How to Clear Your Skin With a Salicylic Acid Cleanser: 15 Best Products and Tips From Dermatologists

November 24, 2021

Oh, hi, hello! I’m assuming you’ve stumbled upon this page because (a) you’d do anything to cure your acne, and (b) there’s an equally good chance you’ve f*cked with your face trying to do so in the past. Hey, I’m not here to judge. I hear ya — oh, boy do I hear ya. Because, surprise: I, too, am an acne hater! But do you know the acne hater of all haters? Any guesses? No? Well, my friends, allow me to introduce you to Salicylic Acid — the legendary active ingredient whose purpose revolves around destroying those pesky little pimples. And please say a warm hello, because, honey, an enemy of an enemy is a friend.

If you’re no stranger to the horrors of those facial bumps and lumps, you’ve probably heard of salicylic acid (i.e., serums, masks, creams, gels, toners), but today, we’re going to focus on one: the cleanser. However, I would be remiss not to mention that you shouldn’t start droppin’ your hard-earned pennies on any salicylic acid cleansers just yet. You’re going to need to know what it is, how it works, and most importantly, if it’s right for you. So without further ado, people ~over acne~ everywhere, let’s take a trip back to Chemistry 101. (With the help of a few pros, of course.)

What exactly is salicylic acid?!

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that comes from bark willow, a natural substance, making it a natural ingredient, explains Dr. Cheryl Burgess, MD, FAAD and Board Certified dermatologist at the Center for Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery in Washington. It’s most commonly known “for helping clear pores of dirt, reducing acne-causing sebum production at the follicular level, and dissolving dead skin cells,” says Dr. Annie Chiu, MD, Board Certified Dermatologist and Founder of The Derm Institute in Manhattan Beach. Because it has anti-inflammatory properties, penetrates deep into the pores, and acts as a chemical exfoliant, it can greatly help reduce mild acne while working to prevent future breakouts, Chiu explains to Cosmo.

In dermatology or skincare, salicylic acid is most commonly used in a topical form. It is approved anywhere up to 2% by the FDA for over-the-counter sales and the mass market (AKA, you), making it readily available for purchase in many different forms. If you need a higher dosage for specific concerns, it can be prescribed by a doctor or dermatologist under their supervision and care.

The bottom line…

K. So basically, salicylic acid is a natural BHA that works to kick acne’s ass by penetrating deep into the skin, unclogging pores, and therefore renewing your skin. And you can purchase it at a concentration of up to 2% at basically any local drug or cosmetic store near you?! Yep, you’d be right, my friend.

What else does it do?!

So we know that salicylic acid is great to treat acne, but did I mention that it has a ton of other insane benefits, too?
They include, but are not limited to —

  • Wart/callus removal
  • Anti-aging treatments
  • Scar treatments
  • Dandruff treatments
  • Skin disorder treatments (such as psoriasis and ichthyosis)

Pretty impressive, right?! If this leaves you curious to learn more, we break down literally everything you may still be wondering about salicylic acid and the science behind it here.

…back to the good stuff — what kind of salicylic acid cleanser is right for me, and how do I use it?

According to Dr. Chiu, the cleanser you choose should depend on your skin type, age, and primary skin concern. A salicylic acid cleanser comes in two formats: 1) with a soapy and lathery consistency, which is best for oily skin, and 2) with a soapless preparation, which is best for dryer skin, explains Dr. Burgess. Then, depending on your skin type, she continues, you usually can choose between 0.5%, 1%, or 2% salicylic acid concentration.

Although a lot of us may be used to throwing on, lathering up, and immediately rinsing a cleanser off, Dr. Burgess has a better recommendation to get the full effect of the salicylic acid cleanser. “You want to suds it up, put it on the skin, and let it sit on there for maybe a minute or two. By doing this extra step, the top layer of the skin is softened, and the active ingredient can penetrate just a little bit more. You’ll subsequently see more response versus just washing your face and then abruptly rinsing,” she says.

