What to Expect From a Salicylic Acid Peel

Benefits, side effects, and how they are done

Salicylic acid peels are treatments used to deeply exfoliate the surface layers of the skin. Salicylic acid breaks the bonds that hold the skin's cells together, causing them to shed away or peel. As the skin regenerates, it is rejuvenated.

Compared to other types of chemical peels, salicylic acid peels have a gentle exfoliating action. Superficial salicylic acid peels can be done at home with over-the-counter products. Stronger salicylic acid peels that penetrate more deeply are performed by an esthetician or dermatologist.

Young woman getting a professional salicylic acid peel
John Burke / Getty Images

Benefits of Salicylic Acid Peels

Many skin types can benefit from salicylic acid peels. And, because they are fairly gentle, these treatments can be used by people who aren't good candidates for other types of peels.

Brighter, Smoother Skin

Immediately following a salicylic acid peel, you'll notice your skin feels softer and smoother. Salicylic acid peels can brighten your complexion.

They also will give your skin a better texture and make large pores look smaller.

Treat Acne and Blackheads

Salicylic acid peels are particularly helpful for treating acne and blackheads. Salicylic acid is a strong comedolytic, which means it helps unclog pores. It also helps decrease the amount of oil on the skin.

Regular salicylic acid peels can help improve both inflammatory acne and comedonal acne.

Reduce Sun Damage, Fine Lines, and Wrinkles

Salicylic acid peels are also used as anti-aging peels. While they can't erase deep lines and wrinkles, they can soften fine lines and give your complexion a boost.

This treatment is especially good at treating sun damage, too.

Fade Dark Spots and Uneven Skin Tone

A series of salicylic acid peel treatments can fade dark spots and discolorations like melasma, freckles, and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (the discoloration that is left behind after a pimple heals).

At-Home Salicylic Acid Peels

At-home peels can contain up to 20% salicylic acid and work on the very surface of the skin. Regular use can give you smoother, softer, brighter skin, improve mild breakouts, and fade minor imperfections.

Superficial at-home salicylic acid peel products are available over-the-counter (OTC) at cosmetic stores, salons, and other stores that sell skincare products.

Products come in many forms, from creams and gels to liquid solutions and pads.

Despite the name, at-home salicylic acid peels won't actually cause your skin to peel. Rather, they allow dead skin cells to slough away more quickly.

How They're Done

Read the instructions for your at-home peel product and follow them exactly. Every product is different and should be used as directed.

Some salicylic acid products are meant to be left on overnight, while others should be washed off after just a few minutes. Be sure to pay special attention to this instruction.

What to Know

Some things to know before you use an at-home peel:

  • You may feel a tingling or very minor warming sensation during your at-home peel: Uncomfortable stinging or burning is not normal during an at-home peel. If you experience it, rinse the peel off with plenty of water and a gentle cleanser right away.
  • More is not better: Where most people get into trouble is leaving the peel on for longer than recommended, or doing them too often. This won't get you better results but can irritate your skin.
  • Peels may not mix well with other skincare products: Some prescription medications, especially those for acne or anti-aging like topical retinoids and isotretinoin, also cause rapid exfoliation of the skin. Pairing those with an OTC salicylic acid peel can irritate your skin.

A good rule of thumb: If you're under a doctor's care for a skin condition, get their OK before using an at-home peel.

Professional Salicylic Acid Peels

For stronger salicylic acid peels, you'll have to see the pros. Superficial to medium-depth peels can be done by an esthetician in a salon or skin-spa setting. Dermatologists can do stronger salicylic acid peels that work on deeper layers of the skin.

Professional peels range from 30% to 50% salicylic acid. Peels done in the dermatologist's office are also lower in pH than those done at the salon, making them even more powerful.

How They're Done

A professional salicylic acid peel is a fairly quick procedure when done in your dermatologist's office. At the salon, it's often done as an add-on to a facial treatment.

