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What is Salicylic Acid Cleanser?

By Bethany Keene
Updated: May 17, 2024

Salicylic acid cleanser is a type of cleansing agent used on the body and face to treat acne. This type of cleanser contains the beta hydroxy acid known as salicylic acid, which works by exfoliating pores and encouraging the faster shedding of dead skin cells. When dead skin cells build up, they can clog the pores and cause breakouts. Salicylic acid cleanser is also effective at breaking down and removing blackheads. It is necessary to use this product on a continual basis in order to get the full benefits.

Because salicylic acid is so effective at causing dead skin cells to slough off, it is also used in treatments for dandruff and warts. Salicylic acid cleanser, however, is only intended for washing the skin. There are different cleansers designed for the body and the face, and it is generally a good idea to use the cleanser only for its intended purpose; cleansers intended for the body may be too harsh and drying on the more delicate skin of the face.

Salicylic acid cleanser may be found in many different forms, including gels, creams, pads, and toners, among others. The amount of salicylic acid found in the cleansers may range from about .5% to 2%; as the percentage increases, so does the strength of the product. As with any acne product, follow the directions on the bottle for usage, but most salicylic acid cleansers may be used once or twice per day. It is a good idea to only use one product containing salicylic acid at a time; i.e., if using a salicylic acid cleanser, do not then follow up with a salicylic acid toner and moisturizer.

Salicylic acid cleanser can cause dryness, skin irritation, redness, and peeling, along with a slight stinging and burning sensation upon application. If side effects persist, it may help to cut back the use of a cleanser containing salicylic acid to once a day, or every other day. Switching to a product with a lower percentage of salicylic acid may also help. Using an oil-free moisturizer will keep the skin from flaking, and sunscreen should always be worn when going outside. An alternative to salicylic acid is benzoyl peroxide, another common ingredient found in acne cleansers.

If acne is persistent or painful, salicylic acid cleanser may not be enough to improve it. A dermatologist may be able to prescribe an acne treatment with a higher concentration of salicylic acid, or another more effective prescription medication. At that time, it is important to stop using other cleansers containing the acid, and to carefully follow the directions of the doctor.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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