10 best salicylic acids that help tackle acne and oily skin

Every skincare ingredient has received its fair share of hype, but salicylic acid more than deserves it. A clinically proven warrior in the face of acne, this is a BHA worthy of its reputation.

Whether it’s compounded in a cleanser or serum, its power lies in its exfoliating properties. Salicylic acid is oil soluble, so it can easily penetrate your skin, unclog pores and reduce sebum production – the dream combination for acne sufferers or those with oily skin.

At the same time, salicylic acid has a relatively large molecule size so it isn’t as irritable as some other acids. This makes it ideals for sensitive complexions, as well as being an ideal accompaniment for AHAs. If you do happen to find it too drying, it also works well with ceramides and hyaluronic acid.

As a persistent acne sufferer, we’ve tried salicylic in various forms for years and spent months narrowing down our top picks.

No matter what their form, we have strict criteria for our salicylic favourites – while we love anything that reduces oiliness, we don’t want to veer to the other extreme and suffer extreme dryness or peeling. Nothing should be so potent that it creates a whole new kind of suffering.

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Assessing each choice on its ability to clear up blemishes, reduce sebum production and even out the texture of our skin, here are our top picks.

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CeraVe SA smoothing cleanser One of our favourite skincare products of all time, this cleanser is formulated with salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid and three ceramides to gently exfoliate your skin. It has a gel-like consistency, so massages easily into damp skin. While it does a good job of removing stubborn makeup in the process, we preferred to use it as a second cleanse in the evening. CeraVe gives its smoothing abilities first billing, but where it really changed our life was with our acne. While we do still get the odd spot here or there, this made the biggest dent in our spots of any other product we tried. It also smoothed out rough skin on our nose and if you’ve ever suffered from keratosis pilaris on your arms, it offers a quick and easy fix to that irritating texture. A lot of salicylic products are drying if used on the entire face, but this has never left us looking anything but glowing and hydrated. It also leaves your moisture barrier intact. And if we haven’t sung its praises enough, it’s budget-friendly and lasts a shockingly long time (our bottle’s been on the go for four months). {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Corsrx salicylic acid daily gentle cleanser This cleanser was definitely formulated with oily complexions in mind. While the salicylic acid exfoliates your pores and dead skin cells, it also contains tea tree oil, which controls sebum production and helps prevent blackheads and whiteheads. We originally used this as our morning cleanse, but then made it our second cleanse in the evening. It can be quite drying – even on our tester’s exceptionally oily complexion – but this was easier to work around in the evening when we used a heavier moisturiser. Despite this, it did an impressive job of keeping blemishes at bay across our jawline, and stopped us getting our dreaded midday T-zone shine. It also smoothed out texture and left our face feeling squeaky clean after every wash. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Dr Dennis Gross breakout clearing gel First thing’s first – this is a spot treatment, and definitely not something you should apply across your entire face unless you want to experience some pretty severe peeling. Salicylic acid is the main attraction here, but it also contains glycolic and phytic acids, as well as niacinamide. Applied either once or twice per day to active blemishes, this works to reduce inflammation and accelerate the healing process. We used it on a particularly angry maskne spot on our cheek. It calmed down literally overnight, and dried up faster than usual. We also seemed to experience far less pigmentation afterwards. The formula itself dries really quickly, and a little goes a long way. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Nip+Fab salicylic fix tonic Nip+Fab has a whole salicylic fix range, but this is our highlight. One of the most potent products on this list, this pairs salicylic acid with lotus flower extracts to unclog your pores and battle excessive oiliness. It works like any toner, applied via a saturated cotton pad a few times a week. As it’s an acid toner, you may want to ease into this. It did exactly what it wanted it to – it kept our skin clear, and made a big difference to the appearance of our pores on our nose. