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Why Is Salicylic Acid So Effective on Acne?

Salicylic acid is one of the most common compounds found in most over-the-counter acne treatments. It’s also used in a stronger concentration in some professional dermatology products. Derived from the willow bark tree, salicylic acid is often very effective in treating acne, especially when used in combination with other acne treatments.

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, which means that it has effects similar to a mild chemical peel. However, even though this ingredient can be useful in treating acne, there are also a few precautions you should take and conditions in which it should not be used. Here, Dr. Allen A. Flood offers this guide to salicylic acid.

The facts about acne

The first thing to know is that acne doesn’t only affect teenagers. Although it is common among teens, many adults are also still plagued by stubborn acne. It appears to have hormonal causes, in many cases.

Acne can also be caused by reactions to certain medications you take, including birth control pills or corticosteroids. Contrary to popular belief, your diet has relatively little to do with acne, although eating too many fried foods and sweets isn’t good for anyone. 

Even though there are many over-the-counter treatments available for acne, it’s still a good idea to get a professional opinion — especially if you’ve already tried over-the-counter treatments and you’re still having a problem.

The truth about salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a common ingredient used in many acne treatments. Research shows that it’s more effective than a placebo, meaning that it actually works to treat acne.

The way it works is by unclogging your pores and destroying the acne-causing sebum inside of them. Salicylic acid also works to minimize inflammation, the factor that makes your acne look so red. This means that it attacks acne at the root, working to dissolve what’s causing it.

Over-the-counter products typically have only small percentages of salicylic acid in them, usually less than 1%. Dermatologist-grade products can have much higher percentages. However, it’s always a good idea to do a patch test to make sure your skin can tolerate it. In some individuals, allergic reactions to salicylic acid can occur.

Common side effects of salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is generally well-tolerated by most people. However, some side effects are common, including:

In general, you shouldn’t use multiple products containing salicylic acid without a doctor’s advice. Using more than one product makes side effects more likely to occur.

Evaluating your skin care routine

The first thing Dr. Flood usually does when seeing a patient for acne is to discuss your current skin care routine. It’s possible that you’re using the wrong products on your face, which can worsen your acne. In general, you want to avoid using any products that add extra oil to your face.

If you’re already using treatments that contain salicylic acid but just aren’t seeing the results you’re looking for, you may need to try a stronger formulation or to use different products. Instead of using a cleanser with salicylic acid, for example, you may need to use a prescription-strength topical gel.

If you have acne and aren’t seeing the relief you want, it’s time to make an appointment with a professional. Contact Allen A. Flood, MD, at his Capitol Hill office by phone or request an appointment online.

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