Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, lactic acid, and hyaluronic acid are the most commonly used acids for skin care. Among these, salicylic acid is touted as the best one for acne.
If you’ve been scouring the market for solutions that can help cure your acne, you’d notice that in almost all acne treatment products, salicylic acid is among their active ingredients. Before we delve into why it is commonly used as an anti-acne solution, let’s learn more about this substance.
Salicylic acid is a colorless crystalline acid that is derived from organic sources. It belongs to a class of drugs called salicylates. While those that we use now are created artificially, salicylic acid was first synthesized from plant hormones from the bark of the willow tree. Even then, it was already widely used for its antimicrobial properties.
The use of salicylic acid for medicinal purposes was first recorded by the ancient Greeks. As early as 500 BC, it was already being used to slough off skin cells. Native Americans also used salicylic acid to treat pain, fever, and inflammation, but they actually used the willow bark itself, so other substances may have worked alongside salicylic acid in treating those conditions.
With its history of anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving actions, salicylic acid was further studied by scientists in the 19th century. They extracted the acid from the willow bark and began to biosynthesize it for medical use.
Today, salicylic acid is commonly used in skin care to treat acne, warts, corns, calluses, psoriasis, dermatitis, dandruff, and other skin conditions. It has been proven effective in keeping blemishes under control by penetrating the follicle, exfoliating dead skin cells, and keeping the pores clear.
Aside from its ability to deeply penetrate the skin, salicylic acid has several chemical properties that make it highly effective in treating acne and other skin problems.
Salicylic acid has keratolytic properties that cause the shedding of the skin’s outer layers. Acne scars, age spots, and melasma are minimized as the outer layer is chemically peeled off and new skin layers are allowed to grow. This property also helps treat other skin conditions, such as seborrhea, dandruff, and psoriasis.
As a comedolytic agent, salicylic acid inhibits the formation of comedones. You know those tiny skin-colored bumps often found on your forehead and chin? Those are comedones. Blackheads and whiteheads are also types of comedones. When bacteria gets through the skin follicles, these comedones turn into inflamed acne. Salicylic acid helps stop this from happening by breaking down the comedones and helping expel them from the pores. It also prevents more comedones from forming by sloughing away dead skin cells and, consequently, keeping the pores clean.
The desmolytic properties of salicylic acid enables it to disrupt the intercellular connections of our skin cells. You see, our skin cells are connected by proteins, including desmogleins. Salicylic acid extracts these proteins and breaks down the bonds. This then leads to the exfoliation of skin cells. When you use products with salicylic acid, you exfoliate your skin and unclog pores.
Like all salicylates, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties. However, it has the same anti-inflammatory ingredient as aspirin, so it’s not ideal for those who are allergic to aspirin. Still, this property helps control redness and inflammation of acne. For the anti-inflammatory action to be evident, you’d need to use salicylic acid with concentrations of 0.5% to 5%.
Antimicrobial and Antifungal
The Whitefields ointment that your mom probably has on hand for burns and insect bites contains salicylic acid. Studies have proven the antimicrobial and antifungal properties of salicylic acid and its derivatives. While it cannot kill existing bacteria, it can inhibit their spread to surrounding areas. So, it is highly effective in controlling acne, especially the cystic ones.
With so many properties that help address mild to moderate acne, salicylic acid is undoubtedly an effective treatment component. However, like most chemical substances, it can pose health hazards if used without precautions. In high concentrations, it can cause chemical burns. When ingested, it leads to dangerous intoxication.
For some people, salicylic acid can cause dryness, irritation, or burning of the skin. It may also cause skin tingling, itching, and hives. When used too much, too often, or in high concentration, it can cause peeling of the skin. So, it is always recommended to start with lower concentrations to check how your skin would react to it.
Severe Side Effects
Those who have allergies to aspirin are likely to have allergic reactions to salicylic acid. But aside from these, severe side effects are very rare and are usually due to drug interactions or ingestion. Still, you must stop using salicylic acid if you experience any of these symptoms: headache, buzzing in the ears or hearing loss, lethargy, nausea, confusion, diarrhea, vomiting, or hypernea.
