Types, Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Types, Uses, Benefits, and Side Effects

Salicylic acid is used to treat a variety of skin conditions, including acne, psoriasis, dandruff, and warts. It is classified as a keratolytic agent, a compound that can break down the outer layer of your skin, and it’s best known for its ability to rejuvenate and exfoliate the skin. Salicylic acid also has anti-infection and anti-fungal properties. It’s derived from the bark of white willows and wintergreen leaves but is also produced synthetically.

Though it’s usually well tolerated, salicylic acid can cause side effects, as well as drying and irritation, if not used according to instructions. Consult a healthcare provider, like a dermatologist, before using salicylic acid to treat a specific skin condition. A dermatologist is a medical doctor who specializes in skin, hair, and nails.

Salicylic acid is sold as part of many different products and in several forms. You can purchase salicylic acid over-the-counter (OTC). Sometimes, it’s prescribed by dermatologists.

Salicylic acid comes in a variety of types, including pads or wipes, cleansers, moisturizers/lotions, liquid/gels, skin peels, and shampoos.

Products containing salicylic acid are used to treat many different skin conditions, such as:

Cleansers and Wipes

Acne medications containing salicylic acid usually come in the form of a cleanser or wipe. Salicylic acid for acne works by opening clogged pores and exfoliating the skin. It’s usually recommended for the treatment of pimples and whiteheads. Always follow instructions carefully for these medications, as they can dry out and irritate the skin if not used cautiously.

Gels and Liquids

Salicylic acid often comes in gel and liquid form. This is the most common form used to treat warts. Plaster pads may also be used for wart treatment. You can get salicylic wart medication OTC and treatment can be done at home. These pads usually need to be used daily, for weeks, for the wart to fully disappear. Wart treatments are highly concentrated forms of salicylic acid that work by slowly peeling away the skin where the wart is and causing the wart to disappear.

Gel and liquid forms of salicylic acid are also sold to treat acne, but these preparations are usually much less concentrated than the ones used to treat warts. Never use a wart salicylic medication to treat other skin conditions.

Moisturizers and Lotions

Sometimes salicylic acid is used as an ingredient in various moisturizers and lotions. Salicylic acid is an exfoliant, but it can dry out the skin. Keeping the skin hydrated with a moisturizer can help balance the effects of salicylic acid. Read the labels carefully for any salicylic moisturizer you use, to ensure you can tolerate the other ingredients.


When salicylic acid is used to treat seborrheic dermatitis (dandruff), it usually comes in the form of a shampoo. The salicylic acid in the shampoo can help exfoliate and renew the skin on the scalp, thereby reducing dandruff. Salicylic acid shampoos may also be used to treat psoriasis and ichthyosis.

Face Peels

Salicylic acid’s strong exfoliating features make it a good candidate for face peel, particularly in people prone to acne. Salicylic face peels are also used to treat melasma, freckles, liver spots, and sun damage.

Face peels (chemical peeling) work by exfoliating superficial skin layers, causing new skin to regenerate. Although salicylic face peels are sometimes sold OTC, it’s usually recommended that you do a face peel under the guidance and care of a dermatologist.

The best way to use a salicylic product is to read the instructions for usage and follow them carefully. Each product will have specific instructions for how much to use how often and other precautions. Consult your healthcare provider about specific usages, even for OTC salicylic products, and follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. These products tend to be highly concentrated and should be used cautiously.

You might notice extra dryness and irritation at first. It’s usually best to use salicylic acid products sparingly and gradually increase to larger amounts. Try a “patch test” by applying a small amount to your skin, waiting several days, and seeing if there is any severe reaction.

Other important usage instructions include:

  • Never place salicylic acid near your eyes, mouth, or nose
  • Never swallow salicylic acid
  • Don’t apply salicylic acid to damaged, broken, or infected skin
  • Don’t apply salicylic acid to areas of your skin not affected by your skin condition
  • Don’t use a bandage or dressing over the salicylic acid application unless directed to do so by a healthcare provider
  • Don’t combine salicylic acid products with abrasive soaps or products containing alcohol, benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol, sulfur, or tretinoin, as your skin can become extremely irritated
  • Always read the package label and follow instructions carefully
  • Sometimes it can take several weeks for a salicylic acid product to work most effectively

Salicylic acid products are typically tolerated well and have minimal side effects, especially if used according to instructions. The most common side effects are:

  • Mild stinging
  • Dryness
  • Irritation
  • Flushing or reddening of the skin
  • Increased warmth to the skin

If you’ve ever had an allergic reaction to salicylic acid, you should not use it. Children under the age of two should not use salicylic acid. Talk to your pediatrician before using it with older children. Salicylic acid can be absorbed into the skin and may affect fetuses. Any pregnant parent should discuss the risks and benefits of using salicylic acid with a healthcare provider.

Although it’s possible to use an OTC salicylic acid product without guidance from a healthcare provider, it’s usually best to consult a provider first. Your healthcare provider can help you choose the right product for your particular skin condition and give you instructions. Also talk to your doctor about any allergies you have, medications you take, and vitamins and herbs you use.

Only use products aimed toward the specific condition you are treating. Salicylic acid medications have varying strengths. For example, salicylic acid products used for wart removal usually are highly concentrated and may contain up to 27% salicylic acid. On the other hand, salicylic acid for acne usually contains 2-5% salicylic acid. Too much salicylic acid used on your face can seriously irritate your skin while using too little salicylic acid for wart treatment might not be effective.

Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that is most commonly used to treat acne. It can also be used to treat dandruff, warts, psoriasis, and other common skin conditions. While salicylic acid is usually well tolerated, it can cause irritation and excessive dryness if not used properly.

Always follow the instructions carefully for whatever salicylic acid product you use and consult with your healthcare provider if you have further questions.

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