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Salicylic acid (SA) is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that helps promote the skin’s natural exfoliation process. Originally derived from the bark of certain plants—such as white willow and wintergreen leaf—salicylic acid is most often created in a lab today. This ingredient has long been used to target various concerns, including rough and bumpy skin (also known as keratosis pilaris), clogged pores, and skin conditions like psoriasis. When used as part of your skincare regimen, this ingredient’s mild yet effective exfoliating properties can help leave your skin feeling softer and smoother.

Important Things to Know about Salicylic Acid

  • The discovery of salicylic acid dates all the way back to 1838, when it was first prepared by an Italian chemist named Raffaele Piria.1 Salicylic acid helps exfoliate the skin by loosening the “glue” that holds skin cells together. This supports the natural shedding of dead cells, which helps slough away dull or rough skin to reveal a fresh and healthy-looking complexion. You’ll find salicylic acid in a variety of skincare products—ranging from body washes to moisturizers, facial cleansers, and more.
  • Salicylic acid is a “lipid-soluble” ingredient, which means it can effectively penetrate your pores. This makes it especially useful for oily and acne-prone skin (particularly for those with “open comedones,” also known as blackheads) because it helps unclog pores and keep them free of acne-causing debris. Salicylic acid’s mild exfoliation benefits can help improve the look of rough and bumpy skin, which is formally known as keratosis pilaris and can resemble “chicken skin” or “strawberry skin.” It can also be beneficial for those dealing with psoriasis by reducing scaling and helping to prevent further flare-ups.
  • Salicylic acid is the most commonly used beta-hydroxy acid in skincare products, according to the FDA.2 It is generally considered to be a gentler option when compared to other hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid. Although various skin types can benefit from salicylic acid, it is optimal for oily or acne-prone skin because of its ability to help control excess oil production and improve the look of clogged pores, dullness, and blackheads. It can also be used to help smooth the appearance of psoriasis, as well as rough and bumpy skin. If you’re unsure about whether or not salicylic acid is the right choice for your skincare routine, seek the help of a qualified dermatologist.
  • Daily sun protection is an essential part of any effective skincare routine and should be applied every morning, whether you’re using salicylic acid or not. According to the FDA’s guidelines, a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher should be applied daily, rain or shine, and reapplied every two hours during extended periods of sun exposure. Direct sunlight should be avoided during peak hours of the day, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.3


    This is especially important when including salicylic in your skincare routine, since the exfoliating effects of this ingredient can leave your skin more vulnerable to harmful UV rays. It’s recommended to take extra protective measures against sun damage when using salicylic acid, like wearing a hat, protective clothing, and sunglasses.

  • Salicylic acid is generally considered to be an ingredient that is suitable for daily use, and when applied correctly, can be used in combination with other skincare ingredients. CeraVe’s salicylic acid products are always formulated with three essential ceramides to help lock in moisture and restore the skin’s protective barrier.


    You may find products that pair salicylic acid with other mild exfoliants, such as the alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs) lactic acid or glycolic acid, to help further support visibly smoother-looking skin. As with all chemical exfoliants, it’s important to follow the label closely and seek the advice of a dermatologist when in doubt.

  • The frequency in which you can safely use salicylic acid will depend largely on the products you choose, your skin type, current skincare goals, and the percentage of salicylic acid included in the formula. There are many skincare products containing salicylic acid that are specially formulated to be gentle enough for daily use, such as CeraVe. CeraVe’s salicylic acid products utilize ingredients such as calming niacinamide, hydrating hyaluronic acid, and ceramides to support a well-rounded approach to healthy-looking skin—without disrupting your skin barrier.
  • Although salicylic, lactic, and glycolic acids are all categorized as common hydroxy acids used in skincare, there are a few key distinctions to keep in mind when considering the benefits of these chemical exfoliants. Salicylic acid is what’s known as a beta-hydroxy acid (or “BHA” for short). Alternately, glycolic acid and lactic acid fall under the category of alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs). All three of these ingredients work somewhat similarly as chemical exfoliants, helping to promote skin exfoliation and eliminate the buildup of dead skin cells. However, their main difference is in their solubility. Because salicylic acid is “lipid-soluble”—unlike glycolic and lactic acid—it is able to penetrate clogged pores, which is especially beneficial for those with oily skin.

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