If You're Breaking Out, Switch to a Serum With This Acne-Fighting Ingredient



Believe me when I say that I know what it's like to be wading through breakout city on the regular—it's not exactly a fun time. I'm sure my acne-prone folks can relate, especially if your skin tends to get even more sensitive and dry with the changing of the seasons. That's when you know it's time to stock up on your skin-saving allies, especially a good serum or acne-banishing cleanser. According to derms, there's one particular skincare ingredient that will really keep the blemishes at bay. Surprise, it's salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid is a powerful BHA (beta hydroxy acid) that's by no means a new acne-fighting ingredient, but it does tend to get overlooked when choosing a facial serum. Some may argue that it's too drying, but I'm here to tell you it can be incorporated in a way that will really enhance your overall glow.

Board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, MD, is here to back me up on this. "Incorporating a salicylic acid serum can be a very effective option for someone with acne-prone skin. It helps to exfoliate and get rid of dead skin cells, but it is also oil soluble and able to penetrate the pores to reduce excess oil and unclog them. It also works well to improve the overall appearance of blackheads and whiteheads," she says. Mixed with the right hydrating ingredients, this BHA can pack a punch but still leave your skin feeling extra nourished—no matter your budget. Garshick has a few recommendations for you, and I threw in a few of my own favorites. For the absolute best salicylic acid serums, keep scrolling below. 

1. Kate Somerville EradiKate Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment

Pros: Targets acne, fine lines, and wrinkles; deeply hydrates with sodium hyaluronate; improves the appearance of pores; and helps balance the skin microbiome with soothing ingredients.

Cons: Contains a higher percentage of salicylic acid and may not be suitable for extremely sensitive or reactive skin.

"This treatment incorporates 2% salicylic acid as well as retinol to help reduce blemishes and prevent and treat breakouts at the source." — Garshick

Customer Review: "This is the best product I have purchased in a long time. For anyone in that 'why am I getting pimples and wrinkles at the same time' phase of life, this is it. I have a LOT of products and very sensitive skin."

2. SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense

Pros: Oil-free, contains a blend of acids that prevent the formation of acne and clogged pores, improves the appearance of fine lines and skin texture, and reduces excess sebum production.

Cons: May not be suitable for dry, acne-prone skin.

"This splurge-worthy serum incorporates salicylic acid to help with oil and breakouts as well as dioic acid, glycolic acid, LHA, and citric acid. They all work together to help exfoliate and improve overall skin tone and texture." — Garshick

Customer Review: "Blemish + Age Defense has really made a difference in my skin. It keeps my skin clear without drying me out!"

3. Beautycounter Countercontrol All Over Acne Treatment

Pros: Features the brand's signature SkinBalance Complex and salicylic acid to reduce blemishes, provides extra-lightweight hydration via squalane, and helps prevent future breakouts.

Cons: Formula may be too matte for those with dry skin.

"This salicylic acid serum works to reduce breakouts and blemishes without irritating the skin. The addition of squalane in the formula leaves skin feeling soft, smooth, and hydrated." — Garshick

Customer Review: "I have been using this product for a while and am so pleased with the results. It really works and keeps blemishes away."

4. The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid Blemish + Blackhead Serum

Pros: Targets blackheads, reduces excess oil, exfoliates with 2% salicylic acid, hydrates and plumps the skin with hyaluronic acid, and is budget-friendly.

Cons: May be too strong for those with hypersensitive skin.

The Inkey List's exfoliating serum unclogs and refines pores using a blend of zinc and salicylic acid. For less of the dryness that can sometimes come with acne-fighting ingredients, the formula also contains hyaluronic acid.

Customer Review: "LOVE IT!! I have dry skin, and it doesn't leave my skin feeling dull or rough. I use it 2-3 times a week, and it has helped a lot with all the junk in my pores. Overall a great product for the price!" 

5. Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Pore Perfecting & Refining Serum

Pros: Alpha beta acids gently slough away dead skin cells, minimize the appearance of pores, and eliminate bacteria within the pores.

Cons: May be strong or irritating for those with extra-sensitive skin and is not as budget-friendly.

When you have acne-prone skin, you often have a waxy layer of sheen that just sits on top of your face, no? This serum can help with that. In addition to salicylic acid, it has farnesol and agarikon mushroom extract to help dissolve excess oil while firming the skin.

