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Best salicylic acid products 2023: Blemish-busting solutions that will help clear skin

Unclog pores and banish breakouts with the best salicylic acid cleansers, serums, moisturisers and more

In a world where acne and blemishes are still one of our top skincare concerns – no longer confined to the trenches of our teenage years, unfortunately – salicylic acid is a game-changing ingredient that deserves its cult status. It’s a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) derived from willow bark and has long been applauded for its spot-fighting properties. Now it’s present in more skincare products than ever before.

“It works by softening and dissolving keratin, a protein naturally found in the skin that can block pores by causing skin cells to stick together,” explains clinical dermatology GP, Dr Sonia. “It helps to loosen desmosomes, allowing the cell to let go of the excess sebum that oily skins tend to hold on to. Since salicylic acid keeps pores unclogged, it helps with whiteheads and blackheads. It also exfoliates dead skin cells.”

READ NEXT: The best facial cleansers for your skin

Best salicylic acid products: At a glance

How to choose the best salicylic acid product for you

Which skin types should use salicylic acid?

“All skin types can use it, but salicylic acid is particularly suited to oily and combination skins, and those who suffer with congestion and acne,” says Dr Sonia. “If you have skin that’s prone to sensitivity and dryness, ensure you start out using it just once or twice a week and work up from there.”

How should I use salicylic acid?

It’s in everything from blemish gels to moisturisers, so how do you know which products are right for you?

A salicylic acid cleanser could be a good starting point for those with acne-prone skin, since it helps to keep pores clear and prevent breakouts before they even occur. Serums are also a great option, particularly for anyone who wants a more even skin tone. If you require a lighter touch, water-weight toners or gel moisturisers are the way forward. Whatever you do, just be careful not to overload your complexion with too many products: “Salicylic can be used in tandem with other ingredients, but it can be quite drying, so my advice would be to not use several actives at the same time, and be mindful of your skin barrier,” says Dr Sonia.

“If you’re using salicylic acid, you’ll probably want to take it easy with other exfoliants – even though they work in different ways – and only use retinoids on the days you haven’t used salicylic. Retinoids are great for acne-prone skin, too, so you may want to continue using them – just don’t do so all in one go.

“Combat any dryness by incorporating ingredients such as ceramides, squalane and hyaluronic acid, since these will all help to boost the skin’s barrier function. You’ll also want to go easy with any topical agents, such as benzoyl peroxide, and abrasive cleansers that are designed to peel or exfoliate,” she adds.

If you’re using salicylic acid as part of your morning skincare routine, you should always follow up with SPF.

What’s the difference between AHAs and BHAs?

Both BHAs (salicylic acid) and AHAs (such as glycolic and lactic acid) are chemical exfoliants that promote cell turnover and regeneration, but the way in which they exfoliate the skin differs.

“BHAs are oil-soluble and comedolytic (it can get underneath and around the oil that sits in your pores). Since it works on both the surface and deep inside the pore, dissolving trapped debris and excess sebum, it’s a great ingredient to treat acne as both a prevention and a cure,” says Dr Sonia. BHAs can also help manage other conditions that involve blocked pores, such as keratosis pilaris, often found on the upper arms.

“AHAs, on the other hand, are water-soluble, and since oil and water don’t mix, AHAs cannot get under the oil in your pores and will only exfoliate the surface of your skin. They’re widely celebrated for their anti-ageing properties – for example, treating fine lines and wrinkles as well as hyperpigmentation – and every skin type can benefit from AHAs.”

How we test salicylic acids

Over the course of six weeks, we put some of the best – and most cult – salicylic acid products through their paces, from cleansers and targeted blemish treatments to serums and moisturisers. Not only do we test how well they fare on acne-prone skin and dull, uneven complexions – considering ease of application, how gentle they are on the skin, and their ability to prevent future breakouts as well as remedy current ones – but we also rate these products for how well they deliver that much-coveted glow. We aim to consider a wide range of budgets, too, including products starting from just £13.

