Home Skincare Does Salicylic Acid Make Acne Worse Before It Gets Better?

Does Salicylic Acid Make Acne Worse Before It Gets Better?

by Gabbi

We all strive to have clear, even skin, but this is often a long process of trial and error.

Finding the right combination of products that work for your skin type, address your specific needs, and have ingredients that work well with one another takes time, and not everyone has the money to drop on frequent dermatologist appointments.

Addressing acne-prone skin specifically comes with its own set of needs, and certain ingredients that work quickly and effectively to combat the issue.

Salicylic acid is a popular ingredient for targeting acne and is known to give proven results of reduced breakouts and clearer skin. However, as with any treatment that is meant to purge, the skin it is applied to can sometimes be more prone to breakouts in the beginning.

So, does salicylic acid make acne worse before it gets better? Often times, the skin begins to purge itself due to deep cleansing from salicylic acid. Through intense exfoliation that rids the skin of excess oil and dead skin cells, introducing a new salicylic acid product into your routine might trigger some new spots to occur.

While it is common for skin purging to happen with salicylic acid in particular, it does not mean it will always happen or that everyone will experience it. If you do, once the initial purge is over, you will be left with smooth, clear skin.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is an ingredient that is often used to treat acne breakouts due to its exfoliating nature. It is an ingredient that is derived from willow bark. Salicylic acid is a form of a beta-hydroxy acid that works to deeply cleanse the skin and unclog blocked pores.

Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) are important in the skincare world due to their oil-soluble nature. They are the counterpart to alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) which work to topically even out the texture and appearance of the skin.

BHAs are able to penetrate deeper layers of the skin, purging from the inside out, which is why salicylic acid is an ideal ingredient for acne-prone skin.

Types Of Products That Use Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid can be both an over-the-counter treatment (like this exfoliant from Paula’s Choice), as well as prescribed in medical doses. The amount of salicylic acid present in a product will determine if it is an over-the-counter item or needs to be prescribed.

Most often, high levels of salicylic acid are found in certain chemical peels and treatments that are performed by trained professionals.

Lower levels of salicylic acid are found in over-the-counter products like cleansers and exfoliators for all over treatment. If you want to target a specific area, spot treatment gels are also products that are formulated with salicylic acid.

Most cleansers, exfoliators, and other topical treatments available in stores contain anywhere between .5% and 2% salicylic acid.

How Does Salicylic Acid Treat Acne? 

Because salicylic acid is a type of BHA, it can absorb and penetrate deeply into the skin to begin the purging process.

Salicylic acid breaks down the bonds formed between dead skin cells that is often the cause of clogged pores. Once those bonded dead skin cells are broken down, they can be released or passed through the pores more easily.

Salicylic acid products are used to treat acne-prone skin that struggles with pimples, whiteheads, and blackheads, which are often caused by blocked or clogged pores.

Specifically, blackheads are created by trapped dead skin cell bonds that are “stuck” in open or enlarged pores; whiteheads are caused by the same dead skin cell bonds, but are trapped under the surface in a closed pore.

Salicylic acid also works to break down the oil production of the skin, so you will often see less oil produced while using salicylic acid products which can result in less breakouts. However, based on your skin type, if used too frequently or in excess, you can experience skin dryness.

Does Salicylic Acid Bring Pimples To The Surface?

When using a salicylic acid-based product that is a form of chemical exfoliant, you might notice that your skin begins to experience some purging, resulting in more breakouts or pimples.

Essentially, the product is encouraging the cell turnover process, which your skin is reacting to. Salicylic acid is an ingredient that is known to cause a skin purging, along with other acids and retinoid products.

Through the breakdown of dead skin cells and exfoliating away the top layer of skin, the blockages causing the clogged pores are more easily able to pass through and the cell turnover rate is sped up.

Your skin is responding to the increased cell turnover, which is when you might see pimples, or other acne-related signs, appear on your skin.

Typically, if you are experiencing a skin purge, the acne spots that appear are most likely breakouts that were existing below the surface anyway.

With the cell turnover process being sped up, the breakouts will come to the surface faster than they would normally. A skin purge is not creating new breakouts, rather bringing the ones that were going to show up in a few weeks time to the surface early.

Even though salicylic acid is one of the ingredients that is known to result in skin purging-related breakouts, it does not happen to everyone, nor all the time.

How your skin responds individually to the ingredient, along with your unique skin type, will determine if you experience purging when introducing the new product to your routine.

The Difference Between A Purge And A Breakout

While new acne spots can occur when introducing a new product to your routine, it can also be confused with an actual breakout. Skin purges happen when initially introducing the product into your routine, but give it a few weeks to determine if the product is working for you properly to see results.

Skin purges and breakouts differ mostly in when they occur and their duration. While a breakout can happen at the same time you begin to use a new product, as mentioned above, skin purging typically only happens when the skin is adjusting to the new ingredient.

Acne spots resulting from a skin purge will last a shorter amount of time than a regular breakout, due to the increase cell turnover process, while standard breakouts can linger longer.

Along with a shorter duration, skin purge-related breakouts will generally occur where you have already existing breakouts.

Because the breakout is generally developing under the surface, the salicylic acid is encouraging the breakout to appear sooner. If you are finding that acne spots are occurring in newer areas, it will most likely be a regular breakout.

For skin purging breakouts, it is best to not irritate them and let them have their cycle on the skin. As with any type of breakout, you do not want to pick at them or try to pop them. While skin purging breakouts should not last as long as regular breakouts, they can last up to three weeks.

If you are experiencing regular breakouts and they are persistent after the general “purge period” closes, it is best to discontinue use of the product causing the breakout and stick to what you know works best for your skin.

As with any breakouts, you want to make sure you are maintaining your skin’s moisture and keeping it hydrated.

Although breakouts related to skin purging can be irritating, it shows that the product is working for your skin and your skin is responding properly to it, and you are hopefully on your way to blemish-free skin.

When Will You See Results?

Depending on the type of product you are using and your individual concerns, the results can vary. If you are using an acne spot treatment gel applied to a specific breakout before bed, you can see a diminished or dried out breakout in the morning.

If you are using an all-over facial cleanser a few times a week, or even daily, you can begin to see results by the end of the week or sooner.

If you aren’t noticing results, or if you are experiencing breakouts that are not related to a skin purge, it could be that salicylic acid is not the right ingredient to treat acne for your skin type.

It also could be that it isn’t working properly with other products in your skincare routine, and would work best when paired with other ingredients.

So, if you’re ready to see results but don’t know how to properly apply salicylic acid on your face, here’s a great tutorial from Melissa Van Dijk on YouTube.


Overall, while skin purging can happen when switching to a salicylic acid product, it should not deter you away from trying items formulated with it to target and treat acne-prone areas.

If you struggle with ridding your skin of blackheads, whiteheads, or other pimples, finding the right type of salicylic acid product could be what is missing from your skincare routine. From cleansers to spot treatments, there are a wide array of salicylic acid-based items that are waiting to make their way into your routine.

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