Why Salicylic Acid is the Best Ingredient to Combat Breakouts

NIP+FAB Salicylic Acid Fix Night Pads

If you’ve ever researched skincare advice for breakout-prone skin, then you’re bound to have come across advice mentioning the ingredient salicylic acid. The popular skincare ingredient is used in cleansers, exfoliators, serums and even moisturisers, and is considered a Holy Grail ingredient by skincare professionals. But, what exactly is salicylic acid and how does it work? We’ve got the lowdown.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (also known as BHA), which is essentially an organic compound with anti-inflammatory properties. BHAs are oil-soluble, which means they can easily break through the skin cell’s lipid layers and penetrate the skin at a deeper level than water-soluble products. This makes them excellent exfoliators, and means they have the ability to slough away dead skin cells.

NIP+FAB NIP+FAB Salicylic Acid Fix range

Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring molecule derived from willow bark. The acid part of the molecule can break down the proteins holding skin cells together, allowing the product to exfoliate and remove impurities from the pores.

“Salicylic acid is found in different concentrations, with each concentration designed for a specific purpose,” explains Marisa Oosterhuis, Principal of BTI – Beauty Therapy Institute Brooklyn.


“At the highest concentrations, it can be used to treat warts and as a peeling agent, which can reduce the appearance of acne, melasma and dark spots,” Oosterhuis continues. “It is also used to treat other skin disorders such as dandruff, psoriasis, and seborrheic dermatitis. The exfoliation factor in salicylic acid encourages more rapid cell renewal which can help the skin maintain a youthful complexion. Studies have shown that cell renewal also leads to treating fine lines and wrinkles.”

How does salicylic acid benefit breakout-prone skin?

According to Oosterhuis “lower concentrations of salicylic acid can be used daily in cleansers and toners to help clear out the pores and regulate sebum (oil) production.”

Salicylic acid has the ability to penetrate deeply into the skin (go beyond the surface layer), which makes it a powerful breakout-fighter. Once it penetrates the skin, it dissolves the debris sitting in the skin’s pores as well as impurities on top of the skin, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Salicylic acid can penetrate so deeply into the skin that it can break down the “glue” (also known as desmosomes) between skin cells. This action promotes exfoliation and the unclogging of pores.

These abilities make salicylic acid the perfect ingredient to fight acne, blackheads and whiteheads. By unclogging pores it removes the dead skin cells, debris and oil that leads to the formation of breakouts. No clogged pores equals no blackheads and fewer breakouts. Salicylic acid also reduces the skin’s natural oil production, which is essential to control breakouts as an over-production of oil is a leading cause of acne.


Salicylic acid is a powerful exfoliant. It sloughs off dead and dry skin cells on the top layer of the skin which fights breakouts as it doesn’t allow pores to become clogged. This exfoliating action also leaves the complexion looking more radiant and allows products to penetrate deeper into the skin, thus performing better.

Who can use salicylic acid?

In general, salicylic acid is safe to use on all skin types. It is very effective for breakout-prone skin but can also be used for its exfoliating properties on skins that are not prone to breakouts.

If you’re new to salicylic acid, then it’s best to ease it into your regime by using it a couple of times per week, slowly working your way up to every day. Don’t be alarmed if you experience slight tingling upon the first application — this is normal and your skin will get accustomed to this new ingredient before you know it.

Creightons Salicylic Acid serum
Creightons Salicylic Acid range.

“Salicylic acid is considered safe overall,” Oosterhuis explains. “But, it is common for it to cause skin irritations when first used. That is why it is recommended to start with lower concentrations less often, building up your tolerance to where you can use a higher concentration more often.”

Salicylic acid is most effective in the fight against blackheads and whiteheads. If you have cystic acne, it’s best to visit a medical professional who can diagnose the root of the problem and advise suitable treatment, as it may be caused by hormonal factors or P.acnes bacteria.

Products to try

The good news is that you can purchase salicylic acid skincare products over the counter, without a referral from a dermatologist.

NIP+FAB NIP+FAB Salicylic Acid Fix range
NIP+FAB NIP+FAB Salicylic Acid Fix range.


A salicylic acid cleanser is vital when you’re trying to combat breakouts. The Creightons Salicylic Acid Clay Cleanser (R79.95 at Dis-Chem) combines kaolin clay with salicylic and lactic acids to help absorb excess oil and maintain healthier, clearer looking skin every day. It has a clay texture which also helps manage excess oil production. It’s a great option if you’re looking for a more affordable product that offers real results.

If you prefer a gel texture, then try the NIP+FAB Salicylic Fix Cleanser (R219.95 at Dis-Chem). It gently cleanses and purifies the skin with salicylic acid to lift away dirt and impurities and allantoin to provide a moisture barrier and lock in hydration.

NIP+FAB Salicylic Acid Fix Night Pads


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Sunstar Gum interdental brushes

For a great granular exfoliator, try the NIP+FAB Salicylic Fix Scrub (R219.95 at Dis-Chem). It contains salicylic acid to chemically exfoliate the skin and volcanic rock scrub to physically exfoliate, plus it is infused with lotus flower and vitamin E to avoid stripping the skin.

Those who prefer a chemical exfoliator will love NIP+FAB Salicylic Acid Fix Night Pads (R349.95 at Dis-Chem). Simply wipe one pad across your skin two or three nights a week to reduce breakouts and speed up the recovery time of existing breakouts.

ACleo Spot Control


For those moments when you have an existing blemish you want to treat, apply a spot treatment, like ACleo Spot Control (R69.99 at Clicks) directly over the blemish. The easy-to-use topical spot treatment gel forms part of a new range of products by Lamelle Pharmaceuticals. It contains anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial actives, plus pore-exfoliating salicylic acid for clearer skin in a jiffy. It can be applied directly to spots multiple times a day and, because it’s a lightweight clear gel, nobody has to know you’re wearing it. Love that!

If you’re looking to bring in the big guns, then reach for Lamelle Skin Essence Clear (R450 Dermastore). This priming liquid focuses on the management of problematic, acne-prone skin with probiotic lysates that help balance the fragile skin microbiome. Combined with ingredients that assist in desquamation, control inflammation, and also rebuild an impaired lipid bi-layer this essence is an ideal adjunctive treatment for problematic skins. Alpha Hydroxy Acids and Salicylic Acid gently exfoliate the epidermis and pores, keeping them clean and clear while smoothing the skin’s texture, and improving radiance.

Lamelle Skin Essence Clear
Lamelle Skin Essence Clear.


A salicylic acid serum and moisturiser duo are the final steps in your breakout-busting routine. Creightons Salicylic Acid Face Serum (R109.95 at Dis-Chem) is formulated with 2% salicylic acid to help reduce the appearance of blackheads, blemishes and pores for a clearer, more radiant complexion.

Follow with an acne-busting moisturiser, like Lamelle Clarity Corrective AM (R670 Dermastore). This easy-to-apply day cream packs all the punch of an everyday pimple hero — made with all the most technologically advanced pimple treatments that’ll work to give you clear skin and keep it that way.

Lamelle Clarity Corrective AM

Final thoughts

Whether you regularly battle blackheads and whiteheads, or you’re just prone to the occasional breakout, salicylic acid is a fantastic ingredient to exfoliate, remove dead skin cells and leave skin clear and healthy.

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