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Dr. Alpana Mohta Ranka, MD, DNB, IFAAD, is a triple-board-certified dermatologist with over 100 research publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

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Salicylic Acid Serum: The Ultimate Guide by a Board-Certified Dermatologist

Like so many other oily skin beauties, salicylic acid serums have been a staple in my skincare routine for over a decade now! It is one of the best—nay, the best—ingredients to prevent the formation of new acne. Teenage acne, hormonal acne, maskne (mask-induced acne), body acne—you name it! Salicylic acid also excels as an exfoliant, sloughing away dead skin cells.


In this know-it-all piece, I will give you a crash course on salicylic acid serums. By the end of this read, unless your skin is as dry as a raisin, you'll be eager to grab this gem hiding in plain sight. So, let's get started!


If you already know what to use it for and are here only for recommendations, you can skip to the salicylic acid serum recommendations below.


Conditions that can be treated using salicylic acid

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), meaning it is oil-soluble and can penetrate the skin's lipid layers. Derived from willow bark, this BHA penetrates deep into the skin, providing thorough cleansing and reducing inflammation.


This allows it to work deep within the pores, making it particularly effective for oily, acne-prone, and combination skin. It dissolves sebum and exfoliates dead skin cells from within the sebaceous glands (oil-producing glands on our skin).


Benefits of Using Salicylic Acid Serum

Acne Treatment and Prevention

Salicylic acid is highly effective in treating acne. It exfoliates the skin, reduces inflammation, and helps to clear clogged pores. Regular use can significantly reduce the occurrence of pimples and blackheads​.


Deep Pore Cleansing

Contrary to popular belief, pores don't open and close like doors. Keeping them clean and free of excess oil helps them appear smaller. It dissolves excess oil and debris, keeping pores clean and minimizing their appearance​.


Exfoliation

Salicylic acid promotes the shedding of dead skin cells, revealing a fresher, more radiant complexion. This exfoliating action helps to improve skin texture and tone, making it look smoother and more even​.


Anti-Inflammatory Properties

Salicylic acid possesses anti-inflammatory properties that help to calm irritated skin. This is particularly beneficial for those with sensitive or inflamed acne lesions​.


Reduction of Hyperpigmentation

Regular use of salicylic acid serum can help fade post-acne marks and hyperpigmentation. By accelerating the skin’s natural healing process, it reduces the appearance of dark spots over time​.


Scalp Cleansing

Salicylic acid serum also helps in scalp exfoliant, which can prevent oily buildup and control dandruff. Contrary to what Tiktok wants you to believe, salicylic acid works even better than a glycolic acid toner for this purpose,


How to Use Salicylic Acid Serum

How to Use Salicylic Acid Serum on Your Face

Salicylic acid serums should be used after cleansing your skin but before applying moisturizer. Start with a gentle cleanser to remove dirt, oil, and makeup from your face. This prepares your skin to absorb the salicylic acid more effectively.


Dispense 5-10 drops of the serum onto your fingertips and gently massage it into your face, concentrating on areas prone to acne and congestion. Avoid the delicate areas around the eyes and lips.


Once the serum has been absorbed, apply a moisturizer to hydrate your skin. Salicylic acid can be drying, so it is crucial to keep your skin moisturized.


Dry Skin Instructions

If your skin tends to get too dry with salicylic acid, apply a hydrating serum like hyaluronic acid first, then the salicylic acid serum, and finally moisturize.


Sensitive Skin Instructions

If your skin is sensitive, apply moisturizer first, wait 15-20 minutes to let some oil build up, then apply the salicylic acid serum. This technique utilizes salicylic acid's affinity for oil and helps prevent dryness and irritation.


If the serum is too drying, use the sandwich technique: apply a moisturizer, then the serum, followed by another layer of moisturizer.

