10 BEST Salicylic Acid Face Washes to Buy in 2019

Fact: Salicylic acid can be incredibly drying.

Most of the time, opting for a face wash instead of a leave-on product (like a toner, serum, or moisturizer) will allow you to reap its benefits without experiencing its drying side effects.

Keep reading to find out which salicylic acid face washes you should add to your routine.

1. Cerave Renewing SA Cleanser

Okay. I’m partial to Cerave—afterall, I use their products every single day. But that’s not the only reason why this face wash is at the top of the list. It contains a ton of skin-healthy ingredients (like ceramides and hyaluronic acid) that help counteract the drying effects of salicylic acid.

Even though I love Cerave, I have to admit that this product isn’t perfect. Its biggest flaw is that the concentration of salicylic acid hasn’t been disclosed. It could be anywhere from 0.5%-2%. Considering the lack of disclosure, however, I bet the concentration is on the lower end of things.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: Unknown
  • Fragrance: No
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 8 ounces (tied for biggest cleanser on this list!)
  • Good for: normal to oily skin

2. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Medicated Acne Face Wash

Even when I was suffering from acne as a teen, I couldn’t wait to try this stuff. I mean, it sounds so fancy and French—who can resist?

The coolest thing about it is that, in addition to salicylic acid, it also contains LHA, a cell-by-cell exfoliator with antimicrobial and anti-comedogenic properties (source). (FYI: LHA’s have been patented by L’Oreal, so you won’t find them just anywhere.)

A lot of people think of this cleanser as a holy grail product because it’s helped them with their acne. It’s even been repackaged as the 1st step in La Roche-Posay’s 3-step acne regimen (as a Proactiv alternative). But since 3-step systems can be irritating, it’s usually better to introduce your skin to one new product at a time.

The drawback is that it’s better suited for oily skin.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 2%
  • Fragrance: No
  • Menthol: Yes (argh!)
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 6.76 ounces
  • Good for: oily, acne-prone skin

3. Paula’s Choice Pore Normalizing Cleanser

Ah, Paula Begoun. Whether you love her or hate her, you have to admit, her products are always on-point.

Formulated with 0.5% salicylic acid, this cleanser is a good place to start if you’ve never tried SA before. If your skin likes it, you’ll be able to move on to a higher concentration.

Sensitive skin can also benefit from this formulation. Unlike some of the other products on this list, the Pore Normalizing Cleanser is fairly gentle—meaning, you won’t feel tight or dry after using it.   

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 0.5%
  • Fragrance: No
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 6 ounces
  • Good for: all skin types

4. Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Fighting Facial Cleanser

I was debating whether I should add this to the list or not. While it wouldn’t be my first (or second or third) pick, there are a lot of people who swear by this stuff. And some of those people have been using this face wash for DECADES.

Of course, it has its high points. First, it’s incredibly affordable. Second, it’s readily available—hop in your car, drive to the nearest drugstore, and you’re guaranteed to find it in stock. Third, it contains the maximum amount of salicylic acid allowed for OTC products (2%).

But it also has its low points. Although the COSDNA rating for this product comes up clean (aka it doesn’t contain any comedogenic ingredients), some people have reported that they’ve developed a rash after using it.

Of course, not everyone’s skin responds to products the same way. So if you do choose to buy this cleanser (and you haven’t tried it before), make sure to spot test it in an inconspicuous area.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 2%
  • Fragrance: Yes
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: Yes
  • Size: 6 ounces
  • Good for: oily, hardy, non-sensitive skin

5. Zapzyt Acne Wash Cleanser

Most of you probably haven’t heard of Zapzyt. And it’s a shame because their products contain non-irritating ingredients (no fragrances, dyes, or menthols to see here), while also being incredibly affordable.

A lot of people use it as a body treatment due to its price (cheap) and its size (big). But since it contains ingredients that combat the drying effects of salicylic acid (i.e. aloe vera and chamomile), there’s no reason why you can’t use it as a facial treatment. Unless of course, you have sensitive skin—in that case, it might be better to skip a 2% strength product or to skip salicylic acid altogether.  

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 2%
  • Fragrance: No
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 6.25 ounces
  • Good for: body

6. Dermalogica Breakout Clearing Foaming Wash

I’ll be honest with you. This foaming wash isn’t for everybody.

While it contains only 0.5% salicylic acid (the perfect amount for newbies and/or sensitive skin types), it also contains tons of plant extracts. Sure, these are natural. But studies have shown that they can be sensitizing. So if you’ve never used plant extracts before, you should definitely spot test this before use.

Then again, if you’re into the whole natural thing (I know a lot of people are), you’ve found your match. This is the right product for you.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 0.5%
  • Fragrance: No (but contains tons of plant extracts)
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 6 ounces
  • Good for: natural-skincare-oholics (who aren’t sensitive to essential oils and/or plant extracts)

7. SkinMedica AHA BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

This isn’t your average, everyday cleanser. It combines chemical exfoliation with physical exfoliation. How does it do that? With exfoliating beads. Jojoba beads, to be exact. So if you’re looking for an eco-friendly dupe for your favorite bead-y cleanser, you can try it out.

There’s something else I want to mention. I wouldn’t exactly consider this to be a triple exfoliant. To me, it’s more of a double exfoliant (salicylic acid + jojoba beads).