“YOU WANT TO SUDS IT UP, PUT IT ON THE SKIN, AND LET IT SIT ON THERE FOR MAYBE A MINUTE OR TWO.”

DR. CHERYL BURGESS

When using a salicylic acid cleanser, it is important to let your skin be the guide, explains Dr. Loren Krueger, MD, Dermatologist and Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Emory University. “I would recommend starting the use of a salicylic acid cleanser either every other morning or each morning,” Krueger explains that using the cleanser too frequently at the beginning of your treatment can potentially lead to irritation. “If you are tolerating well at once daily yet have room for improvement in your skin, you can bounce it up to twice daily,” she says.

Warnings when using salicylic acid…

Unfortunately, as with everything in life, nothing can be perfect. Aaaaand that includes some of the side effects you may experience when using SA. “Everyone’s skin can react differently,” says Dr. Lucy Chen, Board Certified Dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology in Miami, “common side effects include burning, peeling, dry, flaky skin, and inflammation, especially at the start of treatment. If any of these effects worsen or continue, make sure to consult your doctor. Sometimes, all you may need to change is the amount of the drug or how frequently you’re using it,” she says. If you are experiencing dryness, apply a gentle, fragrance-free face moisturizer after cleansing.
It is important to note that the higher the concentration of salicylic acid in the cleanser, the more drying it can be, so keep that in mind when choosing your cleanser. And before adding a salicylic acid cleanser to your routine, ensure the other products in your skincare regimen do not include retinol nor glycolic acid. Combining either of these with salicylic acid can cause redness and irritation.

And for the final, and probably most important, tip when it comes to using a salicylic acid cleanser: If you have questions or concerns before, while, or after using the product, the very best thing you can do is speak. with. a. doctor (!!) Each and every person’s skin is different, therefore one regimen cannot suit all.

The best salicylic acid cleansers…

OK, OK, OK, I get it — that was a tonnnn of info. So, before I lose you all to an information-overload-headache (sry), get excited, because here are the 15 best salicylic acid cleansers on the market RN — vetted by the pros.

A THREE-IN-ONE CLEANSER

Paula’s Choice Pore Normalizing Cleanser

$11 AT PAULASCHOICE.COM

If you’re testing the waters of salicylic acid and don’t necessarily want to go with a higher concentration to begin with, this cleanser by Paula’s Choice could be a good starting point.

Dr. Chen recommends this three-in-one cleanser, saying it improves uneven skin tone, dullness, and helps prevent acne breakouts. “It is formulated with a soothing gel that calms and refreshes the skin, and it effectively cleanses without irritation,” she says.

Concentration of SA: 0.5%

A VEGAN ACNE CLEANSER

Caudalie Vinopure Pore Purifying Gel Cleanser

$28 AT SEPHORA

If you’re committed to clean beauty (hey, go you), this purifying gel cleanser is vegan and an incredibly gentle option for those with sensitive skin.

According to Dr. Chiu, the salicylic acid in the cleanser works to reduce your oil and sebum, while the addition of grape polyphenols and essential oils works to reduce inflammation. “Grapeseed oil promotes a healthy skin barrier that leaves the skin clean, but not over-stripped or tight,” she says.

Concentration of SA: < 0.2%

FOR ON-THE-GO

Obagi Medical Acne Cleansing Wipes

$22 AT DERMSTORE

If you’re a beauty fanatic like moi, then you probably know that makeup remover wipes aren’t necessarily the greatest for your skin, and you should opt for a cleanser instead. However, these Obagi medicated wipes are an excellent choice for those looking to cure their acne.

Dr. Chiu suggests these wipes for anyone that is looking for a simple regimen (AKA teenagers). The wipes work to degrease and exfoliate your skin which removes dead skin cells and dirt. Luckily for those with sensitive or drier skin, the “ingredients like witch hazel and aloe make the wipes not overly drying,” she says.

