DHC Salicylic Face Milk Review also a Reexamination of Salicylic Acid’s Effective pH Range


Remember my review on Chica y Chico’s Beta Salic 2.0? Well (knocks on wood), since I started using it, I have not had a single recurrence of cystic acne. I do still get closed comedones, but even those are less frequent. Needless to say, BHAs are totally my jam right now. They’re the security blanket ingredient of my skincare routine and my second deserted-island skincare essential, after sunscreen of course. The reason I wanted to swap out Beta Salic 2.0 with something new? I wanted something STRONGER. DHC Salicylic Face Milk ReviewI also wanted something without glycolic acid. I’m currently using a lactic acid toner, which has been a bit harsh recently, and I thought removing glycolic acid, even in small quantities, may help.

But back to salicylic acid. Products in Korea are limited to containing only .5% salicylic acid. A lot of brands deal with this restriction by using betaine salicylate, a mild complex of salicylic acid, instead. This means to get my grabby hands on stronger BHA products out there, I have to look outside Korea. I have had my eye on this salicylic face milk from DHC for some time and since I was running out of BS2.0, finally decided to order it!


I bought this as part of a Rakuten haul. It is also available in the states with a markup on DHC’s website or on Amazon. I cannot actually confirm with 100% certainty that the Japanese version and the US version are the same. Japan does not require products to label active ingredients (this goes with vitamin C products and sunscreen active ingredients as well) and the US DHC customer service team was pretty much worthless when I repeatedly asked, sending me the link to http://www.dhc.co.jp/‎ three times. However, the ingredient lists are identical so chances are good that the two are and for the purposes of this review I am going to assume they are.


Comes in a small, flat, blue tube with a small spout. DHC Salicylic Face Milk The product itself has a light cream texture. Its thinner than beta salic 2.0, but not quite what I would consider milky.


There are two major differences between this cream and beta salic 2.0: First of all, I mentioned that with beta salic 2.0, I only experienced minimal purging. With this face milk? Holy starfish! I had zits erupting on my face non-stop for about a week.

On one hand, I’m happy this stuff is working. On the other hand, I kept having to duck into the bathroom at work to make sure I didn’t have to reapply my makeup (again) to cover up the warzone that was my face. Thankfully, this purging calmed down greatly after the first couple of days and stopped altogether by the end of the second week.

The second difference is that there is a noticeable anti-inflammatory effect with this cream that I did not experience with beta salic 2.0. Minutes after applying this, my problem areas were noticeably less red.

dhc antiinflammatory

Photo on left taken immediately before applying DHC SFM. Photo on right taken 10 minutes after applying. There is obviously still a lot of redness in the right photo, but notice how the pinkness emanating from the problem spots is reduced.

I was concerned my dry skin would not be able to handle the increased BHA concentration, but I had no issues whatsoever! I think this is partly due to DHC SFM being well formulated and partially due to the fact I’ve been using a BHA (albiet a mild one) for more than two months before using this. Here are the ingredients, with cosdna acne triggers and irritants thusly indicated:


This is when things start to get interesting. After a month of using this milk, I finally got my hands on some pH testing strips. This item has a purported pH of 3.8 but the pH strips I have were telling a different story.

dhc salicylic face milk review ph test

Left most square suggests pH is around 5. Second from the left square suggests pH is around 4. Let’s just say 4.5?

Granted, these pH strips are not the most reliable way to measure pH, but I tested this cream a few times and consistently got a reading suggesting the pH is around 4.5. For a BHA, a pH of 4.5 is really high.

Screenshot from The Journal of Experimental Medicine, Volume 36. source

Screenshot from The Journal of Experimental Medicine, Volume 36. At a pH of 4.5, less than 5% of salicylic acid will be in free salicylate acid form, which is the form required to exfoliate skin. source

From everything I understood about BHAs, this product should not be exfoliating my skin in any significant way. Yet, the effects I was seeing with this product, particularly the purging, are difficult to attribute to anything else. This lead to some frantic googling and pubmed searching to find possible explanations, of which I have three!

Possible explanation #1:

There is one study that caught my eye (that RatzillaCosme actually tweeted about but I’m lame and not on twitter so I didn’t see it until now):

Salicylic acid at close to neutral pH (mostly in its neutralized form as salicylate, pH 6.50) exerted a corneodesmolytic activity as good as that of salicylic acid in an acidic vehicle (pH 3.12) after only two days of application… In conclusion, neutralized salicylic acid at a 1% concentration is a suitable exfoliant agent for subjects with sensitive skin.

For those of you who don’t know what corneodesmolytic activity is (because I sure as hell didn’t), I did some digging. According to Acne and it Therapy:

Corneodesmolytic… results in desquamation due to degradation of corneodesmosomes, which are proteinaceous complexes that effectively rivet corneocytes together.

Uhhhhhhh ok so some translation is in order! Here’s the dumbed down version:

Corneodesmolytic… results in [the shedding of the outermost membrane of skin] due to degradation of [proteins that hold [epidermis skin cellstogether], which are proteinaceous complexes that effectively rivet [epidermis skin cells] together.

In short, I’m pretty certain corneodesmolytic is science jargon for exfoliation (or at least a certain type of exfoliation), which means the study is effectively claiming salicylic acid at a pH of 6.5 exfoliates as well as salicylic acid at 3.12. This is just one study but it seems like a compelling reason to reconsider the requirement that salicylic acid products need to possess a pH under 4.

