If you're dealing with acne and breakouts, you'll try anything to clear up your skin. You've probably gone through your fair share of cleansers, toners, serums, lotions, spot treatments, and zit stickers in your quest to keep your acne under control. When you do find a product that works, well, it's a miracle, and you'll use every last drop and then reorder it in bulk.
And the annoying part is what works for your skin might not exactly work for your friend's acne problems. It's a very specific mix of skincare products, eating (and avoiding) specific foods, and just praying to the skin gods for a good, breakout-free day.
There is one product that could help across the board, and that's a salicylic acid cleanser. These cleansers contain, of course, salicylic acid, a holy-grail ingredient for acne-prone and oily skin that does a whole lot. Here's your crash course.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that exfoliates dead skin cells on the skin's surface and decreases oil and sebum, says board-certified dermatologist Joyce Imahiyerobo-Ip, MD, FAAD, owner of Vibrant Dermatology and SkinBar MD. In addition to being an exfoliant, it also works as a comedolytic and anti-inflammatory ingredient.
"As an oil-soluble ingredient that can absorb into the lipid skin layers more readily, it can penetrate deeper into the skin and the pores," explains Y. Claire Chang, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology. "It exfoliates and brightens skin complexion as well as de-clogs pores to prevent blackheads, whiteheads, and subsequent acne breakouts. Salicylic acid not only helps to prevent and clear active acne, but it can also improve acne blemishing."
And because salicylic acid exfoliates so well, it can also help your topical products better penetrate the skin, which Chang says can be useful in treating conditions like psoriasis. The hardworking ingredient can also be used as a peeling agent for acne vulgaris, melasma, photodamage, sunspots, psoriasis, and warts.
Which Skin Types Benefit From Salicylic Acid?
Board-certified dermatologist Roberta Del Campo, MD, says salicylic acid is best for oily, acne-prone skin, and she recommends staying away from it if you have dry or sensitive skin because it can be very drying and irritating for some people. In particular, if you have mild comedonal acne, this ingredient can help. "Comedonal acne is acne that is predominantly whiteheads and blackheads," Imahiyerobo-Ip explains. "This type of acne occurs because of poor skin turnover that results in clogged pores. These products help to improve skin turnover and to dissolve the sebum that is clogging pores." Chang also recommends salicylic acid cleansers to her patients who have psoriasis, photodamage, and hyperpigmentation.
But here's something important to note: You should not use salicylic acid products when you're pregnant or breastfeeding. "Do not ingest salicylic acid or apply excessive amounts of salicylic acid, as increased systemic absorption can lead to salicylate poisoning (presents with symptoms like ringing in the ears, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, headache, confusion, and dizziness)," Chang adds.
How to Use Salicylic Acid Cleansers
"Salicylic acid cleansers can be used once or twice daily as long as your skin tolerates it without irritation," Chang says. "Avoid contact with eyes or other mucous membranes like the mouth and nose. Do not apply to areas of irritated skin, inflamed skin, or open wounds. Be sure to wear sunscreen when using salicylic acid cleansers, as your skin may become more sensitive to sunlight." And don't forget to moisturize after cleansing to keep the skin hydrated. If you're already on prescription acne medication, you might not want to use these cleansers daily because they may be too irritating.
When choosing a product, Del Campo recommends matching the specific products to your skin type and looking at the concentration and additional ingredients. For example, if you have sensitive skin and want to use a salicylic acid cleanser, aloe vera can help. And if you have more oily, acne-prone skin, she says a combination of salicylic acid and an alpha hydroxy acid (like lactic acid) can help.
Take a look at some dermatologist- and editor-recommended cleansers below.
The Best Salicylic Acid Cleansers
Best Overall: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Fighting Facial Cleanser
Chang recommends this face wash from Neutrogena: "It is a noncomedogenic, oil-free acne wash that contains 2% salicylic acid to help prevent acne breakouts."
Customer review: "I always use this after a light facial scrub to control my light-to-medium adult acne. The salicylic acid gets rid of scrub residue and gets into the open pores to kill bacteria. Perfect."
Skinceuticals Clarifying Exfoliating Cleanser
"It combines three powerhouses: salicylic acid, glycolic acid, and lactic acid. It gives you a very deep, thorough cleanse and helps to brighten and soothe dull, rough skin," Del Campo says.
Customer review: "I love that this product has just enough grit in it to make a difference but not too much where it can't be used every day. It helps keep my skin so soft and helps clear up my trouble spots. It's going to be my new go-to for sure!"
Paula's Choice Clear Pore Normalizing Cleanser
Imahiyerobo-Ip recommends this cleanser for sensitive, acne-prone skin: "It has a lower concentration of salicylic acid and is fragrance-free. It can help improve mild acne without irritating sensitive skin."
Customer review: "This is the cleanser I've been looking for over a decade. My skin is combination, and I'm very sensitive and acne prone. I feel like the small amount of salicylic acid in this is gentle enough to protect my skin barrier yet a good enough amount to combat everyday pollution. My skin has never looked better."
CeraVe Salicylic Acid Cleanser
Both Chang and Imahiyerobo-Ip picked CeraVe's cleanser as another option. "It's a gentle exfoliating cleanser that combines the exfoliating effects of salicylic acid with hydrating ingredients like ceramides and hyaluronic acid, along with the soothing effects of niacinamide," Chang says.