READ NEXT: Our roundup of the best facial oils

The best salicylic acid products you can buy in 2023

1. CeraVe SA Smoothing Cleanser: The best budget salicylic acid cleanser for face and body

Price: £13 | Buy now from BootsThere was a collective “hurrah!” when this cult cleanser arrived in the UK from the US in 2019, and we’ve been obsessed ever since. The blend of salicylic acid with essential ceramides and hyaluronic acid works to bring your complexion to a happy place (even if you’ve overdone it on the actives), with the product regularly recommended by dermatologists for being both gentle yet hardworking. It has a clear gel-like consistency that lightly foams on contact with water and easily cuts through dirt and SPF. Most importantly, though, it doesn’t leave skin feeling stripped or tight. Following regular use (morning and night), our skin was much smoother and felt hydrated – and it took a while to even make a dent in the bottle. Both your skin and your bank balance will love it; it’s a no-brainer.

Key details – Pack size: 236ml; Active ingredients: 0.5% salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid

Buy now from Boots

2. Glow Recipe Strawberry Smooth BHA & AHA Salicylic Serum: The best salicylic acid exfoliating serum

Price: £36 | Buy now from Cult BeautyIf you hate the chemical-like smell associated with some serums, you’ll love the naturally derived strawberry scent of Glow Recipe’s latest innovation. The fruit-forward Korean label is known for its fresh-scented, aesthetically pleasing skincare products, many of which have a light gel consistency, and this product is exactly like that. It absorbs quickly into the skin without leaving any sticky residue, working in tandem with other active ingredients to smooth and retexturise your complexion. We noticed the hydration benefits immediately after use – skin looked bright, and although the fragrance was strong upon application, we found it faded quickly. It’s powerful but gentle enough for daily use, which makes it great for preventing further breakouts. That said, particularly sensitive skin types could find the scent irritating.

Key details – Pack size: 30ml; Active ingredients: 2% salicylic acid, mandelic acid, azelaic acid

Buy now from Cult Beauty

3. Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant: The best salicylic acid exfoliant for blackheads

Price: £31 | Buy now from Feel UniqueWhile we wouldn’t usually suggest TikTok as a go-to for solid skincare advice, sometimes it does throw up a few cult buys that get the approving nod of facialists and beauty editors alike. Once such product is Paula’s Choice BHA exfoliating toner. And don’t be scared by the term “liquid exfoliant” – this water-weight toner is super-gentle, irritant-free and suitable for everyday use. Everyday use means cleaner pores, and cleaner pores means smoother texture, fewer blackheads, and an overall reduction in breakouts. Simply swipe over your face with a saturated cotton pad after cleansing and it will sink quickly into the skin, prepping it for your favourite moisturiser.

Key details – Pack size: 118ml; Active ingredients: 2% salicylic acid, green tea extract, witch hazel

Buy now from Feel Unique

4. Bioderma Hydrabio Light Moisturising Cream: The best salicylic acid cream for dehydrated skin

Price: £16 | Buy now from LookFantasticIf you’re someone who usually steers clear of harsh acne products, either because you’re prone to redness or your skin is on the dry side, this dreamy moisturiser will soothe your complexion while harnessing the exfoliating benefits of salicylic, because – yes – it is possible to have acne-prone skin that isn’t oily! It has a light, fresh scent that isn’t overpowering, and the gel-like texture feels cooling upon application. It sinks in quickly, too, leaving no oiliness or residue on the surface. It’s a particularly great moisturiser switch for the summer months when you might want to avoid thick, heavy creams.

Key details – Pack size: 40ml; Active ingredients: -0.5% salicylic acid, vitamin E

Buy now from LookFantastic

5. Dr Sam’s Flawless Neutralising Gel: The best salicylic acid blemish treatment

Price: £28 | Buy now from Dr Sam BuntingSalicylic acid is known for its spot-shrinking properties, and this on-the-spot treatment gel from Harley Street skincare specialist Dr Sam Bunting harnesses the power of SA with soothing 5% azelaic acid, hydrating squalane and 0.5% bakuchiol (an alternative to retinol) to not only unclog the pore, but calm inflammation and help with pigmentation, too. Dabbed onto red, raised or painful under-the-skin spots, it instantly soothes and helps to accelerate the healing process. While some spot treatments can be particularly drying, we found it to be brilliant under makeup and SPF, with zero pilling or peeling.

