By Cynthia Bailey MD. This page was updated on Tue, Oct 15, 2019
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 it synthetically.
In dermatology, salicylic acid is used as a keratolytic. This means it loosens dead cells – and living epidermal cells if used in high concentrations. It is also bacteriostatic, fungicidal, and protects from UV damage.
How Does Salicylic Acid Help Improve Skin Problems?
Salicylic acid is typically used for plaque psoriasis, blackheads, and clogged pores. It’s also used for thick scaly palms and soles and other localized hyperkeratotic lesions like warts and corns. It is basically used where excess dead cell thickness is a problem.
Salicylic acid decreases the build-up on the dead skin layer called the stratum corneum. Salicylic acid is comedolytic and thus useful for treating blackheads. But it is not as effective as tretinoin (Retin A). It has been a staple of acne care since the 1950s. It can penetrate oil better than AHAs like glycolic acid.
It is used for keratoderma climactericum (post menopause old lady scaly feet – like mine), seborrheic dermatitis, and hyperpigmentation. It can be used in shampoo for scalp dandruff and psoriasis.
Salicylic acid also improves the appearance of sun-damaged skin. It is often used in peels. It is also present in topical, antiaging products. Salicylic acid products are often partnered with other powerful antiaging ingredients like retinol in a complete skin care routine.
Is Salicylic Acid Safe?
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. Salicylic acid is a drug regulated by the FDA.
Check out my products with this powerful ingredient!
-Triple Action Cleanser: Salicylic Acid, Glycolic Acid, and fine beads exfoliate skin
-Ultimate Acne Solutions Kits: These combine Acne Treatment Cleanser and Pads with Benzoyl Peroxide
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