Customer Review: "This is one of my favorite brands, and I added their serum into my evening skincare routine. When I wake up in the morning, my skin is significantly less oily. With consistent use, I've noticed that my skin doesn't break out as much."

6. Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimizing Serum

Pros: Contains niacinamide, salicylic acid, and grape-seed polyphenols to limit sebum oxidation and reduce blackheads and is gentle on the skin.

Cons: Not as budget-friendly.

Salicylic acid and niacinamide work together in this formula to refine and clear pores, and the addition of grape-seed polyphenols limits sebum oxidation.

Customer Review: "I've used this for about two weeks and see great results! My hormonal acne greatly reduced in size, and I've had trouble looking for products to deal with that for over a year. It works faster compared to previous serums I've tried and isn't as abrasive on my skin. The smell is fresh too and kinda reminds me of Muji's in-store aroma diffusers."

7. Clinique Acne Solutions Acne + Line Correcting Serum

Pros: Oil-free; improves acne, fine lines, and skin texture; contains whey protein to smooth and re-plump the skin.

Cons: The texture of the product is a bit thick.

Yes, a serum that can fight both acne and fine lines does exist. Behold Clinique's correcting serum. It's gentle and hydrating with ingredients like whey protein, but it still features a healthy dose of salicylic acid to help fight breakouts.

Customer Review: "Love this! It has helped reduce the random acne. I still get menstrual acne, but it's not as bad as it used to be. I like to mix this with Drunk Elephant's B-Hydra Serum, and together they make my skin glow!"

8. CosMedix Clarity Serum

Pros: Exfoliates congested skin with salicylic acid; soothes with willow-herb extract, tea tree oil, and aloe vera; and is gentle enough for sensitive skin.

Cons: May not be suitable for everyone since it contains retinol.

Not only does this serum have acne-banishing ingredients, but it also contains retinol to help speed up cellular renewal within the skin and brighten up dark spots.

Customer Review: "Great product, I'm in my 40s, and breakouts seem like they are hard to control. This has helped so much just using it for 2 weeks."

9. La Roche-Posay Pure Vitamin C Face Serum With Salicylic Acid

Pros: Soothes sensitive skin with antioxidants and mineral-rich thermal spring water and is gentle on the skin with 10% vitamin C.

Cons: Thick consistency, strong smell.

If you'd rather have your dose of salicylic acid added to your vitamin C serum, look no further than La Roche-Posay's option.

Customer Review: "Hands down best vitamin C serum. I've tried high-end and drugstore, and this is the only serum that I've had visible results. Wears beautifully under makeup and didn't irritate my skin or break me out!"

10. Juice Beauty Blemish Clearing Serum

Pros: Features naturally occurring salicylic acid, reduces inflammation and soothes damaged skin with aloe, and contains essential vitamins that aid in skin repair and rejuvenation.

Cons: Not ideal for dry skin.

This blemish-clearing serum features naturally occurring salicylic acid found in willow bark and other organic fruit juices that kill acne-causing bacteria on the skin.

Customer Review: "Good serum. It definitely has kept me away from severe breakouts. I use this a few times a week at night. Good for the price!"

11. HydroPeptide Redefining Serum

Pros: Contains Granactive, an acne-killing complex; salicylic acid and azelaic acid encourage cell turnover; sacred lily bulb extract inhibits excess oil production; and allantoin helps reduce skin irritation.

Cons: The packaging doesn't allow you to see how much product has been used, and the product is expensive.

HydroPeptide's Redefining Serum truly plays the long game. It gradually improves tone, texture, radiance, and blemishes with ingredients such as black tea ferment, hyaluronic acid, and salicylic acid.

Customer Review: "I was first introduced to this product by my esthetician. I have oily, acne-prone skin [and] large pores. She recommended this product alone with the face cleanser from this line. I am in love with this product. First off, being in my 30s, I didn't want to use a harsh acne product on my skin, and as I'm starting to see early signs of aging, wrinkles, I wanted a product that would address that concern too. This product has definitely cleared up my congested face, it feels lovely on my skin, [and it] doesn't dry it out. In the summertime, I didn't even have to use moisturizer after it, just my SPF, but not in fall time. I am layering a light moisturizer on top. I use this product every day, either once or twice."

12. Holifrog Halo AHA + BHA Evening Serum

Pros: Gentle AHAs clear away surface congestion, moth-bean extract—a natural retinol alternative—boosts collagen production, and rosehip oil hydrates and protects the skin.