Some cosmetic products and medications do not interact well with salicylic acid. You must tell your dermatologist if you are using products that contain benzoyl peroxide or topical antibiotics. Also provide a list of medications you’re taking if you have diabetes, chickenpox, flu, kidney disease, blood vessel disease, and liver disease.
Salicylic acid toxicity is rare but possible, so avoid using it for long periods of time in high doses. Also, do not apply it to large areas of your body. Make sure that it does not come into contact with broken skin and sensitive areas such as those around the groin, mouth, nose, and eyes.
The skin of children absorbs salicylic acid at a faster rate than adult skin, so be cautious when using it for your kids’ skin problems. If your kids are under the age of 2, avoid this completely.
Some doctors advise against the use of salicylic acid by pregnant and lactating women, especially if they have been using it for a while already. However, no studies have revealed any direct link between the use of topical salicylic acid and pregnancy complications. It is still believed to be safe for breastfeeding and pregnant women. If you’re breastfeeding, just make sure never to apply salicylic acid on skin that might come in contact with your infant’s skin or mouth.
While there are some ill-effects, salicylic acid is generally safe for topical use. If you’re unsure on how your skin will react to it, start with a product that contains less than 2% salicylic acid.
Skincare products that contain salicylic acid come in various concentrations, forms, and dosages. Over-the-counter treatments usually contain 0.5 to 2% salicylic acid and are generally safe to use. Higher concentrations should be used under the supervision of a doctor.
For acne treatment, salicylic acid is used in a variety of skincare products. Anti-acne soaps, pads, and gels usually contain anywhere between 0.5% and 5% salicylic acid. Solutions are often milder in concentration and contain 2%, at the most. These are often used after washing the face. There are also anti-acne lotions that have 1 to 2% salicylic acid. They are usually safe enough to use one to three times daily. For moderate to severe acne, ointments with concentrations between 3% and 6% can be prescribed.
Dosages are based on your specific skin condition and your response to the treatment. Usually, you are given a low dosage when you start the treatment. Mild stinging and skin irritation may be felt on the first few uses but resolve soon after. Eventually, concentration and dose may be increased to address moderate or severe acne.
While there’s a plethora of anti-acne skincare products available over the counter, you must take great care when choosing a salicylic acid kit for yourself. It would be best to consult a dermatologist if you have moderate to severe acne. For mild acne, you could try those from reputable brands. Just make sure that you’ll always take the necessary precautions and that you’ll follow the specific instructions for use.
If it’s your first time to try salicylic acid, you should apply only a limited amount on a small patch of affected skin for the first three days. This skin test is essential in checking for any adverse reaction. If there are none, you can continue applying the product to the entire affected area.
For mild to moderate acne, use cleansers or toners with low salicylic content daily. This will prevent the spread of bacteria and keep the acne at bay. If using a facial wash, rinse with warm water, and pat dry. Using hot water and rubbing your face dry can irritate your skin.
For pimples that pop out of nowhere, skincare products with high salicylic content might work as spot treatments. These can be applied directly on a blemish to reduce inflammation and redness. If the concentration is high, it may even possibly make the pimple disappear overnight.
Always take precautions when using anti-acne products. Using too many products all containing salicylic acid will do your skin more harm than good. It would be best to use them sparingly. It’s also important to use sun protection when you’re using products with salicylic acid. Because of its exfoliating action, it exposes new skin, which is sensitive to sun rays.
Salicylic acid will not have any immediate result. You’ll likely see pimples and comedones dry out after a few days of use. But it would take a couple of months of regular use before your blemishes clear. However, if you see no visible results after six weeks, consult your dermatologist. Your treatment might need to be modified.
Salicylic acid has been used for medicinal purposes for centuries. It has been proven effective in treating acne and other skin conditions. It may not be the perfect treatment, but it has been shown to clear up acne breakouts in most people. Used with other substances that help moisturize and restore the skin, it can significantly improve skin health.
The specific use of salicylic acid for acne treatment depends on your skin type and skin condition. If you are to try anti-acne products off the shelves, always do a skin test first and use the products carefully. While reputable brands do test their products before releasing them in the market, it is still possible to encounter side effects, especially if you have sensitive skin. It is always best to seek advice from a doctor before starting any acne treatment.
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