- Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in medications to treat acne and other skin conditions.
- It is available in many different formats, including creams, lotions and gels.
- In low concentrations, salicylic acid is generally safe and well tolerated.
Healthy skin can be achieved in part by keeping well hydrated (drink plenty of water!), shielding skin from the harmful effects of the sun, and enjoying a healthy diet. Sometimes skin – the largest organ of the body – can get marred by blemishes or plagued by redness, irritation, psoriasis, dandruff or warts. In these cases, one frequent means of relief that we can turn to comes in the form of products containing salicylic acid.
What is salicylic acid?
Salicylic acid is a plant hormone that has been studied for over 200 years in various medical applications. In fact, it is considered one of the most essential medical ingredients available.
“Salicylic acid belongs to a class of medications known as keratolytic agents, and is derived from sources like the bark of the white willow,” explains Dr. David Lortscher, board-certified dermatologist, CEO, and founder of curology.com. “It’s chemically similar to the active component in aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid). As such, it has anti-inflammatory properties that both heal and soothe the skin.”
Salicylic acid is a great multitasker. It removes dead skin cells, helping the body’s natural exfoliation process. Its very composition also allows it to work below the surface on the skin.
When dead cells on the skin clump together and mix with natural oils, this sludge can clog your pores, leading to whiteheads and blackheads. “Beta hydroxy acids (BHAs) like salicylic acid, with their oil-soluble properties,” explains Dr. Lortscher, “can exfoliate the lining of blocked pores and encourage our body’s natural oils to flow freely again.”
What is it used for?
Salicylic acid is seen in products used to treat a variety of skin conditions, namely:
It’s also effective in treating blackheads, whiteheads, and cysts.
How salicylic acid saves your skin
Salicylic acid can have a dramatic and positive effect on the way your skin looks.
Essentially, it clears pores by reducing excess oil production while simultaneously exfoliating dead skin cells. In addition, it helps to reduce inflammation, soothes the skin, and helps promote healthy cell turnover. As an added bonus, it increases collagen production and stimulates circulation.
Improves skin tone
Salicylic acid can help to tighten, firm, smooth and hydrate the skin, and may give it a brighter appearance. When skin exfoliation takes place, healthier looking skin is revealed underneath. The fine lines and wrinkles we associate with aging may also be diminished along with age spots and sun damage. This nicely balanced new skin tone is a result of salicylic acid’s anti-inflammatory properties.
Salicylic acid also targets comedones – little bumps that are an early sign of acne.
Blackheads are comedones that have remained open, while whiteheads are closed comedones. Salicylic acid can prevent both types of comedones from developing in the first place because of its deep cleansing action and penetration of pores. At the same time, it treats acne that already exists.
Smaller pores, drier skin
Salicylic acid also reduces the size of your pores. Pores often appear larger than they truly are when they are clogged with oil and debris. Salicylic acid decreases oil production, leading to drier skin overall, which is why it serves a dual purpose as a preventative as well as a curative entity. The trick, of course, is to find the right balance of oil for your skin, so that it does not become too dry.
Salicylic acid comes in several formats, including liquids, gels, lotions, wipes, shampoos and creams. “Each may be used differently,”says board-certified plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Cruise of Newport Beach, CA. The different formats and uses are:
- Toners that target dead cell build-up, dissolve oil and prevent breakouts.
- Exfoliating cleaners that remove dead cells and unclog pores.
- Face masks containing the acid dissolve oil.
- Chemical peels, which can be used to treat oily skin, clogged pores and acne.
Once you begin using salicylic acid, it is generally recommended that you continue so that your pores don’t become clogged again.
Salicylic acid is usually less irritating than products containing alpha-hydroxy acid because of its effectiveness at low concentrations. It is generally well tolerated, notes Dr. Lortscher.
“The small amounts of salicylic acid found in skin care (no more than 2% for toners and washes) are generally considered safe. However, high doses of salicylic acid in its oral form may cause problems in pregnancy, and to be safe, it is best avoided altogether when pregnant.”
Additionally, he cautions that there is some concern about using salicylic acid in higher concentrations, such as in peels, or over large areas of the body.
When you begin treatment, you may find that your skin stings or burns, becomes dry or red or begins to peel. For most people, these are transient effects that disappear as your skin becomes accustomed to salicylic acid.
“People who overuse it or have very sensitive skin may notice more irritation or dryness,” warns Dr. Cruise. “As such, it should never be used in combination with products containing Vitamin C, retinol or glycolic acids.”
When using skin products containing salicylic acid, read the package label carefully and follow the directions precisely. Make sure that the product does not come into direct contact with your eyes, nose, mouth or ears.
Quick tip: spread a bit of petroleum jelly near the areas of your skin you need to protect before using any of these products. It’s also important to look at the pH level of the product. If it is too high, it will burn your skin, and if it’s too low will not work effectively. Lastly, never apply it to skin that is broken, inflamed or otherwise irritated.
We’ve focused primarily on the effective use of salicylic acid to treat facial skin but it has many other uses. For example, as an ingredient in dandruff shampoos, salicylic acid has proven very effective as it targets both excessively dry and excessively oily skin.
Hair follicles, like pores, can become clogged. Salicylic acid can soften scaly skin so that it becomes easier to remove impurities. It has antiseptic properties and is sometimes added to toothpaste or mouthwashes as well.
It can also be used to treat calluses, warts, skin conditions like psoriasis, and fungal nail infections. However, it’s important to consult a healthcare professional before treating any of these yourself.
Sometimes it takes a while to see results. Many good salicylic acid-containing products are available over the counter while some require a physician’s prescription.
» Find out more about salicylic acid’s many uses and benefits: search Zwivel’s directory to find a cosmetic doctor who can advise you on what product is best for your skin type and concerns.
- Medline Plus: Salicylic Acid Topical (2016) medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a607072.html
- Pub Chem: Salicylic Acid (2018)pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/salicylic_acid
- Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety: Request for a Scientific Opinion on Salicylic Acid (2017) ec.europa.eu/health/sites/health/files/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs2016_q_020.pdf