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Salicylic Acid

Treating Acne with Salicylic Acid


Updated May 20, 2014

Salicylic Acid
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Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid commonly used to treat comedonal or non-inflamed acne. It is a popular ingredient in many over-the-counter products. Salicylic acid is found in lotions and creams, cleansers, medicated treatment pads, solutions or "toners."

How it Works

Salicylic acid helps correct the abnormal desquamation process that occurs in acne-prone skin. It works as an exfoliant, promoting the sloughing away of dead skin cells.

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 of cellular debris. In this way, it reduces the number of pore blockages and breakouts on the skin.

Common Directions

Over-the-counter salicylic acid products are found in strengths ranging from .5% to 2%. Typical use consists of a once-daily application. Of course, follow all directions printed on the package.

Depending on your preference, begin by using either salicylic acid pads or a salicylic acid lotion, cream, or gel. Do not use both. Using several salicylic acid products will excessively dry the skin, and will not clear acne any faster. After the skin is sufficiently clear, a salicylic acid wash or scrub can often be used in place of gels or pads to maintain clear skin.

As with most topical treatment medications, salicylic acid must be applied over the entire face or affected body area. Using the product only as a spot treatment on visible breakouts is ineffective. Apply over the entire affected area so the medication can prevent pore blockages and help clear microcomedones (tiny blemishes too small yet to see.)

Continuous use of a salicylic acid product is necessary to obtain and maintain positive results. If you stop using your treatment product, the pores will again clog with excess oil and dead cells, and acne can return.

Some common products containing salicylic acid include:

  • Oxy products
  • Noxzema Anti-Acne Gel
  • Noxzema Anti-Acne Pads
  • Stridex products
  • Dermalogica Medicated Clearing Gel

Possible Side Effects

Salicylic acid can cause stinging, burning, and skin irritation. You may also experience dryness, peeling, and flaking of the skin. These side effects can usually be effectively controlled with daily use of an oil-free moisturizer.

If irritation or dryness is bothersome, try scaling back use to every other day. Using salicylic acid in conjunction with other acne treatment products such as retinoids (Retin A, Differin) or benzoyl peroxide can increase dryness, peeling, or stinging. As always, stop using salicylic acid if you experience undue irritation and tell your doctor.

Pregnant or nursing women should talk to their doctor before using salicylic acid, especially if using the product over a large area of the body (as with body acne).

Video: How Salicylic Acid Treats Acne


Shalita AR. "Comparison of a salicylic acid cleanser and a benzoyl peroxide wash in the treatment of acne vulgaris." Clinical Therapeutics (1989). Mar-Apr; 11(2): 264-267.

Zander E; Weisman S. "Treatment of acne vulgaris with salicylic acid pads." Clinical Therapeutics (1992). Mar-Apr; 14(2): 247-253.

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