Concentration of SA: 2%

A CLEAN CLEANSER

Tata Harper Clarifying Blemish & Oil Control Cleanser

$35 AT SEPHORA

If you struggle with redness, thanks to, you know, acne (no surprise there), this clarifying cleanser by Tata Harper is another great clean choice.

This cleanser uses salicylic and lactic acid from willow bark while “balancing with ingredients, like honey and chlorella, to soothe redness for those with acne,” says Dr. Chiu. The gel cleanser has a foam consistency and is ideal for those looking to achieve a matte appearance.

Concentration of SA: < 2%

THE TRIED-AND-TRUE SA CLEANSER

Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash

$7 AT ULTA BEAUTY

If you search “salicylic acid cleanser” on Google, more than likely, Neutrogena’s Oil-Free Acne Wash will be one of the first products to appear, considering it’s “the quintessential, classic salicylic acid cleanser for oily, acne-prone skin,” Chiu says.

The extremely affordable price point makes it a great option for those looking for a tried-and-true product without spending a ridic amount of $$. According to Chiu, the cleanser dries out pimples while soothing the skin due to the addition of aloe and chamomile.

Concentration of SA: 2%

FOR A GLOWY FINISH

TULA Skincare Keep it Clear Acne Foam Cleanser

$34 AT DERMSTORE

Tula’s Keep it Clear Acne Foam Cleanser penetrates your skin with 2% of salicylic acid to treat acne and prevent pimples from reappearing.
The formula includes azelaic acid that works to fade acne scars and dark spots. Tula is known for its signature probiotic extract ingredients that “promote the skin’s natural balance,” so if you think that the high percentage of SA will dry you out, think again! The face wash will leave you with glowy and bright skin that doesn’t feel tight or dry.
Concentration of SA: 2%

AN OIL CLEANSER

HANSKIN Pore Cleansing Oil

$27 AT SOKO GLAM

This best-selling pore cleansing oil is perfect for those with combination and oily skin who want to use a BHA to treat their acne.

This cleanser is packed with yummy jojoba, olive, and fruit oils, such as orange, lemon, and grapefruit, that work together to deep clean the pores. With the addition of salicylic acid, this cleanser acts as a light exfoliant and prevents acne from reoccurring.

Concentration of SA: this cleanser is mixed with salicylic acid and betaine (a gentle moisturizer). Although the exact percentage is not available, if you have sensitive or dry skin, you should opt for the Hanskin Cleansing Oil.

FOR ACNE & AGING SKIN

SkinCeuticals LHA Cleansing Gel

$41 AT SKINSTORE

Remember when I mentioned that salicylic acid could be used for more than acne? Well, with this LHA Cleansing Gel by SkinCeuticals, you can target aging signs due to a whole slew of ingredients that work together.

The cleanser “combines lipo hydroxy acid, glycolic acid. and salicylic acid for anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, pore-refining, and acne-reducing activity,” says Chiu. If you thought the product couldn’t get any better, you’ll be pleased to know that it is soap-free, fragrance-free, and alcohol-free. Dr. Chiu recommends this cleanser for combination skin due to the fact that it treats acne without overdrying the skin. The end result is a bright and even skin tone.

Concentration of SA: the exact percentage of SA is not available, however, there is a 12% concentration of lipo-hydroxy acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid, glycerin, and sorbitol.

A GENTLE CLEANSER

CeraVe Salicylic Acid Face Wash

$10 AT AMAZON

Another one of the OG salicylic acid face washes is none other than the CeraVe Renewing SA Cleanser. Dr. Krueger recommends this as an option for those looking for something not too costly.

This cleanser is among one of the gentlest formulas in the bunch, explains Dr. Chiu. “This gentle salicylic acid cleanser removes oil and dead skin cells while promoting a healthy skin barrier with ceramides,” she says. If you have sensitive skin, consider CeraVe. The product does not have any physical exfoliants and instead “utilizes ingredients like hyaluronic acid and niacinamide to smooth and soften skin.”