Possible Explanation #2

A simpler explanation is basic math. Salicylic acid is recommended for use in concentrations of .5% of 2%. The upper limit of the range is 4X the lower limit, so perhaps the high amount of salicylic acid in this product allows for it to still be effective at a higher pH.

At a pH of 4.5, 2.87% of salicylic acid will be in free-acid form. For this product, this means 2% X 2.87% or .057% of this face milk is free salicylate acid.

So, we can calculate what % of the hydroxy acid needs to be in free acid form in a hypothetical .5% concentration BHA product to effectively have the same amount of free acid as our DHC product as thus: .057% / .5% = 11.48%. Using the same chart, we can see that a pH of 3.5 corresponds to 22.79% of salicylic acid being in free acid form and a pH of 4 corresponds to 8.54% free acid. 11.48% lands between 22.79% and 8.54%, being obviously closer to 8.54.

This means our 2% salicylic milk with a pH of 4.5 effectively has the same amount of free salicylate acid as a .5% salicylic acid product with a pH between 3.5 and 4 but closer to 4. If you think about it this way, the pH is still higher than optimal, but within a more acceptable range. Cosrx’s very popular BHA product, after all, has a pH of 4.0.

Possible Explanation #3

As mentioned earlier, pH strips are not super accurate. Salicylic Face Milk also contains a few oils, which may or may not complicate how well the strips work. If anyone else has this product and wants to give a pH test a go, I’d love to hear what the results are!

Back to the product. I like this product and I think it’s effective, despite its higher pH, but it’s not perfect. First, it smells a little bit like tiger balm to me (menthol-like). I think this is due to one of the extracts (probably Perilla Ocymoides Leaf Extract). I grew up with Tiger Balm and find it strangely comforting, but its definitely an acquired smell. Also, I like to use my acids in the morning and as the weather has gotten warmer, I suspect this product is making my face greasy. This face milk is not oily but leaves a bit of a film. For whatever reason, if I use this at night, I don’t notice the film, but in the mornings I have to be careful about how much I apply. This brings me to my third complaint. The instructions advise to apply the salicylic milk all over your face and to do so one to three times a day. Three times is definitely excessive and seems like it could easily lead to over-exfoliation. I would instead use this once a day at maximum and if using in the mornings, only use as a spot treatment or on problem areas to prevent excess greasiness or skin flakiness.

I have been using this product since mid-June and my face is noticeably less bumpy and inflammed. It seems stronger and slightly more effective at getting my breakouts under control than BS2.0, but I don’t think I like it better. Regardless, BHAs definitely have earned a firm spot in my routine. Even though I still have acne, BHAs have taken my face from pus-volcano-covered-mess-that-makes-me-never-want-to-leave-the-house to blemished-but-with-makeup-I-can-be-a-functional-human-being. When I first started breaking out, I became more self-conscious and ashamed of my physical appearance than I’ve ever been in my life. BHAs have not (yet) restored my blemish-free face, but it cleared things up enough to restore my self-confidence.


Gentle (no flaking or increased sensitivity) yet effective (hello purging) BHA with impressive anti-inflammatory properties but possibly questionable pH. If you’re looking for an Asian BHA product with more than .5% salicylic acid, this is a fantastic candidate!


  • non-drying
  • effective
  • anti-inflammatory


  • higher pH
  • menthol-like fragrance
  • feels filmy in warmer weather
  • DHC’s instructions seem very ill-advised

DHC Salicylic Face Milk

10 thoughts on “DHC Salicylic Face Milk Review also a Reexamination of Salicylic Acid’s Effective pH Range

  1. labmuffin says:

    Hey! Thanks for citing me with a linkback, I really appreciate it 🙂

    There are a couple of extra things I can think of, in addition to the hypotheses you’ve got (which I think are pretty good explanations), which could also help explain why it still works so well:

    * The pH strips are getting whacked out by the fact it’s not a simple solution and aren’t giving a valid result – The leftmost square is convincingly 5 while the next one is convincingly 4, which shouldn’t happen (although to be fair, I’ve never seen the real strip dipped into pH 4 or 5). It’s possible that the pH is closer to 4, and the first square of the indicator squares is reacting with something in the cream, and can’t turning red like it should.

    * The salicylic acid (can pass through skin) and the salicylate (can’t pass through skin) are in equilibrium – as the salicylic acid is absorbed, more of the salicylate turns into salicylic acid, so over time, much more than .057% ends up turning into salicylic acid and being absorbed.

    3 times a day sounds crazy! Who has time for that?

    Liked by 1 person

    • V. Rex says:

      No problem!! Your guide is the most detailed yet clear explanation of hydroxy acids and pH that I’ve seen! It’s helped me a lot!

      I like your ideas! I might play around a bit more with the pH strips to see if I can figure which of the two squares on the left might be acting funky. I also apply this 15 mins or so after using a l-ascorbic acid serum with a pH below 3 so maybe that’s helping bring down the pH of my skin enough that more salicylic acid is in free acid form? Either way something seems to be working!


  2. purupurupuririn says:

    When do you use this in your routine? Do you use it along with your other actives and wait 20mn like a normal BHA? Or do you use it as an emulsion of sorts?

    Liked by 1 person

    • V. Rex says:

      I use this with my actives- after vit C but before AHA. This breaks the thin to thick texture rule, but I apply sparingly and haven’t had an issue with using it this way!


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