Beta hydroxy acids

What do they do?
Chemically exfoliate skin, lifting off dead skin cells
Reduce oil production
Unclog pores
Reduce inflammation

What are they used for?
Oily, acne-prone skin
Enlarged pores
FIne lines
Uneven skin tone
Keratosis pilaris

How do I use them?
Use either as a cleanser or a leave-on preparation, anywhere from twice weekly to twice daily, depending on how your skin tolerates them

Potential drawbacks
May cause skin irritation and dryness

Key benefits

Evidence rating

Along with benzoyl peroxide, beta hydroxy acids are excellent choices for at-home treatment of acne. Salicylic acid, the best known beta hydroxy acid, is great for oily, acne-prone skin, blackheads and large pores.

How do they work?

Beta hydroxy acids are chemical exfoliants, which help remove dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin, and increase cell turnover, which can improve the appearance of dull, uneven skin. They also help unclog pores, reduce inflammation, and reduce oil production. Because they penetrate more deeply into the skin than alpha hydroxy acids, they’re better at controlling oil production and unclogging pores. 

What should I look for in a product? 

Look for salicylic acid, the most commonly used beta hydroxy acid. It’s found in concentrations from 0.5 – 2% in cleansers, gels and creams, and in higher concentrations in chemical peels

How should I use it?

At home, use salicylic acid either as a cleanser, or a leave-on preparation such as a cream or lotion. It can be quite irritating, and may cause dryness and tingling, so start off using every few days, and slowly build up. If irritation occurs, try using it less often, and moisturise regularly. A cleanser may be less irritating than a cream or lotion. Take care when using salicylic acid along with products such as alpha hydroxy acids and retinoids, as the potential for irritation will increase. 

What are they useful for?

Beta hydroxy acids are great for oily, acne-prone skin, especially blackheads, whiteheads and enlarged pores. They’re also helpful for uneven pigmentation, fine lines and keratosis pilaris. In higher concentrations, they’re used to treat warts.

Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:455-461. Published 2015 Aug 26. 

Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…