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Tata Harper resurfacing serum So many serums fail to deliver on their promises. Thankfully this isn’t one of them. As well as salicylic acid, it contains lactic, glycolic, citric, malic, and tartaric acids, all of which come together to create an instant glow and, with long term use, soften your skin. We were impressed with this from the get go. You can really see the impact of the exfoliation – we received multiple compliments on our make-up free glow, and when we did wear foundation it seemed to sit better on our face. While it’s definitely an investment, few products offer greater instant gratification, or smell quite as good. However, it doesn’t offer the same acne-busting properties as some other salicylic products. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Murad outsmart blemish clarifying treatment You can always rely on Murad for effective, science-led skincare. In this case five different acids – led by salicylic, of course – have been carefully put together to help clear skin and reduce breakouts. You use it just like any other serum – post-cleansing but before moisturiser – and it sinks into skin nicely without any sticky residue. It took us a week or so to start seeing results, but they were worth the wait. Our spots gradually faded away and weren’t replaced with the usual next wave of blemishes, and some even seemed to skip the awkward hyperpigmentation stage entirely. There was no uncomfortable tight sensation after use, and we experienced no dryness or peeling. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Kate Somerville EradiKate salicylic acid Designed exclusively for nighttime use, this is intended to smooth and calm down irritated skin. Along with two per cent salicylic acid, it uses retinyl propionate – a form of retinol – to unclog any blocked pores and reduce acne. We used this nightly after cleansing and did experience some purging at first. However, this was brief and soon cleared up to great effect – any remaining blemishes shrunk in size, and inflammation was kept to the bare minimum. While we mostly used it as a spot treatment, it worked well across the entire face without peeling or excessive dryness. A thin layer a few times a week is more than enough to lessen the severity of breakouts. Our only critique is that it does have a strong chemical scent. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Paula’s Choice skin perfecting 2% BHA liquid exfoliant If you’ve spent any time on TikTok, odds are you’ve witnessed the cult dedication to this product. Everyone seems to applaud its ability to clear up acne and congestion, so we were keen to give it a try. Used like a toner – we rubbed a saturated pad across our entire face twice a week, gradually increasing the frequency – we did see a major improvement in brightness and the appearance of our pores. To begin with we did get some dryness around the nose and lips, but this subsided after two weeks. Once we’d acclimatised to the formula, breakouts lessened in severity. It’s important to ease into use though – we were too eager at first, and damaged our skin barrier. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Origins super spot remover blemish treatment gel Small but mighty, this gel dabs over blemishes to clear up inflammation and hyperpigmentation. It’s very lightweight and dries quickly, and you only need a small amount as it leaves a slight film if you use too much. Large blemishes dry up overnight, in turn helping the healing process, and there’s no burning or irritation. We also noticed a reduction in the number of blemishes that resurface in the long run. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}} Revolution Skincare 1% salicylic + marshmallow extract Marshmallows are more than a delicious snack. This serum combines marshmallow extract with salicylic acid to simultaneously exfoliate clogged pores and moisturise your complexion. The former saw the greatest transformation; we’d had some dark, clogged pores for several weeks, but just four days of using this as a nightly serum improved the appearance of the pores on our nose. It sat well beneath the rest of our skincare routine with no stickiness, and also helped balance out the moisture levels in our T-zone. A solid all-rounder. {{#hasItems}} Price comparison {{/hasItems}} {{#items}} {{ merchant }} £{{ price }} Buy now {{/items}} {{#hasItems}} {{/hasItems}}

The verdict: Salicylic acid We’re lifelong converts to the CeraVe SA smoothing cleanser, which has radically improved the appearance and texture of our skin. However, if you’re looking to spot treat individual blemishes, you can’t go wrong with the Dr Dennis Gross breakout clearing gel. The Tata Harper resurfacing serum is also unbeatable for an overall glow. Voucher codes For discounts on beauty and offers on skincare, try the links below: Feel Unique discount codes Lookfantastic discount codes Hydrate skin and enjoy a healthy glow with the best rosehip oils, tried and tested

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