Salicylic acid (a beta hydroxy acid, or BHA) is one of the best chemical exfoliators for those with acne-prone skin that want to treat current breakouts and keep acne at bay. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best salicylic acid exfoliants. 

Our Recommendations

1. Advanced Pore-Refining Treatment 4% BHA

Paula’s Choice Advanced Pore-Refining Treatment 4% BHA

Paula's Choice Exfoliant for Exfoliation, Large Pores, and Acne

Paula’s Choice Advanced Pore-Refining Treatment 4% BHA

This exfoliant contains a powerful concentration of salicylic acid, which works to unclog pores to minimize their appearance while also fighting breakouts.

Skin types: Normal, Oily and Combination
Best for: Exfoliation, Large Pores, and Acne
Tested on animals: No
How to use: After cleansing, massage the exfoliant into the skin. Follow up with a moisturizer.
See on Amazon

The 4% concentration of salicylic acid (which is higher than the cult-favorite Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant) helps to unclog pores and promote a more even skin texture and tone. This makes this an excellent exfoliant for those dealing with large pores and breakouts and wanting to improve the overall appearance of the skin.

Pros

  • Fragrance-free
  • Non-greasy
  • Lightweight

Cons

  • May irritate sensitive skin

This exfoliant contains additional antioxidant-rich ingredients that protect the skin and fight signs of aging, as well as soothing and hydrating ingredients. This includes glycerin, allantoin, grape seed extract, green tea leaf extract, and matricaria flower extract.

Water (Aqua), Butylene Glycol, Dimethicone, Salicylic Acid, Hydroxyethyl Acrylate/Sodium Acryloyldimethyl Taurate Copolymer, Glycerin, Aminomethyl Propanol, Adenosine, Allantoin, Dipotassium Glycyrrhizinate, Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract, Avena Sativa (Oat) Bran Extract, Punica Granatum Fruit Extract, Sambucus Nigra Fruit Extract, Camellia Oleifera (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Camellia Sinensis (Green Tea) Leaf Extract, Chamomilla Recutita (Matricaria) Flower Extract, Lycium Barbarum Fruit Extract, Peucedanum Graveolens (Dill) Extract, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Xanthan Gum, Citric Acid, Disodium EDTA, Benzyl Alcohol, Phenoxyethanol

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. "Over-the-counter Acne Treatments"

    Accessed Aug. 27, 2021.

2. Acne Medication Pads

Stridex Daily Care Acne Medication Pads Maximum Strength

Stridex Exfoliant for Acne and Blackheads

Stridex Daily Care Acne Medication Pads Maximum Strength

These cleansing pads use the power of salicylic acid to help treat and prevent breakouts.

Skin types: All Skin Types
Best for: Acne and Blackheads
Tested on animals: Yes
How to use: Cleanse and dry the skin, and then sweep a pad across the entire face. Follow up with a moisturizer.
See on Amazon

These pads are soaked with a 2% concentration of salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid (or BHA). Salicylic acid is an incredibly effective chemical exfoliator that unclogs pores to help treat current breakouts and prevent new acne from forming.

Pros

  • Lightweight solution
  • Exfoliating

Cons

  • Contains fragrance

These alcohol-free pads are textured, which increases the product’s ability to sweep away debris and exfoliate the skin.

Salicylic Acid, Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate, Ammonium Xylenesulfonate, Citric Acid, DMDM Hydantoin, Fragrance, Menthol, PPG-5-Ceteth-20, Purified Water, Simethicone, Sodium Borate, Tetrasodium EDTA.

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. "Over-the-counter Acne Treatments"

    Accessed Aug. 27, 2021.

3. 25% AHA + 2% BHA Exfoliant Peel

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 25% AHA + 2% BHA Exfoliant Peel

Paula's Choice Exfoliant for Evening Tone and Texture

Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 25% AHA + 2% BHA Exfoliant Peel

This peel contains a high concentration of chemical exfoliators, which work to resurface the skin and unclog pores to smooth fine lines and wrinkles and achieve a more even complexion.

Skin types: Normal, Oily, Dry and Combination
Best for: Evening Tone and Texture
Tested on animals: No
How to use: After cleansing, apply the peel over dry skin. Leave on for ten minutes, and then rinse with lukewarm water. Use no more than once per week.
See on Amazon

This peel contains an effective blend of chemical exfoliators that work to achieve a smoother and more even skin tone and texture. The AHAs (glycolic acid, lactic acid, mandelic acid, malic acid, and tartaric acid) help minimize fine lines and wrinkles, smooth texture, and diminish hyperpigmentation, while the BHA (salicylic acid) unclogs pores.

Pros

  • Fragrance-free
  • Exfoliating

Cons

  • May irritate sensitive skin

Since the chemical exfoliators can be irritating, this peel contains soothing ingredients, including chamomile, licorice extract, and allantoin. This peel is potent, and you should patch test prior to using (particularly if you’re new to acids).

Water (Aqua), Aminomethyl Propanol (pH adjuster), Glycolic Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Lactic Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Mandelic Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Isoamyl Laurate (emollient), Tartaric Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Propanediol (hydration), Salicylic Acid (beta hydroxy acid/exfoliant,) Malic Acid (alpha hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Butylene Glycol (texture enhancer), Clitoria Ternatea (Butterfly Pea) Flower Extract (antioxidant/skin-soothing), Sodium Hyaluronate (skin replenishing), Glycyrrhetinic Acid (licorice-derived skin soothing), Glycerin (skin-replenishing), Tocopherol (vitamin E/antioxidant), Bisabolol (skin soothing), Allantoin (skin soothing), Hydroxyethylcellulose (thickener), Hydrogenated Lecithin (skin-restoring), Xanthan Gum (thickener), Polyglyceryl-4 Laurate (emulsifier), Polyacrylate Crosspolymer-6 (stabilizer/thickener), Titanium Dioxide (Cl 77891) (mineral-derived pigment), Mica (CI 77019) (mineral-derived pigment), Phenoxyethanol (preservative).