Sandwich method of applying strong ingredients for people with sensitive skin

Combination Skin Instructions

If you have combination skin with dry cheeks and an oily T-zone, you can skip applying salicylic acid on the cheeks and use it only on the T-zone​.


Salicylic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so sun protection is essential​.


Uses of Salicylic Acid Serum

1. Acne Prevention

From my experience treating countless cases of acne, I've observed that salicylic acid is not only effective for treating active acne but excels in preventing the formation of new acne.


As a maintenance treatment, it helps reduce the need for medication for future flare-ups. Regular application results in a more matte finish, reduced oil production, smaller pores, fewer new acne lesions, and faster healing of existing acne.


2. Comedonal Acne

Comedones, also known as blackheads and whiteheads, form when hair follicles get clogged with dead skin cells and sebum. Blackheads are open pores exposed to air that turn dark, while whiteheads are closed pores. Using a salicylic acid serum over the comedones every night exfoliates the skin and unclogs the pores. In fact, no other ingredient works better for clearing out comedones than salicylic acid.


2. Hormonal and Maskne Acne

To prevent hormonal acne, apply salicylic acid serum every night over your jawline and chin. For mask-induced acne, apply it under your mask over a moisturizer during the day.


3. Treating Body Acne

The liquid, serum-like consistency of salicylic acid makes it great for treating acne over wide surface areas like butt acne and backne (acne on the back). Use the serum twice daily over areas affected by body acne, such as the back, shoulders, and buttocks.


4. Spot Treatment

For a quick drying effect on pimples, apply salicylic acid serum overnight on fresh pimples for 4-5 days. Advanced users can apply it twice a day on active acne spots for faster results.


4. Under an Acne Patch

For extremely inflamed acne, enhance the effectiveness of an acne patch by applying salicylic acid serum underneath. Recommended patches include the COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patch and the Mighty Patch Original from Hero Cosmetics.


5. Reducing Oiliness

To control oiliness, apply the serum twice a day over oily zones like the nose, chin, and forehead (T-zone).


6. Scalp Exfoliation

For oily buildup and dandruff control, use salicylic acid serum as a scalp exfoliant twice a week, leaving it on overnight. Opt for watery serums for this purpose, as they tend to be more effective than glycolic acid toners.


7. Sebaceous Hyperplasia

Sebaceous hyperplasia is a very common condition in people with oily skin. It is seen as small, benign bumps on the forehead, cheeks, and nose. These bumps become more common as we age and are caused by enlarged sebaceous glands.


They appear as yellowish, soft papules with a central indentation. Salicylic acid helps reduce their appearance by keeping oil production in check. Apply the serum twice daily over the affected area for faster results.


When to Use Salicylic Acid Serum in Your Routine

If you are a beginner, salicylic acid serum should only be applied during the evening routine due to its exfoliating properties, which can increase sun sensitivity​. However, once your skin is used to it, you can apply it twice daily.


Always apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen in the morning with an SPF of at least 50.


How Often to Use Salicylic Acid Serum

Start by using the serum every other day to allow your skin to adjust. If your skin tolerates it well, you can increase to daily use. Overuse can lead to dryness and irritation.


Best Salicylic Acid Serums and Why I Love Them


This 2% BHA liquid exfoliant is a non-irritating formula that allows for daily use. The inclusion of green tea extract adds an antioxidant boost, which helps to soothe the skin and reduce inflammation—a combination I find particularly beneficial for my patients.



CAUDALIE’s Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Serum combines salicylic acid with grape seed polyphenols and organic essential oils. The grape seed polyphenols provide antioxidant protection, while the essential oils help to purify and balance the skin.


Naturium's Salicylic Acid Serum 2% combines the acne-fighting power of salicylic acid with the anti-aging benefits of maltobionic acid, an isomer of lactobionic acid known for its ability to smooth fine lines. This dual-action serum effectively dissolves excess sebum, removes dead skin cells, and rejuvenates the skin, making it perfect for oily, acne-prone, and combination skin types.

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