The thing is, I couldn’t find any research around AHA’s in cleansers. And since this cleanser utilizes fruit acids (which are generally weaker than glycolic, lactic, and mandelic acids), I have my doubts about the effectiveness of its AHA’s. But that’s just my two cents.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: Unknown
  • Fragrance: No
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 6 ounces
  • Good for: people who like exfoliating beads in their cleansers

Side note: From my understanding, jojoba beads are an environmentally-sound alternative to silica beads (please correct me if I’m wrong).

8. Burts Bees Natural Acne Solutions Purifying Gel Cleanser

I don’t know why 1% formulations are so hard to come by, but this cleanser was the only one I could find.

Now that we’re talking about percentages, it might be a good time to tell you that Burt’s Bees cleanser markets their products as 99.4% natural. A lot of people vibe with this. And its ingredients seem to work wonders on oilier, hardier skin types.

But this cleanser also seems to be a hit or miss. While some people have experienced great acne-clearing results from using it, a few unlucky souls have experienced allergic reactions. It does contain fragrance and some plant extracts, so be careful if you’re sensitive.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 1%
  • Fragrance: Yes
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 5 ounces
  • Good for: oily, non-sensitive skin

9. Skinceuticals LHA Cleansing Gel

While this cleansing gel does contain salicylic acid (and glycolic acid for that matter), it isn’t really a salicylic acid cleanser per se. It’s actually marketed as an LHA cleanser.

Here’s the deal with that:

Salicylic acid is a BHA. And LHA (lipohydroxy acid) is derived from BHA. So they’re in the same ballpark. We talked a little about LHA earlier in this post, but if you don’t want to scroll back up, I’ll give another spiel here.

The biggest differences between the two are that LHA’s are more lipophilic (meaning they can dig deeper into your oily bits) and they provide cell-by-cell exfoliation (which is supposedly better tolerated by delicate skin) (source).

The real drawback here is that this it contains menthol. So if you suspect you’re sensitive to it, stay away from it.

Otherwise, this cleanser has some crazy good reviews and you might want to put it on your radar.

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: Unknown
  • Fragrance: No
  • Menthol: Yes
  • Dyes: No
  • Size: 8 ounces (tied for biggest cleanser on this list! – Cerave is also 8 ounces)
  • Good for: all skin types

10. Replenix Gly-Sal 2-2 Cleanser

Replenix is one of those brands you can buy straight from your dermatologist. So it’s bound to be better formulated than mainstream drugstore products.

And like some of the other cleansers here, it contains both salicylic acid and glycolic acid. Unlike the other cleanser, however, you know exactly how much of each ingredient your getting—2% glycolic acid and 2% salicylic acid.

Since the effects of AHA’s in cleansers aren’t proven, some people choose to leave it on their skin for a minute before washing it off.

It’s also available in different concentrations. If you want more oomph, go with the 10-2 (10% glycolic and 2% salicylic).

Click here to buy it on Amazon.

  • Concentration: 2% Salicylic + 2% Glycolic
  • Fragrance: Yes
  • Menthol: No
  • Dyes: Yes
  • Size: 6.7 ounces
  • Good for: oily skin

Are Salicylic Acid Cleansers Effective?

Research has shown that salicylic acid cleansers are moderately effective at treating acne. One study, in particular, compared the efficacy of a benzoyl peroxide face wash to that of a salicylic acid face wash (source). Subjects who started with the salicylic acid cleanser saw significant improvements in their acne. When those subjects switched over to the benzoyl peroxide face wash, however, their acne came back. In this situation, the SA was superior to BP.

While leave-on products stay on your skin longer (and technically provide better results), they’re also incredibly drying. So a lot of people tend to favor washes instead. Since everyone’s skin is different, there’s no right or wrong path to take—do whatever you think is right for your skin.

Here are some tips to utilize when you’re starting out with salicylic acid washes:

  • Start with one application every other day. If your skin likes it, increase applications, but cap it at 2 times per day (morning and night)
  • Don’t use salicylic acid in conjunction with retinoids. And be careful when using it with other exfoliants because you don’t want to compromise your skin’s protective barrier.
  • Don’t get it in or around your eyes. It’s not meant for those areas and can cause irritation.
  • Spot test your products before using them. Some people have severe reactions to hydroxy acids.

Summary

Here’s an overview of the best salicylic acid face washes:

PercentFragrance-freeMenthol-freeDye-freeSizeAmazon Link
1. Cerave SA CleanserUnknown8 ouncesCheck it out
2. La Roche-Posay Effaclar Face Wash2%6.76 ouncesCheck it out
3. Paula’s Choice Normalizing Cleanser0.5%6 ouncesCheck it out
4. Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Cleanser2%×6 ouncesCheck it out
5. Zapzyt Acne Wash Cleanser2%6.25 ouncesCheck it out
6. Dermalogica Breakout Clearing Foaming Wash0.5%6 ouncesCheck it out
7. SkinMedica AHA/BHA CleanserUnknown6 ouncesCheck it out
8. Burt’s Bees Natural Purifying Gel Cleanser1%5 ouncesCheck it out
9. Skinceuticals LHA Cleansing GelUnknown8 ouncesCheck it out
10. Replenix Gly-Sal 2-2 Cleanser2%5 ouncesCheck it out

Still not sure if salicylic acid is right for you? I wrote a post about some of its proven pros and cons to help you decide (check it out by clicking here).