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. "An antiaging skin care system containing alpha hydroxy acids and vitamins improves the biomechanical parameters of facial skin"

    Accessed Aug. 2, 2021.
  2. National Center for Biotechnology Information. "Over-the-counter Acne Treatments"

    Accessed Aug. 2, 2021.

4. Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution

Paula's Choice Clear Regular Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution With 2% Salicylic Acid

Paula's Choice Exfoliant for Acne, Blackheads, Hyperpigmentation and Redness

Paula's Choice Clear Regular Strength Anti-Redness Exfoliating Solution With 2% Salicylic Acid

This gentle exfoliating product is ideal for skin prone to breakouts, as it unclogs pores to minimize blemishes while soothing the skin to decrease redness.

Skin types: All Skin Types
Best for: Acne, Blackheads, Hyperpigmentation and Redness
Tested on animals: No
How to use: After cleansing, soak a cotton pad with the product and swipe all over the face. Follow up with a moisturizer.
See on Amazon

This product contains a 2% concentration of salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid that is able to work deep in the pores to unclog and treat breakouts (and prevent new blemishes from forming). It also helps minimize the appearance of pores, and will work to diminish the appearance of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation from previous blemishes. This concentration is high enough to be effective on acne-prone skin, but still gentle as to reduce the risk of irritation.

Pros

  • Fragrance-free
  • Lightweight
  • Non-greasy

Cons

  • May irritate sensitive skin

Additional hydrating and soothing ingredients are paired with the salicylic acid to minimize irritation and reduce redness. This includes glycerin, hyaluronic acid, allantoin, and panthenol.

Salicylic Acid 2%, Water (Aqua), Dipropylene Glycol (hydration), Pentylene Glycol (hydration), Polysorbate 20 (stabilizer), Butylene Glycol (hydration), Glycerin (skin replenishing), Sodium Hyaluronate (hydration/skin replenishing), Dipotassium Glycyrrhizate (skin-soothing), Allantoin (skin-soothing), Panthenol (hydration), PEG/PPG-17/6 Copolymer (texture-enhancing), Methyl Gluceth-20 (hydration), Glycereth-26 (texture-enhancing), Bis-PEG-18 Methyl Ether Dimethyl Silane (hydration), Sodium Hydroxide (pH adjuster), Tetrasodium EDTA (stabilizer), Sodium Metabisulfite (stabilizer).

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. "Over-the-counter Acne Treatments A Review"

    Accessed Aug. 31, 2021.

5. 2% BHA Exfoliant

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ExfoliantCult favorite

Paula's Choice Exfoliant for Gently Exfoliating and Preventing Breakouts

Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant

This cult-favorite product contains salicylic acid, a chemical exfoliator that gently exfoliates dead skin cells and unclogs pores for a clear complexion.

Skin types: All Skin Types
Best for: Gently Exfoliating and Preventing Breakouts
Tested on animals: No
How to use: After cleansing, soak a cotton pad with the product and swipe all over the face. Follow up with a moisturizer.
See on Amazon

This is a best seller at Paula’s Choice, and for a good reason. Salicylic acid (a beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA) is an excellent chemical exfoliator that sheds excess skin cells and decongests pores to fight acne and blackheads and promote a more even skin tone.

Pros

  • Fragrance-free
  • Lightweight
  • Non-greasy

Cons

  • May irritate more sensitive skin types

This product also contains green tea, which soothes irritation and provides anti-aging benefits.

Water (Aqua), Methylpropanediol (hydration), Butylene Glycol (hydration), Salicylic Acid (beta hydroxy acid/exfoliant), Polysorbate 20 (stabilizer), Camellia Oleifera Leaf Extract (green tea/skin calming/antioxidant), Sodium Hydroxide (pH balancer), Tetrasodium EDTA (stabilizer)

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information. "Over-the-counter Acne Treatments"

    Accessed Jul. 30, 2021.

FAQs

What works best on acne: salicylic acid or glycolic acid?

Salicylic acid is better suited for unclogging pores to treat and prevent acne. This chemical exfoliator is oil-soluble (meaning it is effectively able to work through sebum), and works deep in the pores. On the other hand, glycolic acid works on the surface of the skin. It is better used to lighten dark spots and minimize the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. 

Can I use a salicylic acid exfoliator every day?

Some people can use a salicylic acid product every day. However, others may find that their skin becomes irritated if they use an exfoliant daily. This is especially true for people who are new to using chemical exfoliants. Start with using one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants every other day or every couple of days. Once you see how your skin reacts, you can decide whether you’d like to use it more often.

Can I use moisturizer after salicylic acid?

Yes, you can use a moisturizer after applying a salicylic acid product. In fact, it’s incredibly important that you do, as a moisturizer can help fight dryness and irritation that the salicylic acid product may cause. It also keeps your skin balanced and adequately moisturized.

Can I use two products with salicylic acid at once?

It’s best to stick with only using one salicylic acid product, and not layering it with another. Using two (or more) chemical exfoliants at the same time will greatly increase your risk of irritation, and it can cause damage to your skin barrier.

The Bottom Line

Salicylic acid is one of the most effective chemical exfoliators for those dealing with acne and clogged pores. If you’re thinking of adding a BHA product to your skincare routine, try one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants mentioned above to achieve smoother, acne-free skin.