Key details – Pack size: 30ml; Active ingredients: 2% salicylic acid, squalane, azelaic acid, bakuchiol

Buy now from Dr Sam Bunting

6. Caudalie Vinopure Blemish Control Salicylic Serum: The best salicylic acid serum for sensitive skin

Price: £30 | Buy now from CaudalieWe love how this super-gentle, purifying formula got to work on our acne without stressing the skin. As well as salicylic acid, it contains natural grape polyphenols (which limit sebum oxidation and help to reduce the look of blackheads), niacinamide (better known as vitamin B3) and organic rose water to absorb sebum overproduction and visibly improve glow. It has a light, clean and fresh scent, and sinks into the skin without leaving it feeling tight or sticky, and the runny texture means that one pump of the bottle goes a long way. In just a few days, we saw a definite improvement in redness and a reduction in the size of lingering blemishes.

Key details– Pack size: 30ml; Active ingredients: -0.5% salicylic acid, polyphenols, niacinamide

Buy now from Caudalie

7. Faace Period Face Mask: The best multitasking salicylic acid face mask

Price: £27 | Buy now from Cult BeautyIn a bid to help us tackle our hormonal breakouts, no-nonsense skincare brand Faace launched Period Faace – a multi-use mask that doesn’t actually require you to be on your period to benefit from it, of course. In addition to white willow – a derivative of salicylic acid – it contains zinc to regulate sebum production, clary sage (a natural antiseptic), green tea and hyaluronic acid, all of which work in tandem to calm, clarify and hydrate the skin.

The texture isn’t what you’d expect; rather than a thick clay or cream, it’s a light, clear gel that dries quickly. It can either be applied as a mask or as a thin layer under makeup – we tried both and found that we preferred it as a mask, as after around 20 minutes it felt a little drying. That said, it does what it says on the packaging: the redness of our breakouts had subsided, and skin was left feeling fresh and clean.

Key details – Pack size: 100ml; Active ingredients: -0.5% salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid, green tea extract, clary sage, zinc

Buy now from Cult Beauty

8. Peace Out Acne Healing Dots: The best salicylic acid spot patches

Price: £17 | Buy now from Beauty BayIf you’re looking for a no-fuss way to effectively treat individual spots, these tiny dots pack a punch. Suitable for all skin types – but particularly those who only deal with occasional stubborn spots – they’re infused with salicylic acid and vitamin A both to get to the root of the blemish and stimulate the skin’s natural exfoliation process, as well as aloe vera to calm redness. The thin, almost-plasticky dots are translucent and barely visible on most skin tones, and they provide a great barrier. After cleansing the skin, we applied to various pesky zits and left overnight. By morning, the spots were dramatically reduced in size and any angry redness had cooled. If you’re someone who’s prone to picking, these are a game-changer.

Key details – Pack size: 20 patches; Active ingredients: Salicylic acid, vitamin A, aloe vera extract

Buy now from Beauty Bay

9. Revision Skincare Brightening Facial Wash: Best salicylic acid cleanser for mature skin

Price: £36 | Buy now from Face the FutureIf you struggle with skin texture (#acneproblems), this clarifying cleanser from Revision Skincare contains natural skin-brightening botanicals to help exfoliate and smooth your complexion. It combines both BHAs and AHAs, and the result is a formula that not only gets to work deep in the pores, but re-texturises the surface of the skin, too. We loved the luxurious gel texture and the light citrusy scent, which left skin feeling squeaky clean. And although it isn’t exactly cheap for a cleanser, a little does go a long way. However, keep in mind that this product also contains vitamin C, which – although the gold-standard of ingredients when it comes to brightening dull complexions – isn’t suitable for every skin type, particularly when combined with acids.

Key details – Pack size: 198ml; Active ingredients: Salicylic acid, glycolic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, white tea extract

Buy now from Face the Future

10. Sol de Janeiro Bom Día Bright Cream: The best body moisturiser

Price: £44 | Buy now from Feel UniqueYes, you can even get salicylic acid in body lotions now! This thick, moisture-rich cream is loaded with natural fruit AHAs, vitamin C and willow bark extract – a natural form of SA – which means it not only boosts cell turnover and promotes silky skin, but it also helps to fight ingrown hairs and keep pores and follicles free of debris. It can be used all over the body, although we found it particularly effective on areas prone to ingrown hairs (hello, bikini line!) and rough patches such as knees and elbows. We also give it a stamp of approval for anyone suffering with keratosis pilaris. It takes some rubbing in, but once absorbed, it leaves behind a velvety finish and a rich, alluring scent that lasts throughout the day.

Key details – Pack size: 240ml; Active ingredients: Salicylic acid; fruit AHAs, vitamin C, cajá fruit, Cupuaçu butter

Buy now from Feel Unique

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