Cons: Suitable only for nighttime use, not as budget-friendly.

With an 11% blend of AHAs and salicylic acid, this resurfacing serum is basically guaranteed to give you a brighter, smoother complexion. 

Customer Review: "I use this nightly, and it has had such a nice result on my skin. Feels and looks smoother, and it just feels overall healthier. I like using it, and the smell isn't strong."

13. Tata Harper Resurfacing AHA + BHA Serum

Pros: Serum works like a daily peel to resurface and brighten the skin, white willow bark and meadowsweet clear congestion and minimize pores, and vitamin C targets free radical damage.

Cons: Expensive.

Glowy skin on a daily basis will be thanks to this brightening and resurfacing serum with seven AHAs, salicylic acid, and vitamin C.

Customer Review: "I'm now on my third bottle of this. Great for turning dull skin into a gorgeous glow. I have dry skin and use this year-round. It will always be a staple in my routine because it's that good. In the winter, I pair it with the Tata Harper Beautifying Face Oil at night and wake up with amazing glowy skin."

14. Dermalogica Age Bright Clearing Serum

Pros: Age Bright Complex promotes brighter skin and a more even tone, phytoactives hydrate and smooth the skin, and salicylic acid stimulates natural exfoliation.

Cons: Expensive, strong smell.

The phytoactives in this serum hydrate and smooth the skin, and salicylic acid prompts both deep exfoliation within the pores and the clearing of surface congestion.

Customer Review: "I have been using this serum for over 4-5 months now, and I love it. It's one of the very few products that helps me manage my acne-prone skin."

15. Pure Salicylic Acid 5% Solution

Pros: Budget-friendly and great for acne, hyperpigmentation, and under-eye bags.

Cons: May be too strong for sensitive skin. 

I love a good budget option, and this one comes highly rated on Amazon. It features a trio of acids—salicylic, lactic, and glycolic—for more even and radiant skin.

16. Facetheory BHA Exfoliating Serum

Pros: Salicylic acid expedites skin cell renewal; green tea extract, chamomile, and aloe protect and soothe the skin; and 3% carnitine targets acne, dead skin cells, and fine lines while hydrating. 

Cons: High concentration of actives that might irritate sensitive skin.

The secret ingredient in this serum (besides salicylic acid) is carnitine, a BHA with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that help control oil production in the skin.

Customer Review: "I absolutely love this product! It literally transformed how my face looks. Most of the blackheads on my nose are gone. My acne is gone too. I highly recommend this serum."

17. Revolution Skincare Targeted Blemish Serum 2% Salicylic Acid 

Pros: Is budget-friendly, contains witch hazel to reduce excess oil, contains 2% salicylic acid, is lightweight and oil-free, and can be worn under makeup.

Cons: May not be suitable for dry skin.

Lightweight and oil-free, this formula has witch hazel to help soothe skin while clearing blemishes with 2% salicylic acid.

Customer Review: "I love this! It doesn't leave my skin oily. It leaves it feeling moisturized and clears my blemishes."

18. Cos De Salicylic Acid 4% Exfoliant Facial Serum

Pros: Gentle enough for daily use, contains salicylic acid and niacinamide to fight acne and reduce oil production, won't dry out skin.

Cons: May not be strong enough for some.

This exfoliating serum is great for dullness, uneven texture, and blemishes, but it won't dry you out. Aloe and niacinamide both soothe the skin barrier for luminous, clear skin.

Customer Review: "Love that there is no scent and was concerned about [it] being too strong, but was just perfect. Did the job without irritation."

19. Glow Recipe Strawberry Smooth BHA + AHA Salicylic Acid Serum

Pros: Gently exfoliates and hydrates skin, helps reduce excess oil and clogged pores, smooths the look of bumps and fine lines.

Cons: Stings a little upon application.

This powerful yet soothing AHA and BHA serum helps improve skin tone, hydrates, and clear blemishes with a blend of hyaluronic acid, strawberry, and salicylic acid. 

Customer Review: "Love this product. I use it in my P.M. routine and I can tell it helps my skin tremendously, especially with my hormonal breakouts. Before I started using this, my breakouts would linger for days and after using this for a while, within two days breakouts are gone."

This article was originally published at an earlier date and has since been updated. 

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