Fast Facts            

Type of Ingredient: A chemical exfoliant and antifungal.

Main Benefits: Key additive in many skin-care products for the treatment of acne, psoriasis, calluses, corns, keratosis pilaris, and warts.

Who Should Use It: Generally people suffering from acne and blackheads

Ideal For These Concerns: Acne, sun damage, blackheads, whiteheads

How Often Can You Use It: Can be used two to three times a day. 

Works well with: Salicylic acid works especially well with benzoyl peroxide, together they form a powerful acne-fighting agent.


What is salicylic acid? 

Salicylic Acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that occurs naturally in plants. It works as an topical anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial agent due to its ability to promote exfoliation. Salicylic acid is in a class of skin medications called keratolytic agents. Topical salicylic acid treats acne by reducing swelling and redness and unplugging blocked skin pores to allow pimples to shrink. It treats other skin conditions by softening and loosening dry, scaly, or thickened skin so that it falls off or can be removed easily.Cosmetic chemist Randy Schueller explains, "The hydroxy part of the molecule is separated from the acid part by two carbon atoms, as opposed to an alpha hydroxy acid where they're separated by one carbon atom. This structure is important because it makes salicylic acid more oil-soluble so it can penetrate the pores of the skin.” Naissan O. Wesley, a board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles further explains, “Once it penetrates the skin, salicylic acid dissolves skin debris that clogs pores, [acts] as an anti-inflammatory and also helps red inflamed pimples and pustules go away faster.”

The benefits of salicylic acid 

An exfoliant: Salicylic acid breaks down the skin cells which also promotes exfoliation. "Keratolytic medications cause softening and sloughing of the top layer of skin cells," says Rachel Nazarian, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City.

Removes blackheads and whiteheads: The thing about acne is that the skin cells don’t behave normally; rather than sloughing off through a healthy skin cell cycle, they stick together and clog the pores, creating cysts and blackheads. Salicylic acid helps remove and loosen these skin cells to help dissolve the blackheads.

Dandruff: When used in lower concentrations, salicylic acid can speed up the desquamation process and aid in conditions such as dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis, which are caused by a slowing down of skin cells sloughing off.

Astringent: Salicylic acid is also a highly effective astringent; it can minimize the appearance of pores, tighten the skin, and reduce oiliness.

Reduce blemishes: Another great use for salicylic acid is to help reduce blemishes and hyperpigmentations, especially the ones cause by acne. Salicylic acid can be useful in helping to even the skin tone and reduce discoloration in acne scars.

According to Mayo clinic, adults should use salicylic acid in topical medications in these concentrations:



Percent of salicylic acid

How often to use



once per day



1 to 3 times per day



as needed



1 to 3 times per day



as needed



1 to 3 times per day


Salicylic acid’s Skincare Power Duo 

Most skincare and acne medications work much more efficiently when paired with other ingredients: Salicylic acid works like an exfoliant, which helps dissolve clogged pores. And Benzoyl peroxide heals existing acne as well as dries it out. Using them together can help treat acne.   

Just a note, combining salicylic acid with other acids such as glycolic acid can potentially cause severe skin dehydration.



The safety of salicylic acid used as a cosmetic ingredient has been evaluated by both the cosmetic industry and the FDA. At a meeting in February 2000, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, the cosmetic industry's independent body for reviewing the safety of cosmetic ingredients, concluded that the use of salicylic acid in cosmetics is "safe as used when formulated to avoid irritation and when formulated to avoid increased sun sensitivity." CIR added that "when sun sensitivity would be expected, directions for use [should] include the daily use of sun protection."


Some known side effects of salicylic acid include:

-       Skin tingling

-       Severe itching

-       Rash

-       Hives


Even though salicylic acid is available in over the counter products, make sure to talk with your doctor before using it. Especially in case of allergic reactions to salicylic acid or other topical medications, uses for children under the age of 2, or any potential drugs interactions.




O'Neil, M.J. (ed.). The Merck Index - An Encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck and Co., Inc., 2006., p. 1438