Salicylic acid in Beauty Products, what does it do to your Skin?

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Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a derivative of phenolic compounds found in plant species.

Salicylic acid has been used to treat various skin disorders for more than 2,000 years. The ability of salicylic acid to exfoliate the stratum corneum makes it a good agent for acne peeling.

It is one of the tops of many dermatologists’ lists of acne-fighting ingredients.

Why? It helps dry up zits naturally and can also keep them from returning while improving skin texture.

Beyond just serving a natural acne remedy, this plant-derived ingredient has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, exfoliant, and mild antibacterial effects, making it a well-rounded ingredient to add to your natural skincare routine.

In this article:

what’s salicylic acid

Benefits/uses for skin

Side Effects

Where can you find salicylic acid?


Salicylic Acid vs Benzoyl Peroxide


What Is Salicylic Acid?

It’s technically a type of phenolic acid and beta-hydroxy acid. It’s one acid in the group of compounds called salicylates. It appears as a colorless, odorless, crystalline organic acid.

What is salicylic acid made of?

When used in creams, acne treatments, and other products, it’s derived from the willow bark tree, a plant that has a number of skin-soothing effects. It’s actually in the same class of drugs as aspirin (another salicylate), although it’s used differently.

Salicylic acid’s structure allows for it to be oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate through the oily, lipid layers of the skin. It’s considered a keratolytic agent, as it’s able to enter pores and clear up bacteria and oil that can lead to clogged pores, blackheads, and breakouts.

It can even break tiny connections between skin cells, acting as a natural exfoliant that removes dead cells, leaving the surface of the skin smoother.

Benefits/Uses for Skin

What does salicylic acid do to your skin?

Here’s what salicylic acid does to your skin:

  • Clearing up acne-prone skin and preventing future breakouts
  • Reducing blackheads and whiteheads
  • Helping exfoliate the skin
  • Decreasing dandruff and seborrhea dermatitis
  • Fighting warts, calluses, and corns
  • Treating skin conditions that involve scaling or overgrowth of skin cells, such as psoriasis and ichthyosis.

Here’s a bit more about how salicylic acid treats a variety of skin issues:

1. Unclogs Pores to Reduce Acne

Although it’s not always the best choice for people with sensitive or overly dry skin, salicylic acid can help clear up inflamed, red, and painful pimples. The primary way that it helps clear skin relatively quickly is by reducing oil, clogged pores, and swelling.

2. Has Exfoliating, Smoothing Effects

While some other ingredients may be better at killing bacteria that lead to acne and other skin issues, salicylic acid is one of the best at removing dead skin cells and smoothing skin.

As a type of keratolytic medication, it has the ability to improve skin texture by exfoliating both the inner and outer layers of the skin, reducing unevenness, and encouraging skin cell turnover.

3. Can Help Reduce Dandruff

While most people associate this ingredient with skincare, it can also be used to improve the health of your scalp and hair.

You can find salicylic acid shampoos in drug stores that are recommended for people with dandruff and seborrhea dermatitis (which causes an itchy, scaly scalp).

It helps reduce dandruff by exfoliating the scalp and removing dead skin cells.

4. May Help Treat Warts

When applied as a cream or ointment (often found in strips that are applied like Band-Aids), salicylic acid can help remove warts by exfoliating the skin and promoting the growth of normal, healthy skin cells.

According to an article published by Harvard Health, “it should usually be your first choice for treating warts.

According to one study, salicylic acid is the only topical treatment (treatment applied directly to the skin) that clearly outperforms a placebo. Salicylic acid costs little has minimal side effects, and comes in various over-the-counter preparations, including liquids, gels, and patches”

Risks and Side Effects

Does salicylic acid have any side effects?

Is it good for all skin types?

If you have sensitive skin that is prone to dryness or redness, this may not be the best ingredient for you, especially when used frequently.

It’s possible for salicylic acid to cause side effects (especially when first beginning to use it), including irritation, dryness, itching, peeling, and redness, particularly when overused or used on large amounts of the skin.

Because it can seep through the skin and be absorbed into the bloodstream, it should be avoided by women who are pregnant and anyone who takes blood-thinning medications.

It should also not be applied to the inside of the mouth, eyes, broken skin/cuts, moles, birthmarks, warts with hair growing from them, or genital/anal warts.

Where can you find salicylic acid?

There are now a variety of salicylic acid products available in drug stores, cosmetic stores, and even by prescription.

Salicylic acid product

These include:

  • Acne face washes and cleansers: These are often intended for daily use, some dermatologists recommend looking for facial products that contain a mix of different salicylic acids to experience the best results.
  • Acne “spot treatments:” are ointments or creams that are applied to existing zits or blemishes that are forming. Look for products with about 2 percent of the ingredient, a strength that is effective without overdoing it.
  • Body washes can treat acne on the back, chest, etc.
  • The salicylic acid shampoo is used to reduce scalp dandruff.
  • Wipes, pads, and patches that are applied to the skin or scalp.


How much salicylic acid should you use?

Most products meant for use on your face are available over-the-counter in concentrations of about 0.5 percent to 2 percent salicylic acid.

Dermatologists also offer treatments such as salicylic acid peels that use much higher doses, up to 20 percent to 30 percent, but these treatments are not meant for regular use and are only performed if your doctor thinks they will be safe and effective.

How long should you use salicylic acid to treat warts?

For treating warts on thicker skin, concentrations range from 17 percent to 40 percent. This concentration needs to be used with caution, as side effects are possible.

If you’re using this ingredient to remove warts, read the directions carefully. Often, the bandages will be applied about every 48 hours for several weeks. (It may take as long as 12 weeks for a wart to go away.)

You can also treat a wart by soaking it for 10 to 15 minutes in the bath, then using an emery board or pumice stone to exfoliate the skin, then applying salicylic acid gel/cream once or twice a day, for several weeks until it goes away.

Is it OK to use salicylic acid every day?

Depending on your skin type and condition, topical salicylic acid may be used as often as several times a day or as infrequently as several times a week. If you don’t have sensitive skin and only apply a small amount daily, ideally along with a moisturizer, you may be able to tolerate daily use.

However, if you notice your skin becoming dry and irritated, back off for several weeks.

It may take several weeks or longer for you to feel the full benefit of these products.

It’s best to use small amounts of this product at first and then gradually more as your skin adjusts. If applying twice daily, be sure to use a gentle cleanser and moisturize your skin often, which helps prevent too much dryness and peeling.

It’s best to apply this ingredient to acne-prone areas of your skin, rather than large patches of skin. This helps prevent you from absorbing too much.

Salicylic Acid vs Benzoyl Peroxide: Which Is Better?

Both of these ingredients are found in many acne products.

Benzoyl peroxide (available in face washes, spot treatments, masks, and creams) helps kill acne-causing bacteria within the skin that can lead to small infections and blemishes. It has stronger antibacterial effects, but salicylic acid works best for exfoliating and clearing blackheads and whiteheads.

Both should be used with caution by those with dry skin, sensitive skin, and allergies, especially benzoyl peroxide, which can be very drying.


It’s a type of phenolic acid and beta hydroxyl acid that is derived from the willow bark tree. It has anti-inflammatory, exfoliant, and antibacterial properties.

Salicylic acid uses for skin and hair include reducing acne blemishes, preventing blackheads and whiteheads from causing breakouts, exfoliating the skin, reducing inflammation and uneven skin tone, and decreasing dandruff.

Many salicylic acid products are available over-the-counter and by prescription, depending on your skin type and goals. For example, face washes, gels, and creams may be used to fight acne, while salicylic acid shampoo can be used to treat dandruff.

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