The 10 Best Salicylic Acid Face Washes of 2021

Bye bye, breakouts

Our editors independently research, test, and recommend the best products; you can learn more about our review process here. We may receive commissions on purchases made from our chosen links.

First Look

Best Overall: La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser at Dermstore

"Transforms into a lightweight foam that gently cleanses and exfoliates without drying out the skin."

Best Budget: Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Control Foaming Wash at Amazon

"Great for battling oily and acne-prone skin constantly but don’t want to spend a fortune on skincare."

Best for Sensitive Skin: Paula's Choice CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser at Amazon

"Just enough to provide the cleansing and exfoliating benefits you want without the dryness and agitation you don’t."

Best Cleansing Pads: Oxy Daily Defense Cleansing Pads at Amazon

"Effectively cleanses pores, exfoliates, and helps prevent new blemishes from forming when used regularly."

Best Scrub: Alba Botanica Acnedote Maximum Strength Face & Body Scrub at Amazon

"A botanically-powered way to up the exfoliation ante on your typical salicylic acid face wash."

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Vichy Normaderm Daily Deep Cleansing Gel at Amazon

"Clears breakouts, reduces excess oil production, and visibly decreases excess shine."

Best for Dry Skin: skyn ICELAND Glacial Face Wash at Amazon

"A gentle cream cleanser that removes impurities, purifies pores, and soothes irritation to prevent breakouts."

Best for Aging Skin: SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel at Dermstore

"Combines the powers of salicylic acid, LHA, and glycolic acid to remove impurities from the skin and encourage cell renewal."

Best for Combination Skin: Glytone Acne Clearing Cleanser at Amazon

"Uses salicylic acid alongside glycolic acid to help reduce breakouts, clean out pores, even out skin tone, and reduce blemishes."

Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne and Redness Facial Cleanser at Amazon

"Cut through excess oil, and clear away dirt and impurities without drying out the skin."

When it comes to having a clear complexion, salicylic acid should be your go-to. It’s a type of oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid that penetrates effectively into the skin to eliminate excess oil and sebum that lead to whiteheads, blackheads, and other forms of acne. It also exfoliates your skin, removing dead skin cells on the surface that can contribute to clogged pores and skin dullness. It can even help reduce inflammation associated with breakouts.

There are a lot of salicylic acid-based facial cleansers on the market, but most brands have a unique way of integrating the ingredient into their formulas. That being said, not all salicylic face washes are created equal. They come in a range of formulas, applications, and potencies that affect how your skin will ultimately respond to the chemical.

Here are the best salicylic acid face washes on the market.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser

La Roche Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser

Courtesy of Amazon 

Pros
  • Gel turns to rich lather

  • AHAs and glycolic acid balance moisture

Cons
  • Bottle is prone to leaking

  • The face wash tends to come out too quickly

Rave reviews abound for this fragrance-free, dermatologist-approved pick from La Roche-Possay. The oil-free gel cleanser transforms into a lightweight foam that gently cleanses and exfoliates without drying out the skin. It’s powered by a 2% salicylic acid concentration, along with alpha hydroxy acids and glycolic acid for moisture balance.

The cleanser is safe and effective for oily, acne-prone, and sensitive skin. Users love how it tackles acne, whiteheads, blackheads, and large pores all in one formula.

Active Ingredients: AHA, glycolic acid, salicylic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne | Fragrance: None

Best Budget: Clean & Clear Advantage Acne Control Foaming Wash

Pros
  • High 2% concentration of salicylic acid

  • Convenient foam formula

  • Budget-friendly

Cons
  • Contains fragrance, which may be irritating

  • Foam formula may be drying

If you’re battling oily and acne-prone skin regularly but don’t want to spend a fortune on skincare, this formula from Clean & Clear will likely fit the bill. The one-step face wash effectively cleanses the skin, treats existing acne, and prevents future breakouts. It’s oil-free, non-comedogenic, and powered by a 2% salicylic acid concentration that is safe to use daily. Users with particularly oily skin report that despite its potency, the cleanser is non-drying and non-irritating.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne | Fragrance: Yes

