By Cynthia Bailey MD. This page was updated on Tue, Oct 15, 2019
Salicylic acid is a great ingredient in skin care.
What is salicylic acid in skin care?
Salicylic acid, originally derived from willow bark, has been used for various medical disorders for over 2000 years. It is also present in wintergreen and sweet birch trees. In the 1800s, chemists discovered how to make salicylic acid in the lab. Medicated skin care products today are made with this synthetic form of pharmaceutically pure salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid is chemically related to aspirin but it is not exactly the same thing.
In dermatology, salicylic acid is used as a keratolytic. This means it loosens dead cells to exfoliate skin. Salicylic acid will also loosen living epidermal cells if used in high concentrations. It also is weakly bacteriostatic, fungicidal, and provides some protection from UV rays.
How Does Salicylic Acid Skin Care Help Improve Skin Problems?
Salicylic acid in creams, lotions, toners, shampoos and treatment pads is typically used to treat a variety of skin problems associated with excess dead skin cells (hyperkeratosis) including:
- plaque psoriasis,
- blackheads, and
- clogged pores.
These products are made to a maximum of 2% salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid skin care is also used for localized hyperkeratotic lesions like warts and corns in the form of plasters and lacquers applied to the lesions. Gels and ointments have been used to treat thick scaly palms and soles including palmoplantar psoriasis and keratoderma (such as the rough heels that women suffer after menopause). All of these products are either prescription or designed for small application areas and may be made with higher concentrations of salicylic acid.
Salicylic acid is thus used as a keratolytic where excess dead cell thickness is a problem. The best salicylic acid products are made with pharmaceutical grade salicylic acid.
How does salicylic acid skin care work for acne skin problems?
Salicylic acid decreases the build-up on the dead skin cells in the top skin layer called the stratum corneum. Blackheads and clogged pores have excess stratum corneum dead cells stuck in the opening of pores and this leads to comedones (blackheads) and clogged pores. Salicylic acid's comedolytic action makes it useful for treating blackheads and clogged pores. It has been a staple of acne care since the 1950s.
Salicylic acid is especially effective at penetrating sebum and deeply into oily clogged pores. It does this better than AHAs like glycolic acid. But it is less effective than the other keratolytics such as benzoyl peroxide, retinoids (including tretinoin/Retin A) and glycolic acid at loosening blackheads. When used together, salicylic acid helps other ingredients penetrate oily pores. This is why I combine salicylic acid skin care with glycolic acid and build skin care routines with salicylic acid and other keratolytics such as retinoids and benzoyl peroxide to treat stubborn skin problems.
Salicylic acid skin care and its role in anti-aging skin care
Salicylic acid also improves the appearance of sun-damaged skin. It is often used in cosmetic acid peels to reduce the appearance dull and rough skin due to sun damage. It is also present in some topical anti-aging products and you can find it partnered with other powerful anti-aging ingredients like retinol in a Complete Skin Care Routine to fight the signs of skin aging. I particularly like to use an exfoliating salicylic acid cleanser into an anti-aging skin care routine that also is aimed at fighting adult acne.
Is salicylic acid safe to use in skin care products?
It is important to know salicylic acid does not mix with some medicines like cortisones and vitamin D topical ointments for psoriasis. It should not be used during pregnancy. If strong salicylic acid preparations are applied to skin, this can lead to toxicity and result in death. This condition is called salicylism. This level of toxicity is difficult to reach because OTC concentrations are low. The FDA limits the concentration of salicylic acid at 2% in skin care products, cleansers and shampoos. Salicylic acid is a medicated ingredient considered a drug and is thus regulated by the FDA.
The concentration of salicylic acid in my products ranges from 0.5% in my Triple Action Exfoliating Cleanser to a full 2% in my professional acne treatment products.
My top choice for a salicylic acid skin care is to use an anti-aging and acne clearing cleanser
Triple Action Cleanser: Salicylic Acid, Glycolic Acid, and fine beads exfoliate skin. I use this product almost every day to cleanse my sensitive skin. It brightens skin and yet is still gentle enough for many sensitive complexions. It is my favorite salicylic acid skin care cleanser to brighten my 62-ish year old facial skin. I also use it with a Salux Cloth twice a week in the shower as part of my Ultra-Fast Triple Action Body Smoothing Kit to keep skin soft, satiny and free from age spots.
Best salicylic acid professional acne care products to heal acne and treat blackheads.
Get a full 2% salicylic acid in my Acne Treatment Cleansers. Select from 2% salicylic acid and 2% glycolic acid in my Acne Treatment Cleanser or 2% salicylic acid and 10% glycolic acid in my Extra Strength Acne Treatment Cleanser.
My Acne Treatment Pads are designed to help remove excess skin oil while delivering medicated 2% salicylic acid coupled with 2% glycolic acid or 10% glycolic acid in the Extra Strength Acne Treatment Pads. These pads are an excellent solution for people suffering from clogged pores and oily complexions.
My Ultimate Acne Solutions Kits combine the Acne Treatment Cleansers and Pads with Benzoyl Peroxide. The ingredient combination is synergistic to fight both blackheads and pimples. This helps prevent and treat acne scars. Choose from the Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit or the Extra Strength Ultimate Acne Solutions Kit.
Madan Raman K, MD, et. al., A Review of Toxicity From Topical Salicylic Acid Preparations, JAAD, 70 (4), 788-792
Del Rosso, Current Therapies and Research for Common Dermatologic Conditions, The Many Roles of Topical Salicylic Acid, The Dermatologist, 13 (4), 4/2005 http://www.the-dermatologist.com/article/3933
Merinville E, et. al., Three clinical studies showing the anti-aging benefits of sodium salicylate in human skin., J Cosmet Dermatol, 2010 Sep;9(3):174-84.
Decker Ashley, BS, MA, Graber Emmy M, Over the counter Acne Treatments, A Review, J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May; 5(5): 32-40