Customer review: "I have sensitive, oily skin, and this cleanser is perfect! It thoroughly cleanses without irritation or over drying. It's completely unscented. I've been using it for a couple of years and definitely recommend it!"
Cosrx Salicylic Acid Daily Gentle Cleanser
Here's another recommendation from Chang. She says it's low-dose, with 0.5% of salicylic acid, so it's gentle for sensitive skin types. It also contains other inflammation-fighting ingredients, such as tea tree oil and willow bark.
Customer review: "I love this product so much. It has evened out my skin tone and helped my acne problems immensely. It's so gentle on the skin and works into a nice lather with just a little bit of the cleanser."
La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Cleanser
Imahiyerobo-Ip says this lightweight foaming cleanser gently exfoliates without excessively stripping the skin. It's Chang's pick too.
Customer review: "While I don't have frequent breakouts, I occasionally get clogged pores, so I thought I'd give this cleanser a try. My skin has been clearer, and I have experienced no breakouts at all since starting it two months ago. I also find this doesn't exacerbate the dryness of my skin—it leaves it feeling clean and fresh."
The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Cleanser
With 2% salicylic acid, this foaming cleanser clears pores and dead skin cells and removes dirt and makeup. It has a zinc compound, which has anti-inflammatory properties, and allantoin, which soothes irritation and stimulates new tissue growth.
Customer review: "I have blemish-prone skin, and I've tried many different products that claim to help acne. This cleanser really does what it's supposed to do: it doesn't dry out my skin, and it's gentle. This will be a part of my skin routine for as long as they make it!"
Mario Badescu Skin Care Acne Facial Cleanser
In addition to salicylic acid, this facial cleanser contains calming ingredients like aloe, chamomile, and thyme. So it will deep-clean oily skin but not dry it out.
Customer review: "I am one who never leaves reviews, but this thing has changed my face completely. I have been consistently using it every morning and using the toner after as well as the moisturizer. It has cleared my stubborn acne!"
Murad Clarifying Cleanser
Murad's acne-fighting cleanser contains time-released medication that works over the course of the day to prevent breakouts. It also has silver citrate, which has antibacterial properties.
Customer review: "This product is a go-to for me. I've been using it every morning and night for more than a year now. I would recommend this product to anyone who loves maintaining healthy, clear skin without stripping away natural oils."
Obagi Clenzidern M.D. Daily Care Foaming Acne Face Wash
This foaming cleanser targets existing breakouts and prevents future ones. It unclogs pores, soothes inflammation, reduces redness, and fortifies pH levels.
Customer review: "I use this product every morning and evening, and it keeps my skin clear of acne and blemishes. Unlike many other products, it doesn't dry my face out, it leaves me with a smooth complexion, and as a result, I very rarely wear makeup anymore."
Glytone Acne Clearing Cleanser
This cleanser deep-cleans your pores and exfoliates without irritating the skin. It targets blackheads, whiteheads, and blemishes. You can use it twice daily.
Customer review: "I have been using it for years after being recommended it by my esthetician. It is gentle on my sensitive skin and also effective at removing blackheads and other impurities from my face. It is also ideal for combination skin. This product cleanses thoroughly to remove excess oil from my T-zone, yet does not dry out my skin."
Tata Harper Clarifying Cleanser
Salicylic acid is combined with AHA to reduce blemishes, balance oil, and reduce redness. Other ingredients include prickly pear flower, juniper fruit, and chlorella to nourish and clear the skin.
Customer review: "This cleanses beautifully, and the smell is absolute heaven. Calmness and aromatherapy in a bottle. For a clarifying cleanser, this was more rich and pampering than I expected. It's really lovely for dry and dehydrated skin that needs nourishment as well as a good soothing cleanse."
Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser
This drugstore favorite is gentle on the skin but tough on breakouts. It's formulated with soy extracts to keep the skin moisturized. If you have sensitive skin, you'll be happy to know it's hypoallergenic, too.
Customer Review: "I was looking for a good product for my face. I have super sensitive skin, but I had no problem using this. It has made my skin so soft, and I haven't noticed my monthly acne popping up. I love anything from Aveeno!"
Caudalie Vinopure Pore Purifying Gel Cleanser
The gel-to-foam cleanser is made with natural salicylic acid to target clogged pores and organic essential oils and grape seed polyphenols that work as an antibacterial and reduce the appearance of blemishes. And you can reduce any annoying redness thanks to grape water.
Customer review: "This smells amazing first thing in the morning! With a nice light floral scent, this helps to wake me up in the morning and to feel ready for the day. You only need a small amount of this gel, as a little goes a long way. Skin immediately feels clean and smooth. I like that it foams up as you massage it onto your face."
Peter Thomas Roth Acne Clearing Wash
With 2% salicylic acid, this acne wash removes oil, makeup, and bacteria. It doesn't leave your skin dried out, thanks to allantoin and vitamin B5.
Customer review: "This is a great product. I suffered from adult acne for years until I found this product! It is the only product that clears my acne without drying my skin. I absolutely love it!"