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Buying guide for Best salicylic acid face washes

Whether you’re fighting chronic acne or the occasional breakout, a salicylic acid face wash is worth having in your cabinet. Salicylic acid is an anti-inflammatory that reduces redness, exfoliates the skin, and cleanses the pores. Because of its benefits, salicylic acid is a common ingredient in acne-treating face washes.

This leaves you with a big range of products to choose from. Before you add one to your cart and check out, there are some factors to consider. If you have sensitive skin, seek a product with very low salicylic acid levels. You’ll also want to think about the type of acne you’re treating, the scent of the product, and whether it’s a foaming or gel cleanser.

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You might have come across crushed aspirin as a popular home remedy for acne. There’s a good reason: salicylic acid has the same anti-inflammatory properties.

Key considerations

Understanding salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA), meaning that the “hydroxy” of the atom is separate from the acid part with two carbon atoms rather than one. This renders salicylic acid more soluble, allowing it to penetrate your pores. Once it gets into your skin, salicylic acid dissolves pore-clogging debris while soothing inflamed pimples. Salicylic acid can also loosen the top layer of skin cells, further dissolving acne.

Because of salicylic acid’s excellent pore unclogging properties, it’s most effective for treating whiteheads and blackheads. Its antibacterial properties can soothe the redness and inflammation found in cystic pimples, too.  

Since salicylic acid face washes come in a variety of forms, application methods vary. In general, dab a small amount of product onto the fingers of one hand. With the other hand, rub the product together and then apply it to your face. Rub your face in circular motions, taking care to avoid the delicate skin underneath your eyes. After 30 seconds, rinse off the product with water. 

Type of cleanser

The majority of popular face washes fall into the gel or foam cleanser category. As the name suggests, gel cleansers have a gel-like consistency and are formulated for deep cleansing. If you struggle with clogged pores and oily skin, gel cleansers are perfect. They often include exfoliating beads or extra antiseptics.

Foaming cleansers are much more lightweight. In their container, they may be in gel or cream form, then come out through the applicator as foam. Foaming cleansers are effective at removing oil, but much gentler on the face. Foam cleansers aren’t strong exfoliators but do the trick if you have sensitive skin. They’re also helpful for removing makeup.

Cream cleansers have a thicker, lotion-like consistency. Sometimes they’re called milk cleansers. They often contain extra moisturizing ingredients, like animal milk or honey. Cream cleansers moisturize your skin while removing dirt but don’t provide intense exfoliation. These are great for those with sensitive, dry, or aging skin. 

Makeup removal

Foam and cream salicylic acid face washes lend themselves to easy makeup removal. Regular makeup wearers should keep an eye out for foam washes in particular, as they sometimes include extra moisturizing qualities. However, to be sure all your makeup comes off your face, you might want to keep your makeup removal and cleansing routines separate.

Type of acne

Salicylic acid is especially effective for those plagued with whiteheads and blackheads. Whiteheads and blackheads are a result of pores clogged with oil, dirt, or bacteria. An open clogged pore remains white, while exposure to oxygen turns it into a blackhead. Salicylic acid doesn’t only unclog pores, it keeps pores from clogging altogether, preventing new acne outbreaks. Because cystic acne often has underlying hormonal and genetic causes, topical treatments such as salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide don’t always work.

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Did you know?
Salicylic acid is a natural exfoliator, which means it’s a solid alternative to face scrub if you find face scrub to be too harsh. If you want the extra exfoliation, look for a salicylic acid scrub with sugar, salt, or other exfoliators.



Salicylic acid face washes range from mild to fruity in scent. The best face washes derive their scent from natural ingredients such as herbs, essential oils, or fruit extracts. Regardless, consider sticking with an unscented face wash if your skin is sensitive. A face wash with a higher percentage of salicylic acid can take on a medicinal odor. Often, these are prescription strength and are not available over the counter. 


For face washes, application method depends on the texture and consistency of the product. Foaming cleansers nearly always include a plastic top that when pressed, dispenses a dollop of rich foam. Gel cleansers typically come in tubes with a snap-top cap that flips over. Some are in plastic bottles with disc-top caps. Consider the application method if you plan to travel with the salicylic acid face wash or use it somewhere slippery like in the shower. 

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Expert Tip
Salicylic acid’s magic isn’t limited to acne — it also makes a great dandruff, psoriasis, and corn treatment. Just be sure you get salicylic acid products that specifically treat those conditions.

Salicylic acid face wash prices

Skin care products in general vary in quality and ingredients, and salicylic acid face wash is no exception, ranging anywhere from $6 to $75 dollars. Price is largely dependent on ingredients, the type of cleanser, and the manufacturer.

Inexpensive: You can find a perfectly suitable face wash for under $15. These salicylic acid face washes are familiar drug store brands. Frills like herbal ingredients may be lacking, though some may include a fruity scent. If you simply need to get the job done, look no further.

Mid-range: $15 to $30 is where you encounter more specialized products. Some face washes in this price range are packaged as a serum and cleanser in one. They can include tea tree oil, jojoba oil, or even charcoal. Other salicylic acid face washes are more explicit in targeting acne, including other ingredients that support the skin sloughing process.

Expensive: With any salicylic acid face wash above $30, you're likely paying for name brand recognition. Higher-end brands may include alpha hydroxy acids as well. 

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For optimal results, pair your skin care routine with lots of water consumption, a clean diet, and good sleep.


  • Avoid salicylic acid on open wounds and irritated, damaged, or infected skin. Also avoid it if you’re already using benzoyl peroxide, retinol, or other acne treatments.

  • Remember to do an allergy test on a patch of skin before committing to a full treatment.

  • Do you have dark spots? Salicylic acid can help with those. Salicylic acid is keratolytic, meaning it breaks down keratin in the skin, thus lightening spots. In this case, you may want to try a good spot treatment instead of a face wash. 

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With any new skincare product, patience is a must. If it’s working, you can expect noticeable results in two weeks.


Q. What’s the difference between salicylic acid face wash and benzoyl peroxide face wash?
A. While salicylic acid is best at exfoliating and unclogging pores, benzoyl peroxide’s power lies in its antibacterial properties. Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria quickly and can show results in a matter of days. It can also cause redness and peeling if used excessively. Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are effective acne treatments.

Q. Can I use salicylic acid face wash every day?
A. If mild (2% or under) then yes, salicylic acid face wash is safe for daily use. 

Q. How much salicylic acid is in face wash?
A. Over-the-counter salicylic acid typically has 0.5 to 2% salicylic acid. Anything stronger is likely prescription strength.

Q. Does salicylic acid face wash have any side effects?
A. Salicylic acid may cause mild stinging and skin irritation, which is why it’s best used in moderation. 

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