BHA, Exfoliant for Oily and Acne-Prone Skin

by elmt Lab on Apr 21, 2023


What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a type of Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA) derived from the bark of the white willow tree. The name salicylic acid comes from the Latin name of the willow tree, Salix alba.

While BHAs come in many forms, salicylic acid is most widely used, and therefore commonly referred to as BHA. This ingredient is recommended as an exfoliating agent for oily and acne-prone skin, and highly effective in doing so. Let's take a look at how this ingredient works on the skin.

salicylic acid

How it Works

how salicylic acid work

Unlike water-soluble AHAs, BHAs are liposoluble, allowing them to penetrate into the sebaceous glands through the pores. Thanks to this, salicylic acid dissolves the sebum and dead skin cells trapped within pores, opening up clogged pores. With regular pore care using salicylic acid, you can prevent blackheads, whiteheads, and acne breakouts.

💡 Q: Does salicylic acid increase sensitivity to UV rays?
A: Yes, the use of salicylic acid can increase sensitivity to UV rays. Salicylic acid itself is not phototoxic, but in the process of dissolving dead skin, it can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, increasing the risk of sunburn and other types of skin damage. To prevent sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer, etc., it is essential to use sunscreen when using this ingredient.

As we mentioned above, salicylic acid is known to be particularly effective for oily and acne-prone skin. Let's take a look at its efficacy through research papers.

Acne Improvement

Salicylic acid is often used in conjunction with acne treatment in dermatological procedures. Chemical exfoliation through keratolytic agents not only improves the appearance of the skin, but also complements the effects of acne treatments. Specifically, salicylic acid helps remove dead skin cells to aid in the penetration of acne treatment ingredients, while reducing inflammation and inhibiting acne-causing bacteria.

The acne-improving effects of salicylic acid have been proven in various skin types, including Asian, African, and Hispanic skin.[1][2]

According to the following study, conducting peeling with LHA (salicylic acid derivative) every two weeks resulted in effectiveness in treating mild inflammatory acne and inflammatory folliculitis.[3]

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Sebum Control

Excessive sebum is one of the main causes of acne. Sebum secretion begins to increase in the mid to late childhood due to the influence of androgens, and continues to increase until the late teens. After that, it remains constant. Salicylic acid can reduce sebum and prevent acne.

In a study where 30% salicylic acid was used for peeling, it was observed that the average sebum levels of 15 subjects decreased by approximately 12%.[4]

How to use Salicylic Acid?

We’ve put together three tips below on how to safely and effectively use salicylic acid.

1. Start low and slow

If using salicylic acid for the first time, try starting with a product containing a low concentration of around 2%. This is especially the case if you have dry or sensitive skin, to whom we recommend using a product that falls within the range of 0.5-1%. After using it once or twice a week, slowly increase the frequency if there are no side effects or irritation. But, remember to note that you should not use this ingredient more than twice a day.

While it can be paired with other exfoliating ingredients such as retinol, AHA, etc., take caution as it can cause skin sensitivity. For more personalized guidance on how to use salicylic acid in your routine, we recommended consulting with a dermatologist or skincare professional.

2. Allergic to Aspirin? Avoid salicylic acid.

Did you know that salicylic acid is effective for pain relief and fever reduction? Aspirin, a household painkiller, contains salicylate. So, if you know that you’re allergic to aspirin, it’s best to avoid using BHA, as it may cause side effects and/ or trigger an allergic reaction.

3. Pair with soothing ingredients.

If your skin is sensitive or sensitized, you may experience irritation when using BHA. We recommend using products containing soothing ingredients like the following to reduce signs of irritation:

  • Centella Asiatica: Also commonly known as “cica”, this ingredient helps to quickly recover small wounds on the skin. Fast wound healing can help prevent inflammation and related irritation, making skin feel at ease.
  • Panthenol: Panthenol, one of the B vitamins, attracts moisture to the skin while forming a protective barrier to prevent skin moisture loss. It's also effective in soothing UV-induced irritation.
  • Aloe Vera: Aloe vera has excellent moisturizing abilities for the skin and can quickly soothe skin irritation with its anti-inflammatory effects.


[1] LEE, HO-SUP MD; KIM, IL-HWAN MD. Salicylic Acid Peels for the Treatment of Acne Vulgaris in Asian Patients. Dermatologic Surgery 29(12):p 1196-1199, December 2003.

[2] Grimes PE. The safety and efficacy of salicylic acid chemical peels in darker racial-ethnic groups. Dermatol Surg. 1999 Jan;25(1):18-22. doi: 10.1046/j.1524-4725.1999.08145.x. PMID: 9935087.

[3] Rendon MI, Berson DS, Cohen JL, Roberts WE, Starker I, Wang B. Evidence and considerations in the application of chemical peels in skin disorders and aesthetic resurfacing. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2010 Jul;3(7):32-43. PMID: 20725555; PMCID: PMC2921757.

[4] Agustina, R.; Raif, M.; Ginting, C. and Ikhtiari, R. (2021). Effect of Skin Sebum Levels before and after Chemical Peeling with 30% Salicylic Acid. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Health Informatics, Medical, Biological Engineering, and Pharmaceutical - HIMBEP, ISBN 978-989-758-500-5, SciTePress, pages 248-253. DOI: 10.5220/0010296502480253 


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