Like with any routine, I always recommend a moisturizer that is non-comedogenic meaning it doesn’t block pores and in the winter a daytime moisturizer with some SPF works well. If acne is more severe, prescription products like oral antibiotics or Retin-A are recommended because otherwise, you are just drying the skin without getting at the core of the acne below the skin. —Dr. Orit Markowtiz, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Founder of OptiSkin in New York City

Best for Sensitive Skin: Paula's Choice CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser

Pros
  • Gentle enough for sensitive skin

  • Panthenol calms skin

  • Leaves skin feeling fresh

Cons
  • Low concentration of salicylic acid

  • Can have a drying effect

People with sensitive skin usually don’t tolerate high concentrations of salicylic acid very well, but they still want to keep their complexions clear and breakouts to a minimum. Enter this gentle-yet-effective cleanser from Paula’s Choice. It contains 0.5% of salicylic acid, which is just enough to provide the cleansing and exfoliating benefits you want without the dryness and agitation you don’t.

The fragrance-free gel is also infused with panthenol to moisturize, calm, and refresh the skin. Reviewers love the lather it creates, as well as the soft, fresh-faced feeling it leaves behind.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne | Fragrance: None

Although salicylic acid can be helpful for breakouts, it is important to know that it can also be irritating, particularly for those with sensitive skin. As a result, it is important to not overdo it and be sure to find one that is good for your skin type. Those with more oily skin may prefer more of a gel based cleanser or a higher concentration of salicylic acid, while those with more sensitive skin may require a cleanser that is also hydrating and more gentle on the skin. Marisa K. Garshick, M.D., board-certified dermatologist

Best Cleansing Pads: Oxy Daily Defense Cleansing Pads

Pros
  • No water, rinsing required

  • Convenient single-use pads

  • Travel-friendly design

Cons
  • May be irritating and drying

If you’re in the market for a quick and easy cleansing pad that will cater to oily and acne-prone skin, you can’t go wrong with this classic pick from Oxy. The pads have a 2% salicylic acid concentration for effective pore cleansing and exfoliation, and when used regularly, they can help prevent new blemishes from forming. Meanwhile, they are gentle enough to minimize irritation and redness. These dermatologist-tested, fragrance-free pads are also very convenient for folks who are always on-the-go.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne, preventing breakouts | Fragrance: Yes

Best Scrub: Alba Botanica Acnedote Maximum Strength Face & Body Scrub

Pros
  • Contains all botanical ingredients

  • Can be used on the face and body

  • Salicylic acid derived from willow bark

Cons
  • Mechanical exfoliation may be irritating on current acne

  • Formula can have drying effect on skin

This 100% vegetarian scrub is a botanically-powered way to up the exfoliation ante on your typical salicylic acid face wash. It contains a 2% salicylic acid concentration naturally sourced from willow bark extract, as well as ground walnut shell for both chemical and mechanical exfoliation.

The dermatologist-tested scrub is non-comedogenic, and it doesn’t contain any chemicals like parabens, phthalates, or synthetic fragrances. But because it's a scrub, it’s always a good idea to be gentle when you use it, and moisturize your skin thoroughly afterward.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid from willow bark | Uses: Cleansing face and body, treating acne | Fragrance: Yes, natural oils

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Vichy Normaderm Daily Deep Cleansing Gel

Pros
  • Contains both salicylic acid and glycolic acid

  • Vichy water helps with hydration

Cons
  • Low .5% concentration of salicylic acid

This exfoliating cleanser is gentle, but it’s also highly effective in purifying the skin and unclogging pores. The 0.5% salicylic acid concentration pairs with glycolic acid to effectively reduce oil buildup and breakouts while zinc and copper work to reduce excess oil production and visibly decrease excess shine. It also contains mineral-rich Vichy water, which helps to hydrate the skin. If you struggle with acne, cystic acne, or large pores, this cleansing gel could bring you some much-needed relief.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid, glycolic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne | Fragrance: Yes

Best for Dry Skin: skyn ICELAND Glacial Face Wash

Pros
  • Cream formula is soothing and gentle for sensitive skin

  • Contains salicylic acid derived from willow bark

  • Additional ingredients help detoxify and repair the skin’s barrier function

Cons
  • High cost

People with dry or sensitive skin will love this gentle cream cleanser. It removes impurities from your skin with oat- and amino acid-based surfactants while salicylic acid derived from white willow bark purifies pores and reduces irritation to prevent breakouts.

