Salicylic Acid Acne Treatments

Salicylic acid is an ingredient commonly used in many over-the-counter (OTC) acne products and treatment procedures. It works as an exfoliant, helping skin to shed dead skin cells more effectively. A close cousin of alpha hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid. Besides being used to treat acne, salicylic acid also is used to treat warts, psoraisis, and reduce signs of aging.

Woman cleaning face with cleansing pad
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How Salicylic Acid Works

Salicylic acid is found naturally in white willow bark and wintergreen and also can be synthesized (created in a lab). It's especially helpful in treating acne because of its ability to penetrate the follicle, where it encourages the shedding of dead skin cells from within the follicle, helping keep the pores clear. It works best against non-inflamed breakouts and blackheads. Salicylic acid also helps to decrease oil and inflammation. 

On its own, salicylic acid isn't the most effective acne treatment out there. But its claim to fame lies in its ability to help other acne-fighting ingredients penetrate the skin better.

Over-the-Counter Salicylic Acid

You can get salicylic acid in many over-the-counter acne treatments, from cleansers to toners, medicated pads, and creams. Over-the-counter salicylic acid products are found in strengths ranging from .5% to 2%.

OTC salicylic acid works best for mild pimples and comedonal acne. It won't have much effect on more severe types of acne; for that, you'll need a prescription treatment.

No matter what type of salicylic acid product you use, make sure you're applying it over the entire face or affected body area. Dabbing it just on the pimples you can see won't help. Apply over the entire affected area so the medication can prevent pore blockages and help clear microcomedones (tiny blemishes too small yet to see.)

Professional Salicylic Acid Treatments

Salicylic acid is also used as a chemical peel agent. Salicylic acid peels are stronger than OTC products, in strengths of 20% up to 30%.

These superficial chemical peels exfoliate more deeply than over-the-counter salicylic acid products, so they can help treat moderate acne and, in certain cases, severe acne. They're typically safe for all skin types, even medium to dark complexions because salicylic acid peels won't cause hyperpigmentation.

You cannot do these types of peels yourself at home. You can only get them at your dermatologist's office, medical spa, and day spas. To get the best results, you'll need more than one peel.

Salicylic acid peels generally aren't used as the sole acne treatment. They're most often used along with another acne medication. Your dermatologist can help decide if these peels are the best course of treatment for your acne.

Possible Side Effects 

Most people can use salicylic acid without any big problems. But you may notice some side effects when you're using salicylic acid, among them:

  • Dryness
  • Peeling and flaking
  • Stinging or burning
  • Skin irritation

Most side effects are just a nuisance and can usually be kept under control by using an oil-free moisturizer every day.

You're more likely to experience more significant side effects if you're using salicylic acid in conjunction with other acne treatment products, like topical retinoids or benzoyl peroxide.

Talk with your doctor if you're having side effects that are particularly bothersome. And if you're using a prescription acne medication, always ask your dermatologist first before adding a salicylic acid product to your daily routine.

A Word From Verywell

Over-the-counter salicylic acid acne products work best if you have minor blackheads, rough bumpy skin, or mild pimples. OTC salicylic acid won't work on more serious, inflamed acne breakouts. Professional salicylic acid peels may be a good add-on treatment, but their typically not used as the sole treatment for acne.

Not sure if salicylic acid is the right acne treatment for you? Your dermatologist is a great resource, so don't be shy in asking for advice.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • National Center for Biotechnology Information. Salicylic acid. Apr 15, 2021.