Salicylic Acid Acne Treatments

If you have acne, there are many options to choose from in the battle against breakouts. One acne-fighting product that is commonly used and easy to find is salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid has numerous benefits for the skin, and it can have a major impact on your overall appearance or complexion. To help you understand this ingredient, let’s look at what salicylic acid is and how it treats acne.

Acne Treatment

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What Is Salicylic Acid?

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 and psoraisis, and to reduce signs of aging.

How Does It Treat Acne?

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.

Before Taking

Before using topical salicylic acid, it is important to:

  • Avoid use if you are allergic to salicylic acid or any of the ingredients in salicylic acid products.
  • Avoid abrasive soaps or cleansers, skin care products that contain alcohol, and other topical acne medications that can cause more irritation, such as benzoyl peroxide and tretinoin.
  • To minimize any potentially serious interactions, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist what prescription and nonprescription medications (e.g., vitamins, nutritional supplements, and herbal products) you are taking.

Precautions and Contraindications

Salicylic acid preparations can lead to serious complications. It is important to:

  • Avoid use in children and teenagers who have the chicken pox or the flu unless they have been directed to use it by a healthcare provider. There is a risk that they may develop Reye's syndrome (a serious condition that can cause liver and brain damage).
  • Avoid or minimize use if you are pregnant, plan to become pregnant, or are breastfeeding. Salicylic acid is related to aspirin and can increase the risk of bleeding.
  • Avoid use if you have diabetes or blood vessel, kidney, or liver disease.

How To Use

Topical salicylic acid is available in many different forms, such as gels, lotions, creams, ointments, soaps, medicated pads, toners, and peels. It is important to use salicylic acid exactly as directed on the label, or as prescribed by your healthcare provider.

Over-the-Counter Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid is available 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 0.5% 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 area so the medication can prevent pore blockages and help clear microcomedones (tiny blemishes too small to see yet).

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 significant side effects if you're using salicylic acid along with other acne treatment products, like topical retinoids or benzoyl peroxide.

When to Seek Help

Stop using salicylic acid products and get emergency medical help if you have signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction, such as hives, itching, difficulty breathing, dizziness, or swelling of your face, lips, tongue, or throat.

Talk with your healthcare provider 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 they're 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I avoid side effects when starting salicylic acid for acne?

    Start slowly. With topical salicylic acid, you may want to use the product less often at first—every other day, for example—and gradually increase to avoid excessive dryness. Follow the directions on the product or ask your doctor if you have any questions.

  • How can you use salicylic acid for acne scars?

    Over-the-counter creams with salicylic acid may help reduce the appearance of acne scars. Your dermatologist may also recommend chemical peels with salicylic acid. One study found that 30% salicylic acid was the most effective concentration in peels for acne scars.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. Sarkar R, Bansal S, Garg VK. Chemical peels for melasma in dark-skinned patients. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2012; 5(4): 247–253. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.104912

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Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.