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The Best Facial Cleanser with Salicylic Acid

If you have acne-prone skin, you might be looking for a new way to clear things up, and you might be wondering which is the best salicylic face wash on the market. The answer to this question depends on a few different factors, including your skin type, your age, other skincare goals besides eliminating acne, and your budget. In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at some of the best salicylic acid products available, plus we’ll provide in-depth information on what salicylic acid is, how it works, and more.

What is salicylic acid?

If you’re reading this article, you probably know that salicylic acid is a common ingredient in products used to combat acne. What you might not know is that salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that works as a keratolytic. It is oil-soluble, plus it is a peeling agent that dissolves the substance that binds skin cells to one another. Additionally, it breaks down the fatty compounds that make up sebum, which is another name for the natural oils skin produces, particularly on the face. This action makes salicylic acid a good choice for unclogging pores. As you are probably aware, not all salicylic acid facial cleaners are created equal.

Is salicylic acid safe for face products?

In most cases, the answer is yes. Salicylic acid is generally considered safe for facial use when applied at low concentrations, usually between 0.5% and 3%. If you tend to have very sensitive skin, you might not be a good candidate for products that contain salicylic acid, or you might have to go for products that contain a lower-than-average concentration of salicylic acid. It’s always a good idea to consult your health care provider if you’re concerned that a product might do more harm than good!

Even though it might be safe to use over-the-counter facial cleaners with salicylic acid, you should know that there can be some side effects. Many people find that salicylic acid face cleansers sting a little when applied, particularly in cases where acne symptoms are severe and painful. In some cases, salicylic acid can contribute to dry skin.

If you think that there’s a potential for undesirable side effects caused by salicylic acid facial cleansers but acne has you at your wits’ end, there are a few different tactics you can try.

  • Consider spot treatment instead of all-over application. If you’re worried about dryness or irritation developing, you can try treating individual blemishes. You can dab on a liquid facial cleanser or toner with a cotton swab, or you can purchase a leave-on blemish cream and apply it sparingly to pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. Note that spot treatment works best for mild acne; it might not be effective in severe cases.
  • Consider applying the treatment, leaving it in place for a few minutes, and then washing it off. If you’re using a facial cleanser, then it’s likely that the instructions call for a thorough rinse with fresh water, anyway.
  • If the problem is dryness, look into a good skincare system that includes a noncomedogenic moisturizer that will not lead to clogged pores. Many product lines include very mild salicylic acid facial cleansers, toners, spot treatments, and moisturizers that work together to combat acne while improving skin’s overall appearance.

Don’t try to treat acne by using salicylic acid products that aren’t designed for facial use. At higher concentrations, salicylic acid can actually dissolve skin. That’s why it is found in effective treatments for skin problems such as warts, calluses, and corns. Strong salicylic acid solutions can harm delicate skin.

Who should avoid salicylic acid facial cleansers?

If your skin tends to be very dry, the average salicylic face cleanser is probably going to be overkill. Women who are pregnant should avoid products that contain salicylic acid altogether, and people who take certain medications should be aware that salicylic acid comes with some drug interaction warnings. Check with your doctor if you’re taking blood thinners or other prescription medications and you’d like to try a product that contains salicylic acid. He or she will be able to provide reliable advice.

Products that contain salicylic acid can sometimes change skin color in individuals with highly pigmented skin. While it will treat acne no matter what your skin tone, it has a reputation for leaving darker spots where blemishes were before. Dermatologists recommend that people who have Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Types IV through VI use products containing salicylic acid only under dermatological supervision.

  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type IV – Usually people of Hispanic or Mediterranean heritage, with skin color in the beige to brown range. This is probably your skin type if you tan gradually but never seem to get more than a mild sunburn.
  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type V – There are many people who fall into this category, sometimes of Native American, Hispanic, or Mediterranean heritage, sometimes of Asian heritage, and sometimes of mixed heritage. If you tan very quickly and you almost never get a sunburn, then this is probably your skin type.
  • Fitzpatrick Scale Skin Type VI – If you are of African heritage with very deep brown to black skin that tans very easily and never sunburns, then this is probably your skin type.

