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Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that is used to help exfoliate skin by removing the dead cells and debris that can clog pores. Originally derived from the bark of willow trees, its medicinal properties were first noted over 2,000 years ago. Salicylic acid is so effective that it continues to be used in numerous modern skin care products. In fact, salicylic acid is on the World Health Organization’s Model List of Essential Medicines, a guide to the most important medications needed in a basic health-care system.
Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that encourages dead skin cells to loosen and shed, which helps to clean out all that acne-causing debris inside pores. Without a buildup of dead skin cells, your pores may look smaller and your skin can appear more radiant.
However, salicylic acid products cannot kill the acne-causing bacteria that thrive below the skin’s surface (the P. acnes bacteria).
For some people, some skin redness and peeling may occur after using a salicylic acid acne treatment. Serious allergic reactions are rare, but you should stop use and consult a dermatologist if your skin is especially irritated.
The pore-clearing abilities of salicylic acid make it a critical ingredient in many Proactiv acne products. Proactiv acne products with salicylic acid include:
Since salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are both found in so many acne products, people sometimes debate which is best for acne-prone skin. However, many would argue that each has its own distinct advantages — salicylic acid for clearing the pores, and benzoyl peroxide for killing acne-causing bacteria. Both ingredients complement each other and work together to help keep skin clear and prevent future breakouts, especially when combined with a moisturizer.