Salicylic Acid Treatments for Acne

Treating Acne with Salicylic Acid

Salicylic Acid
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Salicylic acid is an ingredient that's popular in many over-the-counter acne products and treatment procedures.  It's used to treat all types of acne, but it works best against comedonal acne, non-inflamed breakouts, and blackheads. 

A close cousin to the more familiar alpha hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is beta hydroxy acid.  It's naturally occurring in white willow bark and wintergreen, but most of the salicylic acid used today is synthesized.


How Salicylic Acid Works

Salicylic acid works as an exfoliant, helping your skin to shed dead skin cells more effectively.  

Salicylic acid is especially helpful in treating acne because of its ability to penetrate the follicle. It encourages the shedding of dead skin cells from within the follicle, helping keep the pores clear. And keeping the pores clear is the first step in getting all types of blemishes under control.

Salicylic acid has other benefits, too.  It 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 acne breakouts and blackheads.  It really won't have much of an 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 light duty chemical peels exfoliate more deeply than over-the-counter salicylic acid products, so they can help treat moderate to severe cases of acne.  They're typically safe for all skin types, even medium to dark complexions, because salicylic acid peels won't cause hyperpigmentation.

You can't do these types of peels yourself at home.  You can only get them at your dermatologist's office, medical spa, and at some day spas. 

To get the best results, you'll need more than one peel.  And 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 of Salicylic Acid

Most people can use salicylic acid without any big problems.  But you may notice some side effects when you're using salicylic acid.  The most common are dryness, peeling, and flaking.  You can usually keep this under control by using an oil-free moisturizer every day.

Sometimes, salicylic acid causes stinging, burning, and skin irritation.  This is especially true if you're using salicylic acid in conjunction with other acne treatment products like topical retinoids or benzoyl peroxide

As always, you should talk with your doctor if you're having side effects that are particularly bothersome.  Not sure if salicylic acid is the right acne treatment for you?  Again, your dermatologist is a great resource.

Next Steps:

How To Choose an OTC Acne Treatment

Acne Treatment at the Salon


Arif T.  "Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review."  Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol.  2015 Aug; 8:455-61. 

Gamble R, Dunn J, Dawson A, Petersen B, McLaughlin L, et. al.  "Topical antimicrobial treatment of acne vulgaris: an evidence-based review."  2012 Jun 1; 13(3):141-52.

Kircik LH, Gwazdauskas J, Butners V, Eastern J, Green LJ.  "Evaluation of the efficacy, tolerability, and safety of an over-the-counter acne regimen containing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid in subjects with acne."  J Drugs Dermatol.  2013 Mar; 12(3):259-64.

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