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Can Salicylic acid cause acne? Salicylic acid is naturally designed to help acne since it penetrates the skin and dissolves the clog that causes the breakout in the first place. However, it does little to excess oil production and bacteria. Hence, it is handy only against mild acne. When used in excess or with the wrong ingredient, salicylic acid can irritate and dry the skin.
Continuously using the acid generously and in a high concentration will keep irritating the skin and cause dryness. When the skin is too dry, it stimulates the system to produce more oil to compensate for the loss.
Unfortunately, excess oil can clog with dead skin cells and form a clog.
The cycle keeps going like this; hence does little to help with your acne. Instead, it contributes to your breakout.
Hence, although salicylic acid can help with acne, using a highly concentrated formula too often can cause your breakout.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid belongs to a class of acids called beta hydroxy acid (BHAs). For a BHA acid, the molecules are separated from the acid part by two carbon atoms.
Derived from willow bark, salicylic acid belongs to an ingredient class called salicylates. Thanks to its structure, it is oil-soluble and penetrates the skin pores with ease.
Two major classes of acids, one of which salicylic acid belongs to – exfoliate the skin. However, the oil-soluble ones penetrate the skin at a much deeper level compared to water-soluble acids.
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs), the other acid class (besides the BHAs that salicylic acid belongs to), work on the skin surface by loosening old and dead skin cells to reveal new ones. In contrast, salicylic acid penetrates deep into the skin pores and penetrates through the cell layers.
Once it penetrates the skin, salicylic acid dissolves the debris that clogs the pores. It also has anti-inflammatory properties that help to reduce inflammation and make acne disappear faster.
The ingredients penetrate deeply into the skin to break the connections between the skin cells. Upon penetration, the acid part of the molecules dissolves the glue that holds the skin cells together. This cell breakdown promotes exfoliation. Thus, salicylic acid is perfect for exfoliation.
Salicylic acid also loosens and breaks apart attachments between cells in the skin’s outer layer and encourages unclogging of the pores and exfoliation. However, it works best on whiteheads and blackheads, also referred to as mild acne.
How Salicylic Acid Works On Acne
Excess oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria are major contributors to acne. However, when the pores are clogged by oil and dead skin cells alone, mild acne forms.
Salicylic acid helps by first dissolving the debris that clogs the pores to cause acne. Then, it penetrates the skin and dissolves the dead skin cells clogging the follicle.
Although it takes considerable time for this effect to occur, salicylic acid’s ultimate goal and function are to unclog the pores from inside out. It can also regulate the skin cells, hence reducing how much oil is produced, which could cause further clogs.
However, as expected, this narrative does not extend to other severe acne types. The reason for this is because severe acne like nodules and cysts are products of bacteria feasting on the clog.
Since salicylic acid does not help with the bacteria, it won’t offer enough benefit to correct abnormal cells shedding. The acid does not have any effect on oil production and will not kill bacteria.
Can Salicylic Acid Make Acne Worse?
See, salicylic acid works best only on mild acne. When used in the right amount and in the right concentration, salicylic acid cures acne.
When people with severe acne begin to use it, they would not see any noticeable improvement. Now, if you increase the dosage and concentration in order to see improvement, that is when the narrative turns on its head.
Excess application of salicylic acid, and in high concentration can irritate and dry your skin. It can also cause skin irritation, peeling, redness, and dryness. Hence, people with dry or sensitive skin should avoid using salicylic acid.
What Percentage Of Salicylic Acid Is Good For Acne?
Salicylic acid is available in different forms and dosages. It includes solution, lotion, ointment, pads, soap, and gel. Since there are different forms, it is considerably easy to find a product that suits your body and won’t aggravate your condition.
However, the dosage is something that most people don’t get right. Remember, the wrong dosage in the wrong amount or concentration can ultimately lead to an acne breakout.
The best practice is to visit your dermatologist and consult for a recommended form and dosage that matches your skin type and condition. Apart from getting a prescription, you can also get an expert to advise on how to do a patch test to find how it will react with your skin before using it over the entire skin area.
Mayo Clinic recommends the following salicylic dosage and forms for treating acne:
- Gel: Adults and children should use 0.5-5% salicylic acid once daily. However, it is not recommended for anyone below 2yrs.
- Lotion: Adults and children should use 1-2% once or not more than three times daily. Not best for children under 2yrs.
- Ointment: Use 3-6% for adults and children older than 2yrs.
- Pads: Use pads once or a maximum of three times daily if you are older than 2yrs.
- Soap: Adults and children can use the soap as needed but not by any child below 2yrs.
- Solution: The topical solution should be at 0.5-2% one to three times daily for anyone older than 2yrs.
If you miss a dose, use it immediately when you remember you need to; however, don’t if it is almost time for your next dose.
Many people make the common mistake of applying salicylic acid to an entire skin area to attempt to give the skin, even unaffected areas, a clean swoop.
Unfortunately, this practice can cause salicylate poisoning. Hence, instead of applying a layer over a large skin portion, use it only on acne-prone areas.
Who Should Not Use Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid is safe since it is approved and recommended for treating acne. However, it can cause hives, peeling, skin stinging, tingling, or itching. Hence, you should talk with your doctor before using it.
Generally, people with allergies should not use salicylic acid. Therefore, if you have experienced allergic reactions to topical medications or salicylic acid, you should steer clear and not use it.
As stated with the dosage instructions, children below two years of age should not use salicylic acid since they could have higher skin irritation as their skin absorbs it faster and higher than adults.
Apart from this, certain medications interact with salicylic acid. You should be careful with how you use the acid if you are already using other acid-containing products.
For example, products like retinol, adapalene, tretinoin, and benzoyl peroxide contain acids that also exfoliate the skin.
Too much skin exfoliation can cause irritation and redness. Stop and see your doctor if you experience confusion, headache, lethargy, and hearing loss. It may also cause nausea, vomiting, tinnitus, hyperpnea, and diarrhea.
Since the case for salicylic toxicity is not uncommon, you should not use it in any of these conditions:
- Don’t use it for an extended period, in excessive amounts, and in high concentration.
- Don’t apply it to a large skin area but limit it to acne-prone sites, and
- Don’t use plastic wrap or an air-tight dressing to cover it.
Can You Use Salicylic Safely During Pregnancy Or Breastfeeding?
OTC products containing salicylic acid should be avoided, or used with caution, during pregnancy. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does recommend topical salicylic acid to treat acne during pregnancy.
A US government database on drugs notes that it is safe to use salicylic acid by lactating mothers, provided it does not come into contact with the infant. Topical use of salicylic acid is unlikely to make it appear in breastmilk.
However, the best practice is to get specific advice from your doctor and dermatologist for this situation. The reason for this is because our bodies respond to medications differently. Hence, a sit-down with your doctor will help you find recommendations that are apt for your skin and body.
So, Can Salicylic Acid Cause Acne?
Salicylic acid is an effective treatment against acne. However, although it is well-meaning, an excess application can contribute to acne. So, we recommend using it under supervision.
In any case, avoid using it in excess and/or high concentration. Remember, it only works on mild acne. For other types of severe acne, you should look for other cures.
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