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If you’ve been looking for beauty products recently, chances are, you’ve noticed something. Salicylic acid. It’s in everything. From makeup to facial cleansers, it seems like every beauty line has a product containing it. You may have heard that salicylic acid is good for treating acne, but what is it really and is it good for it to be in everything?

Salicylic acid is what’s known as a Beta Hydroxy Acid. All that means is it’s a type of exfoliant for the skin. It’s similar to the type of anti-inflammatory found in aspirin, and in fact, both were originally extracted from willow bark. It’s also known to treat acne because it has a drying effect and has antibacterial effects.

But what really makes salicylic acid a popular acne treatment is that it breaks up cells that line the skin pore. It’s known as a keratolytic, meaning it loosens the keratin of the skin. This effect unclogs whiteheads and blackheads, while helping to get rid of old skin cells. It’s even used in heavy-duty peels through dermatologists because it can help reduce blackheads, dry up oil and lighten the dark scarring caused by acne. It’s also known to decrease inflammation.

So the big question: should you use salicylic acid and is it okay to use it in everything? The issue with salicylic acid is that it can be very drying. And on top of that, it works for blackheads and whiteheads, but not so much for larger pustules or cysts when it comes to acne. Larger, redder acne tends to be better helped by benzoyl peroxide-based products.

So, some questions you may want to consider are:

  • Do you struggle with acne, and if so, which type?
  • Do you have sensitive skin that is prone to irritation?
  • Do you have skin that is prone to being very dry?

If the answers to those questions were “blackheads/whiteheads,” “no” and “no,” you might want to give salicylic acid a shot. If you have sensitive and dry skin, know that there’s a chance that using it could mean flaming red skin that makes it look like you have a sunburn. Especially if you’re using the acid in cleansers, creams, masks and makeup.

Even if you’re prone to whiteheads and blackheads, and have very resilient skin, using salicylic acid will still take some experimentation. Start with lower doses if a skincare line allows, and let your skin adjust for a week or two before changing the routine. Also, start one salicylic acid product at a time. Then if one product doesn’t agree with you, you’ll know which product caused it.