How does salicylic acid work?

facial cleanser, cotton pad, Salicylic acid, face, fingers
Facial cleanser with Salicylic acid

What does salicylic acid do to your face when applied on a regular basis instead of as a spot treatment? As a keratolytic agent, salicylic acid works by removing dead skin cells without excess scrubbing that might lead to excessive irritation, broken blood vessels, or ruptured pores. Additionally, salicylic acid increases the rate at which skin cells turn over or replicate, so that pores open faster.

Besides speeding up exfoliation and unclogging pores, salicylic acid acts as an anti-inflammatory agent. If you tend to suffer from red, inflamed cysts or painful pimples, then products containing salicylic acid are likely to bring at least some relief.

Dermatologists note that while salicylic acid facial cleansers can help calm inflamed pimples and cysts, they might not be enough to effect a complete turnaround. If you have a severe case of acne, you might need additions to your regimen. Your dermatologist might recommend diet and/or lifestyle changes, prescription-strength acne treatments, and even antibiotics.

The good news is that salicylic acid often works wonders for mild acne cases as well as for those who suffer from deeply embedded blackheads and whiteheads.

How much are salicylic acid facial cleansers?

Salicylic acid cleanser prices are all over the map. You can find inexpensive solutions for well under $10, or opt for specialized cleansers that go for $20 or more.

How to Choose the Best Salicylic Acid Facial Cleanser

If you have determined that salicylic acid face wash for acne is a good choice for your condition and skin tone, here are some of the best options available.  

Vichy Normaderm Daily Deep Cleansing Gel Acne Face Wash with Salicylic Acid

Vichy Normaderm Deep Cleansing Gel has been extensively tested, with a 90 percent success rate. Of the women who tried Normaderm Daily Deep Cleansing Gel for one month, more than 70 percent reported improved skin texture as well as a marked improvement in acne symptoms. This is our top pick for best salicylic acid face wash, as it is designed to prevent common issues such as dryness and irritation. It is suitable for people with sensitive skin. A quick check of reviews shows that users like the way it clears up blemishes and bumps. A few people mentioned that it left their skin feeling too dry.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser

With 2% salicylic acid, this formula is strong enough to take on tough acne. At the same time, it is designed to help prevent dryness and soothe irritation. Like other high-quality products, this one has been clinically tested. A scan of La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser reviews revealed that this formula is often compared to more expensive cleansers. Some users with sensitive skin found that this cleanser caused a stinging sensation.

Replenix Acne Solutions Gly/Sal 5-2 Acne Cleanser

Replevin Replenix Gly/Sal Acne Cleanser combines 10% glycolic acid with 2% salicylic acid, effectively waging war on tough acne while helping to clear up bumpy keratosis pilaris on the backs of arms and legs. Reviewers give this acne cleanser excellent marks for improving skin’s overall appearance while clearing up deeply embedded pimples, blackheads, and whiteheads. It’s worth noting that this formula isn’t as strong as those provided by dermatologists. If you’re looking for a stronger peeling effect, you may need to see about a prescription.

Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solutions Purifying Gel Cleanser

With natural ingredients including beet root extract and evening primrose extract plus 1% salicylic acid derived from natural willow bark, Burt’s Bees Natural Acne Solutions Purifying Gel Cleanser lathers up nicely, leaves skin feeling soft, and clears up mild acne breakouts reliably. Reviewers note that those who tend to suffer from moderate to severe acne will probably want to try something a little bit stronger, but those with combination skin that has a tendency to dry out like the fact that this formula is gentler than others they’ve tried.

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Fighting Face Wash

If you have oily skin and aren’t concerned about dryness, then you may want to give Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Fighting Face Wash a try. This formula is a favorite for its quick action and ample suds, but that those with very sensitive skin might want to steer clear as it is quite strong.

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser

CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser contains ceramides, which help keep skin hydrated without clogging pores. Not only is it recommended for facial use, it’s suitable for dealing with body acne and keratosis pilaris. This formula gets excellent marks from reviewers for clearing up mild to moderate acne while soothing and softening skin overall. A few users with extremely sensitive skin found that it caused some stinging and redness, while some with severe acne felt that it wasn’t strong enough to make a real difference.