Here's a general sense of how a professional salicylic acid peel is performed:

  1. Your skin is thoroughly cleansed: A peel preparation solution, similar to an astringent, is applied to your skin with cotton balls or pads.
  2. Sensitive areas are protected: A bit of petroleum jelly may be applied to your lips and around your nostrils to help shield this delicate skin from the treatment.
  3. Salicylic acid solution is applied to the skin with cotton pads, large cotton swabs, or sponges. It only takes a few seconds to apply the peel solution. You'll get one to three applications of the solution, one on top of the other, depending on what the technician doing your peel feels is appropriate for you.
  4. The solution is left on your skin for about three to five minutes. During this time you'll probably feel some mild burning or stinging. Some practitioners will use a small handheld fan to help cool your skin during the peel.
  5. The peel is neutralized with water or a special solution. Others self-neutralize after a certain length of time.
  6. Your skin is cleansed: Any remaining product is washed from your face with plain water or a gentle cleanser. A very mild moisturizer may also be applied.

What to Know

Having just one peel done will give your skin a bright, healthy glow and leave it feeling softer and smoother.

To treat other skin issues, you'll need a series of peels done. This may mean three to 10 peels over the course of several weeks to months. But this will vary widely depending on your budget, time commitment, and desired results.

Other important things to know:

  • Be sure to tell the professional performing the peel about any and all other skincare products and treatments you are using.
  • More applications in a single session equals a stronger peel.
  • Most say their skin feels slightly uncomfortable during a professional peel. It should not be painful.

Post-Peel Care

Your skin will likely be red and may look tight and shin immediately after the peel. The hot or stinging sensation can last for a few hours, but it should be mild and feel similar to a sunburn.

Depending on how strong of a peel was done, you may get flaking and peeling skin anywhere from two to four days post-treatment. Peeling will be minor and resolves in about a week.

During the first few days post-peel, treat your skin gently. Wash with mild cleansers only. Use gentle moisturizers to help with dryness or flaking.

Use Sunscreen

Whatever peel you use, whether pro or DIY, it's imperative you use a sunscreen every day after your treatment. Your newly peeled skin will be more sensitive to the sun, making you more prone to sunburn.

Your skincare professional should be able to recommend after-peel products that are best for you.

Side Effects of Salicylic Acid Peels

Chemical peels, in general, are safe procedures. You'll be more likely to see side effects after a deep salicylic acid peel than a superficial salon peel. Still, even strong salicylic acid peels generally won't cause side effects substantial enough to keep you from your daily activities.

You may experience:

  • Stinging or mildly tender skin
  • Dryness, peeling, and flaking
  • Crusting
  • Herpes simplex blisters (cold sores), if you're prone to them
  • Abnormal lightening or darkening of the skin, which is usually temporary

Who Shouldn't Use Salicylic Acid Peels

Evidence has shown that salicylic acid peels aren't right for you if you:

  • Are allergic to topical salicylates
  • Are pregnant
  • Have a rash, broken skin, sunburn, or irritation, in the area where the peel will be done
  • Currently use isotretinoin: In many states, estheticians are restricted from doing a peel until you have been off of isotretinoin for six months. Dermatologists have no such restrictions and can do them whenever they deem safe for your skin.


Salicylic acid peels are safe for most skin types. You have plenty of options, too.

At-home peels are the least expensive of the bunch, but they aren't as powerful as professional peels you can get at your salon or dermatologist's office. A series of peels will garner you the best results.

As always, if you're under a doctor's care, make sure you get their approval before starting any type of salicylic acid peel treatment, professional or otherwise.

3 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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  2. Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:455-61. doi:10.2147/CCID.S84765

  3. Nikalji N, Godse K, Sakhiya J, Patil S, Nadkarni N. Complications of medium depth and deep chemical peels. J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2012;5(4):254-60. doi:10.4103/0974-2077.104913

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