A Derm's Guide To Choosing The Best Salicylic Acid Cleanser For Acne

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Beta-hydroxy acids, aka BHAs, are beloved for their ability to exfoliate skin and clear out clogged pores, making them an especially popular choice among people with oily, acne-prone skin. BHAs can be found in lots of skin care products — most notably cleansers — but some, of course, are better than others. Board-certified dermatologist (and Vichy brand expert) Dr. Erin Gilbert tells Elite Daily that the best BHA cleansers feature elegant formulas that provide multiple benefits for a range of skin types. She says to look for cleansers that allow the BHA in question (most commonly salicylic acid) to shine, so steer clear of formulas that contain other ingredients that can be hard on your skin, like other strong acids or stripping soaps.

Depending on the cleanser that you're using, Dr. Gilbert says combining AHA products with BHAs is not only "a bit redundant," but it may even cause irritation. "You have to know the concentrations of the acids and what their intended use is before doubling up on them," she explains. As far as other topical medications, if you're dealing with acne and your skin responds well to benzoyl peroxide spot treatments, you can carefully pair yours with your BHA cleanser, but go easy at first. "The irritation [from benzoyl peroxide] can take you by surprise if you are too liberal with it," she says.

For an easy way to incorporate BHAs into your skin care routine, pick up any of the best salicylic acid cleansers featured ahead.

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Expert’s Pick

Dr. Gilbert says, “There are specific BHA products that are made for all skin types. One of my favorites is Vichy’s Normaderm PhytoAction Daily Deep Cleansing Gel. It has been tested by dermatologists to be suitable for all skin types. After using it your skin feels clean and fresh, but never tight or overly dry. It contains 0.5% salicylic acid, which gently fights acne, and also contains Vichy volcanic water, which is rich in 15 different minerals [that] fight against 'exposome aggressors' — external factors like pollution and UV [rays] — and it also strengthens your skin barrier. I also like the light, clean fragrance, and the fact that you get results without irritation or dryness.”

The Best Fragrance-Free Cleanser With BHAs

If you prefer fragrance-free cleansers, go with La Roche-Posay's fan-favorite Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser. It contains 2% salicylic acid, as well as lipo-hydroxy acid, a salicylic acid derivative, in a formula that's free of parabens, oil, and harsh physical exfoliators. Together, these ingredients work to clear up current breakouts and fight future acne flareups — and as its cult-favorite status can attest, it really does work.

Not only have over 3,000 Amazon reviewers awarded this cleanser a perfect five-star rating, but it's won awards from Seventeen, NYLON, and Allure as well.

Another Excellent Unscented Cleanser With BHAs

Here's another great, fragrance-free, salicylic acid cleanser to consider. Paula's Choice CLEAR Pore Normalizing Cleanser contains 0.5% salicylic acid, so it's a more mild choice than the Effaclar Medicated Gel Cleanser, and it's infused with soothing arginine, a type of amino acid, and moisturizing glycerin as well. This is a particularly popular cleanser among people dealing with blackheads and redness, and it has over 1,000 five-star ratings on Amazon.

Best BHA Scrub

Though Dr. Gilbert is cautious about combining AHAs and BHAs, this body scrub takes a super-mild BHA (willow bark extract, which is a natural source of salicylic acid) and combines it with the AHAs lactic and glycolic acids. Together, these ingredients are ideal for clearing up body acne, keratosis pilaris, and generally rough, bumpy skin. In addition to the acids, there are tiny pumice buffing beads in here, so your skin gets a dose of both physical and chemical exfoliation. To prevent irritation, though, this scrub is balanced out by lots of moisturizing and skin-soothing ingredients, like oatmeal, licorice root, glycerin, and vitamin E. It's also free of gluten, fragrance, parabens, and sulfates, and its vegan and cruelty-free as well.

Best BHA Body Wash

Relieve psoriasis and dry, itchy skin with this gentle exfoliating cleanser from CeraVe. Alongside salicylic acid, it uses urea to smooth and moisturize skin, while niacinamide offers skin-soothing benefits and ceramides help promote a strong barrier. It's fragrance-free, sulfate-free, and overall, really quite gentle, so it's a great choice for people with sensitive skin.


Dr. Erin Gilbert M.D, PhD, F.A.A.D., a board-certified dermatologist.