The formula also includes Icelandic kelp, which helps detoxify the skin and soothe inflammation, and cylindrica seed oil, which helps repair the lipid barrier to prevent dryness. Reviewers swear by this face wash, noting that a little bit goes a long way for a luxurious lather.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid from willow bark | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne | Fragrance: Yes

Best for Aging Skin: SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel

SkinCeuticals Lha cleanser gel
Courtesy of Amazon.
Pros
  • Smooths skin texture and brightens tone

  • Also contains ingredients to target wrinkles and signs of aging

Cons
  • High cost

  • Packaging falls short of the cleanser quality

SkinCeuticals LHA Cleanser Gel is a cleanser that combines the powers of salicylic acid, lipo-hydroxy acid LHA, and glycolic acid to not only remove impurities from the skin, but also encourage cell renewal. The result? Skin that is free of breakouts, a more refined skin texture, even skin tone, and a brighter appearance. Ideal for both oily and combination skin, this formula is free of parabens, phthalates, fragrances, soaps, alcohols, and dyes. Users say that this face wash creates a clean feeling like no other, and it doesn’t cause any excess dryness or irritation.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne, exfoliating face | Fragrance: None

Best for Combination Skin: Glytone Acne Clearing Cleanser

Pros
  • Salicylic acid and glycolic acid combination cleans deep in the pores

  • Dermatologist approved for all ages

Cons
  • High cost

  • Can be drying on the skin

This popular cleanser contains a 2% salicylic acid concentration alongside glycolic acid to help reduce breakouts, clean out pores, even skin tone, and reduce blemishes. The formula reaches deep into pores to remove acne-causing bacteria and impurities while providing the proper balance of hydration for the skin to heal and restore. The dermatologist-approved face wash is beloved by users of all ages due to its ability to address a wide variety of issues, including milia, blackheads, whiteheads, and large pores.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid, glycolic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne | Fragrance: None

Best Drugstore: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne and Redness Facial Cleanser

Pros
  • Treats red skin tone as well as acne

  • Aloe and chamomile extracts help calm irritation

Cons
  • Contains artificial color

  • Many ingredients are not natural or plant-derived

If easy access is your primary concern, look no further than the Neutrogena section in your local pharmacy. This pretty green face wash is powered by a 2% salicylic acid concentration, helping you cut through excess oil and clear away dirt without drying out the skin. The oil-free formula is supplemented with soothing aloe and chamomile extracts to help calm any potential irritation and redness. This cleanser was specifically developed for acne-prone skin.

Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Uses: Cleansing face, treating acne, calming irritation/redness | Fragrance: Yes

Final Verdict

The best salicylic acid face wash is ultimately the one designed to cleanse your particular skin type and does so effectively without causing excessive dryness, agitation, or other side effects. For oily, acne-prone, and combination skin, La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Gel Acne Cleanser (view at Dermstore) is an excellent choice at an affordable price. For more sensitive skin, skyn ICELAND Glacial Face Wash (view at Amazon) will do the trick. Sometimes, finding the right face wash requires a bit of trial and error, but if you start with these products, you probably won’t have to try many more.

What to Look for in a Salicylic Acid Face Wash

Salicylic Acid Percentage:

“Salicylic acid works by reducing oil and sebum on the skin. It also helps to exfoliate dead skin cells from the surface of the skin, which also contributes to the clogging of pores and dullness of the skin," says Jordan C. Carqueville, M.D., a leading board-certified dermatologist and dermatopathologist. "One of the key features to look for in the face wash is the strength of the active ingredient — in this case, salicylic acid. The most common strength percentage in face washes will be 2%."

Two percent is a safe and effective concentration for normal, oily, and acne-prone skin types. If you have dry or sensitive skin, opt for a less intense cleanser with 0.5% to 1% salicylic acid.

