • It doubles up as an exfoliant. For those of us with oily and acne-prone skin, periodic exfoliation is a must. Thankfully, a salicylic acid face wash can clear the pores of any excess oil, dead skin cells, and other impurities that lodge deep inside. You may still need to exfoliate once or twice a week, but the face wash will help as well.
  • It supports acne prevention. If you suffer from blackheads, whiteheads, and pimples, a salicylic acid face wash could be a simple fix. Since salicylic acid regulates oil levels and exfoliates the skin, it inhibits the proliferation of acne-causing bacteria. This active ingredient also soothes the skin by minimising any acne-related inflammation.


How to use salicylic acid face wash

Are you new to salicylic acid? It pays to be cautious at first. Introduce your skin to the face wash gradually—use it once every two or three days and monitor your skin closely.

If the skin looks irritated, take a break from the face wash and slather on a little more moisturiser than usual. If your skin responds well to the product, you could apply it twice daily, but no more than that. Check the packaging for usage instructions.

The general application process is simple enough:

  • Wet your face with lukewarm water.
  • Squeeze a coin-sized amount of face wash on the hands.
  • Apply all over the face using gentle circular motions.
  • Work in the face wash for 30 seconds or so.
  • Rinse clean with lukewarm water and pat dry with a soft towel.


Side effects of salicylic acid

Although salicylic acid face washes are available over the counter, this is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. The effects of this acne-fighting ingredient vary from person to person. You are already familiar with the advantages. Before you incorporate salicylic acid into your skincare routine, learn about the disadvantages as well.

  • It is harsh on some skin types.

If your skin is dry, hypersensitive, or compromised, avoid using salicylic acid. It may leave the skin excessively dry, red, irritated, and at risk of breaking out. People with severe acne should consult a dermatologist before using a salicylic acid face wash.

  • It can cause irritation early on.

When you first start using a salicylic acid face wash, you may notice side effects like dryness, a burning sensation, or generally irritated skin. These tend to go away with repeated use. If the side effects persist beyond a few days, discontinue use of the product and consult a dermatologist.


  • It increases the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.

Your skin will be more photo-sensitive while using a salicylic acid face wash. So, it becomes all the more important to slather on a good sunscreen, and even reapply it from time to time.

  • It can be toxic if used in excess.

Salicylic acid toxicity is rare, but make sure to take preventive measures. Apply the product only on the face and not all over the body. Overuse of the ingredient could lead to salicylate poisoning in some cases.


  • It is not recommended for some groups.

Steer clear of salicylic acid products if you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or allergic to salicylates like aspirin. Certain medicines also do not interact well with this ingredient. When in doubt, consult your dermatologist for advice.

Tips for picking a salicylic acid face wash

Read the product labels when you go face wash shopping. Here’s what you need to look out for:

  • Salicylic acid: Most over-the-counter face washes have a salicylic acid content of between 0.5 and 2 per cent. A higher percentage tends to work against acne more effectively.
  • pH level: Choose a product that has a pH level of 4.5 to 7. This will help maintain your skin’s pH balance.
  • Sulphates: Go for a sulphate-free face wash. Such products are less foamy but cleanse the skin just as well.
  • Fragrances and dyes: Avoid face washes containing fragrances and dyes if your skin is sensitive. These ingredients could irritate the skin.

Don’t stop at face wash

A good face wash alone will not cut it. If you are serious about improving skin texture, chase the salicylic acid face wash with a toner and then massage in an anti-acne formula. Since salicylic acid can be harsh, pamper your skin with a gentle ointment like Clearica Anti-Acne Cream. This will clear the pores, limit the growth and spread of acne bacteria, restrict infection, and rejuvenate the skin. Follow this up with a nourishing moisturiser that offers sun protection.

Always remember: acne treatment requires a multipronged attack. Cleanse, tone, repair, moisturise—these are the four essential steps to smooth, acne-free skin!



Disclaimer: This page is for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a recommendation or for diagnostic purposes. Please consult your dermatologist or doctor before acting on any of the information provided here.