Concentration of SA: < 1%

IF YOU WANT A RICH LATHER

Murad Acne Control Clarifying Cleanser

$32 AT SEPHORA

If you’re somebody who really likes to feel the effects of your skincare “working,” the Murad SA cleanser starts as a gel formula and turns into a rich lather once massaged into the skin.

This cleanser is ideal for those with oily and acne-prone skin due to the use of time-released salicylic acids. Dr. Chiu explains that a time-released salicylic acid is both a free form of the ingredient that works to clear pores on contact, as well as an encapsulated form that continues to treat the skin even after you rinse.

Concentration of SA: 1.5%

A SOLID & TRAVEL-FRIENDLY CLEANSER

PCA SKIN Blemish Control Bar

$98 AT AMAZON

You’re not the only one who didn’t know a salicylic acid cleanser could come in soapy bar form. If you travel often, this could be a great addition to your regime.
Dr. Chiu recommends this for those with combination skin because it “reduces acne breakouts with salicylic acid, and addresses post-inflammatory pigmentation with azelaic acid,” but the “ingredients like glycerin and coconut oil soothe less oily areas of the skin,” she says.

Concentration of SA: 2%

A BAR SOAP CLEANSER BLK/OPL EVEN TRUE Blemish Control Bar

$6 AT BLACKOPALBEAUTY.COM

This new blemish control soap bar is perfect for those with all skin types who want to use a BHA to treat their acne.
This cleanser is packed with nourishing shea butter, peppermint, and eucalyptus oils. With the addition of salicylic acid, this cleanser acts as a light exfoliant and prevents acne from reoccurring. Lather this bb up and rub it into your skin, you’ll be left with a hydrated and smooth texture.

Concentration of SA: the exact percentage is not available, but the formulation is gentle enough for all skin types, including sensitive skin.

A MAKEUP REMOVER CLEANSER

The INKEY List Salicylic Acid Acne + Pore Cleanser

$10 AT SEPHORA

If you haven’t heard of INKEY, you’re seriously missing out. Not only are the products gaining an increasing amount of popularity, but they’re also incredibly inexpensive.

The best thing about this salicylic acid cleanser is that it can be used on virtually any type of skin—oily, normal, and combination. It is a light and foamy face wash unclogs those pores and reduces acne while also removing your makeup (!!)

Concentration of SA: 2%

A BODY ACNE CLEANSER

Nola Skinsentials Baddie Cleanse

$23 AT NOLASKINSENTIALS.COM

Hey, as a lot of us annoyingly know, acne sometimes migrates to other places on our bodies other than just the face. (Just one more reason acne is the literal WOAT.) But don’t fear, this body cleanser is here! (Sorry, had to.)
Not only does the Baddie Cleanse fight body acne with active ingredients such as glycolic acid, white willow bark, and lactic acid, but the salicylic acid works to clear up those clogged pores. This body wash is great for your shoulders, chest, back, neck, arms, and even your booty! The best part? It will leave you glowy aaaand smelling like a dang treat due to the passion fruit scent and pineapple enzymes.

Concentration of SA: 1%

A DERMATOLOGIST FAVORITE

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Acne Face Wash

$15 AT LA ROCHE-POSAY SKINCARE

And last but not least, almost every single dermatologist that weighed in recommended the La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser. So, yeah, I’m assuming that means it’s pretty damn good.

This gel cleanser uses salicylic acid and lipo-hydroxy acid to remove impurities from the skin, Dr. Chen explains. Not only that, it is a great choice for a multitude of skin types, including sensitive, oily, and acne-prone skin, where it works to target acne, blackheads, and whiteheads, all while being oil-free. “It has a lightweight formula that does not contain harsh scrub particles that may irritate the skin,” she says.

Concentration of SA: 2%

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