In the skin care world of exfoliants, you’ve got more than a few options to choose from based on what your skin needs. Salicylic Acid, an ingredient extracted from willow tree bark, wintergreen leaves or sweet birch bark, is one type of chemical exfoliant called a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA). Before explaining exactly how salicylic works, here’s a quick refresher on how breakouts form: when bacteria, debris, sebum, and dead skin cells mix together, a clog forms inside your pores. Unlike the chemical exfoliants called alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA’s), which are water-soluble and ideal for surface exfoliation, salicylic oil is oil-soluble, which makes it capable of cutting through oil and exfoliating deep within your pores to remove blockages. It works by increasing the amount of moisture in the skin and dissolving the substance that causes the skin cells to stick together. This makes it easier to shed skin cells.
There are several salicylic acid derivatives and related ingredients that exert a similar effect on the skin, and you may find these products listed on skin care ingredient lists as: Betaine Salicylate; Willow Bark extract; Salix Nigra Bark extract; Beta Hydroxybutanoic acid; Sodium Salicylate; Trethocanic Acid or Tropic acid.
Salicylic acid is a salicylate, meaning it belongs to the same ingredient family as aspirin. People with salicylate allergies (which are rare) should avoid salicylic acid.