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Salicylic Acid 101

Acne. The dreaded four-letter word that plagues so many of us and sparks some serious insecurity when it comes to the appearance of our skin.

Formed by oil glands in your pores that over-secrete when triggered by hormone or stress levels, acne is the result of this oil combining with dead skin cells, bacteria and dirt that ultimately clogs pores.

Clogs that are close to the surface of the skin are called whiteheads, while those that are exposed to air and become oxidized are blackheads. When the clog becomes infected, the body’s natural immune response is to fight the infection—this is when the redness and irritation happens. Despite the beneficial action of your body’s response, this redness and swelling isn’t just uncomfortable, but it also manages to draw even more attention to the blemish.

The best way to treat acne is to limit the availability of the dirt, oil, dead skin and bacteria that cause it.

This is where salicylic acid comes in.

What is Salicylic Acid?

Scientifically speaking, salicylic acid fits into a class of drugs called salicylates; it’s a beta-hydroxy acid (meaning that it’s a carboxylic acid connected to a hydroxy group with two carbon atoms) and is also referred to as a keratolytic, or skin-peeling agent.

To put it simply, salicylic acid helps exfoliate dead skin cells from the topmost layer of your skin to help keep pores clean and unclogged. Its ability to penetrate deep inside the pore and target the dean skin cells is what makes it so unique among other exfoliants, and what makes it so effective in the fight against acne.

Salicylic acid removes the cellular debris from your pores and limits the amounts of contaminants present that could create a clog. By doing this, it helps regulate the natural desquamation of the skin—the skin’s natural ability to shed old dead skin cells in order to make room for new cells. Inflammation decreases and your skin heals faster, while acne breakouts can become less frequent and noticeable.

Are There Side Effects?

Like most medications, salicylic acid can have side effects associated with it. The good news is that these side effects are rarely severe, and can be easy to avoid and treat. The most serious and rare of these is an allergic reaction, which can easily be detected with signs of swelling, hives, shortness of breath, or even the closing of the throat.

A much more common potential side effect is skin irritation; this can be minor or serious depending on your individual level of skin sensitivity. This side effect is generally minimal but may still require medical attention if they continue over a long period of time.

Since salicylic acid is a keratolytic, peeling on the microscopic level will occur—this is the action that removes debris from within your pores. However, if the peeling occurs on a large scale over an extended period of time, it’s best to discontinue use and consult a physician.

Other possible side effects associated with general skin irritation are burning, redness and itching.

Salicylic Acid Application

Since it works to both address existing acne and help prevent new blemishes, salicylic acid functions best as a regular, full-face treatment. Spot treatments aren’t as effective since the invisible blemishes that have just started to form are not being prevented.

Keep in mind that since salicylic acid can be drying, it’s best to take steps to help reduce irritation and add moisture to your skin when using it as an acne treatment. Stick with a mild cleanser that doesn’t dry the skin, and include a moisturizer to help keep your skin hydrated.

Of course, an anti-inflammatory diet is a great accompaniment to any salicylic acid treatment. With its high levels of healthy and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, it can help reduce the systemic inflammation that can contribute to acne formation.

Together, this can all help address acne from the inside out, and the outside in.