Moisturizers:

Salicylic acid can easily throw off your skin’s hydration balance, resulting in dryness, redness, and irritation, and other uncomfortable side effects. That’s why some face wash formulas include ingredients like soothing botanicals, hyaluronic acid, and ceramide moisturizers. Look for products that include one of these elements when you can.

"Sensitive or dry skin types are often not able to tolerate salicylic acid ingredients due to enhanced irritation or dehydration of the skin," says Dr. Carqueville. "Make sure to apply moisturizer to the skin after using these products so that the skin doesn't become overly dry or irritated."

Clean Ingredients:

It’s always a good idea to keep chemicals like parabens and sulfates away from your skin, especially on your face. Keep an eye on those labels and opt for natural, organic, and clean products when possible.

FAQs

How often should I use salicylic acid products?

If your skin can tolerate it, salicylic acid cleansers are safe for use once or twice daily.

“Salicylic acid on acne skin should show improvement in the severity of lesions and by a decrease in the number of lesions by five days,” says James Beckman, M.D., Board Certified Plastic Surgeon and Adjunct, Associate Clinical Professor-Dermatology Department at UAMS (Arkansas Medical School). “Skin will become smoother as well due to exfoliation. When these changes are seen, it is a sign that the medication is of good quality and that it is working successfully.” But be patient because it can take a few weeks to show up on the skin.

Can you use salicylic acid face wash while pregnant?

Technically salicylic acid is considered unsafe for use in pregnancy. "However, it's important to note that the studies that found salicylic acid unsafe in pregnancy were done using a topical cream with 40% percent salicylic acid, placed all over the body, and left on,” says Orit Markowtiz, Board-Certified Dermatologist and Founder of OptiSkin in New York City. That’s significantly different than the low 2% or less concentration of salicylic acid usually found in the over-the-counter face wash. And, it is being washed off right away. It’s best to consult with your dermatologist and ob/gyn to determine safe acne treatment during pregnancy.

What are some of the risks of using salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is an acid, so it can cause redness, peeling, and dryness and those with dry or sensitive skin types are especially prone to these side effects.

Salicylic acid use can make skin more photosensitive, so wearing SPF daily is a must. “Due to sun sensitivity, sun protection is recommended when using salicylic acid on sun-exposed skin,” says Dr. Beckman.

A Note About Safety

Be careful not to overuse salicylic acid face wash products, as they can excessively dry out and irritate the skin. Most dermatologists recommend applying a quality moisturizer after each wash. Be sure to keep these products away from your eyes, and rinse them immediately should contact occur. Wear plenty of sunscreen when using salicylic face washes because they may make your skin more sensitive to sunlight. People who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant should not use salicylic acid products. Finally, if you’re still concerned about picking the right product for you, discuss your needs and options with a board-certified dermatologist.


Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid that is oil-soluble, so it penetrates deep into pores to eliminate excess oil and unclog the pores. It also acts as an exfoliant and helps to get rid of dead skin cells to help improve the tone and texture of the skin. Additionally, it can also help reduce inflammation, so it can be helpful for all types of breakouts. Although cleansers are a great way to incorporate salicylic acid or beta-hydroxy acids into your skincare routine, other helpful options include toners, peel pads, and serums. With many anti-acne products and exfoliants, using salicylic acid can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it is important to remember sunscreen. Marisa K. Garshick, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist

Why Trust Verywell Health?

As a seasoned health writer, Alena Hall understands how important it is to know exactly what you’re getting in a wellness product. Over the years, she has reviewed dozens of products, from athletic recovery aids to homeopathic essential oils to ever-trendy CBD topicals, to help readers like you discover products that can help you live your best life.

Additional reporting to this story by Jennifer Nied

As a seasoned health writer, Jennifer Nied understands how vital quality product recommendations are for treating symptoms safely and effectively at home. For over 10 years, she has reviewed products, interviewed experts, scrutinized ingredients, and pored over research studies and claims, to help readers like you understand what works for your specific conditions. Every product in this piece was selected taking into account recommendations from doctors, published research, and real customer reviews.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus. Salicylic acid. Updated September 15, 2016.

  2. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive reviewClin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:455-61. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765

Additional Reading