When it comes to having a clear complexion, salicylic acid should be your go-to. It’s a type of oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid that penetrates effectively into the skin to eliminate excess oil and sebum that lead to whiteheads, blackheads, and other forms of acne.1 It also exfoliates your skin, removing dead skin cells on the surface that can contribute to clogged pores and skin dullness. It can even help reduce inflammation associated with breakouts.
There are a lot of salicylic acid facial cleansers on the market, but most brands have a unique way of integrating the ingredient into their formulas. That being said, not all salicylic face washes are created equal. They come in a range of formulas, applications, and potencies that affect how your skin will ultimately respond to the chemical.
Here are the best salicylic acid face washes on the market.
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 to open wounds. Make 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 a 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 Face Wash for Every Skin Type
Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash for Oily Skin: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser
Thanks to its oil-dissolving prowess, salicylic acid is a great pick if you have oily skin, even if you're lucky enough to not also be battling breakouts. "With a two-percent concentration of salicylic acid, this has been clinically-tested to remove more than 45 percent of oil from skin," says Dr. Icecreamwala, making this La Roche-Posay cleanser a top choice for those with perpetually slick skin. And not only does this salicylic acid cleanser remove excess oil right away, but it also keeps your complexion from getting greasy throughout the day, she adds.
Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash for Acne-Prone Skin: The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Acne + Pore Cleanser
Knock out pesky pimples with this salicylic acid cleanser. Along with two-percent salicylic acid, the highest concentration you can get over-the-counter, it also has the added benefit of zinc, another powerful acne-fighter that combats oil and reduces inflammation. (There's soothing allantoin, a plant-derived moisturizer, in it as well.) The Inkey List's salicylic acid face wash foams nicely and leaves skin feeling clean, but doesn't contain sodium lauryl sulfate, a potentially-irritating ingredient, like many other foaming formulas, notes Nava Greenfield, M.D., of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City, who likes this product.
Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash for Combination Skin: CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser
If your skin can't make up its mind and you have both slick spots and dry patches, reach for this salicylic acid face wash from CeraVe, a top pick for both derms. "Because it contains hyaluronic acid and ceramides, it's much more hydrating than other salicylic acid cleansers, making it a good option for those with combination skin," explains Dr. Icecreamwala. Dr. Greenfield agrees, noting that this facial cleanser with salicylic acid won't dry out your skin.
Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash for Adult Acne: Skinceuticals LHA Cleanser Gel
Thanks to hormonal fluctuations, adult acne is a very real thing, leaving you with the dreaded task of having to fight both blemishes and wrinkles — joy. Happily, this salicylic acid cleanser is a one-stop-shop for addressing both skin problems. Not only does it contain salicylic acid but it also features lipo hydroxy acid (LHA), a derivative of salicylic acid with similar benefits to clean out pores and target blackheads and whiteheads, notes Dr. Icecreamwala. But this Skinceuticals salicylic acid face wash also touts glycolic acid, which is lauded for its anti-aging benefits, so this formula also promotes cell renewal and boosts overall skin tone and brightness, she adds. Sold.
Best Soothing Salicylic Acid Face Wash: Mario Badescu Acne Facial Cleanser
If your skin is ultra-dry or sensitive, salicylic acid isn't the ingredient for you, but if your skin sits more toward the normal range, with just some occasional irritation, you can still go for it. Just be sure to look for formulas that pair the potent ingredient with others that help soothe and calm. Case in point: This classic salicylic acid cleanser from Mario Badescu, a celeb-loved skin-care brand. Along with salicylic acid and clarifying thyme extract, it also contains hydrating and calming aloe vera.
Best Foaming Salicylic Acid Face Wash: Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser
Foaming cleansers often get a bad rap for being harsh and drying, and that can often hold true, but there's also something so satisfying about using a cleanser that suds up nicely and leaves your complexion feeling completely clean. If you need that lather, Dr. Icecreamwala advises this facial cleanser with salicylic acid from Aveeno. It's soap-free so there's no risk of it stripping your skin, touts two percent salicylic acid to clear up breakouts, and also has soy, which both improves skin tone and moisturizes, she says.
Best Salicylic Acid Face Wash Wipes: C'est Moi Clarify Blemish Clearing Wipes
Let's face it: There are just some times where a full-on face wash just isn't in the cards, which is when cleansing wipes prove to be invaluable. Plus, if you have oily skin, wipes can often degrade in a way that many cleansers can not, says Dr. Greenfield. She likes these hypoallergenic, salicylic acid face (wash-ish) wipes, which contain a one percent concentration of salicylic acid, and no potentially-irritating ingredients, she says. The wipes themselves are biodegradable, a major win if you're looking to minimize the impact your beauty routine has on the environment.
Best Salicylic Acid Body Wash: Neutrogena Body Clear Body Wash Pink Grapefruit
Breaking news: Breakouts happen on the skin below your chin, too. To ward off pimples on your back, chest, and even booty (we've all been there), stash this sudser in your shower, for a nice salicylic acid body wash. Salicylic acid whisks away oil and keeps pores clear, while vitamin C brightens skin. Bonus points for the nice lather and refreshing grapefruit scent.
The best salicylic acid face wash is ultimately the one designed to cleanse your particular skin type and does so effectively without causing excessive dryness, agitation, or other side effects. For oily, acne-prone, and combination skin, La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Cleanser (view at Dermstore) is an excellent choice at an affordable price. For more sensitive skin, skyn ICELAND Glacial Face Wash (view at Amazon) will do the trick. Sometimes, finding the right face wash requires a bit of trial and error, but if you start with these products, you probably won’t have to try many more.
What to Look for in a Salicylic Acid Face Wash
Salicylic Acid Percentage
“Salicylic acid works by reducing oil and sebum on the skin. It also helps to exfoliate dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, which also contributes to the clogging of pores and dullness of the skin," says Jordan C. Carqueville, M.D., a leading board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. "One of the key features to look for in the face wash is the strength of the active ingredient — in this case, salicylic acid. The most common strength percentage in face washes will be 2%."
Two percent is a safe and effective concentration for normal, oily, and acne-prone skin types. If you have dry or sensitive skin, opt for a less intense cleanser with 0.5% to 1% salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid can easily throw off your skin’s hydration balance, resulting in dryness, redness, and irritation, and other uncomfortable side effects. That’s why some face wash formulas include ingredients like soothing botanicals, hyaluronic acid, and ceramide moisturizers. Look for products that include one of these elements when you can.
"Sensitive or dry skin types are often not able to tolerate salicylic acid ingredients due to enhanced irritation or dehydration of the skin," says Dr. Carqueville. "Make sure to apply moisturizer to the skin after using these products so that the skin doesn't become overly dry or irritated."
It’s always a good idea to keep chemicals like parabens and sulfates away from your skin, especially on your face. Keep an eye on those labels and opt for natural, organic, and clean products when possible.