The frequency and quantity of salicylic acid in skincare products dictate the recommended application frequency. Visible results may require several weeks of consistent use.

As a beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid is renowned for its efficacy in combating acne through skin exfoliation and pore clearance.

Salicylic acid is present in various over-the-counter (OTC) products and is also accessible in prescription-strength formulations.

Primarily effective against mild acne such as blackheads and whiteheads, salicylic acid can also serve as a preventive measure against future breakouts.

Continue reading to understand salicylic acid’s role in acne clearance, optimal form and dosage guidelines, and potential side effects to watch out for.

Table of Contents

  1. How does salicylic acid work on acne?
  2. What form and dosage of salicylic acid is recommended for acne?
  3. Does salicylic acid have any side effects?
  4. Precautions to be aware of before using salicylic acid
  5. Takeaway

How does Salicylic acid work on acne?

Salicylic acid is a potent tool in the fight against acne, and understanding how it works is crucial to appreciating its effectiveness. This beta hydroxy acid (BHA) penetrates deep into the skin, where it works its magic by dissolving excess oil and dead skin cells that clog pores, leading to the formation of acne. Its lipophilic nature allows it to penetrate oily skin and effectively exfoliate within the pores, making it particularly beneficial for those with oily or acne-prone skin.

One of the key mechanisms of salicylic acid is its ability to break down the bonds between skin cells, facilitating the shedding of dead skin cells. By doing so, it helps to unclog pores and prevent new acne lesions from forming. Additionally, salicylic acid possesses anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce redness and swelling associated with acne.

Moreover, salicylic acid has the ability to regulate excess sebum production. Sebum, the skin’s natural oil, can contribute to the development of acne when produced in excess. Salicylic acid helps to normalize sebum production, thereby reducing the likelihood of pores becoming clogged and acne forming.

Overall, salicylic acid offers a multifaceted approach to treating acne by exfoliating the skin, unclogging pores, reducing inflammation, and regulating sebum production. Its ability to target multiple factors involved in acne formation makes it a highly effective ingredient in skincare products designed to combat acne.

What form and dosage of Salicylic acid is recommended for acne?

Your physician or dermatologist will prescribe a specific form and dosage tailored to your skin type and its current condition. They may also advise conducting a patch test for 2 or 3 days, applying a small amount to a limited area of affected skin to gauge your skin’s reaction before widespread application.

As per the National Library of Medicine, adults are recommended to use topical acne-clearing products with various concentrations of salicylic acid:

  • Gel: 2–7% salicylic acid, to be used once daily.
  • Lotion: 2% salicylic acid, to be applied 1–3 times daily.
  • Ointment: 3% salicylic acid, to be used as needed.
  • Pads: 0.5–2% salicylic acid, to be applied 1–3 times daily.
  • Soap: 0.5–3% salicylic acid, to be used as needed.
  • Solution: 0.5–2% salicylic acid, to be applied 1–3 times daily.

Exfoliating products containing higher concentrations of salicylic acid are also commonly employed. Additionally, salicylic acid in elevated concentrations serves as a peeling agent for addressing:

  • Acne
  • Acne scars
  • Age spots
  • Melasma

Does Salicylic acid have any side effects?

While salicylic acid is generally considered safe and effective for treating acne, it can cause side effects, especially when used in higher concentrations or by individuals with sensitive skin. Some common side effects of salicylic acid include:

  1. Dryness and Irritation: Salicylic acid can cause dryness, redness, and irritation, particularly when used in higher concentrations or on sensitive skin. This may manifest as flakiness, itching, or burning sensations. It’s essential to moisturize adequately and gradually introduce salicylic acid into your skincare routine to minimize these effects.
  2. Peeling and Flaking: Salicylic acid’s exfoliating properties can lead to peeling and flaking of the skin, especially in areas where acne treatment is concentrated. This is a natural part of the exfoliation process and usually resolves with continued use.
  3. Sensitivity to Sun: Salicylic acid can increase skin sensitivity to sunlight, making it more susceptible to sunburn. It’s crucial to use sunscreen daily and limit sun exposure while using salicylic acid products to reduce the risk of sun damage and hyperpigmentation.
  4. Allergic Reactions: While rare, some individuals may experience allergic reactions to salicylic acid, resulting in symptoms such as rash, swelling, or hives. If you experience any signs of an allergic reaction, discontinue use immediately and seek medical attention.
  5. Skin Discoloration: Prolonged or excessive use of salicylic acid may cause skin discoloration, especially in individuals with darker skin tones. This can manifest as hypopigmentation (lightening of the skin) or hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin). It’s essential to use salicylic acid products as directed and monitor your skin for any changes in pigmentation.

To minimize the risk of side effects, it’s crucial to use salicylic acid products as directed, start with lower concentrations, and gradually increase as tolerated. Additionally, it’s essential to follow a comprehensive skincare routine that includes moisturizing and sun protection to help mitigate potential side effects.

If you experience severe or persistent side effects from salicylic acid, it’s advisable to discontinue use and consult a dermatologist for further evaluation and guidance. They can help determine the best course of action for your specific skincare needs and concerns.

Precautions to be aware of before using Salicylic acid

Even though salicylic acid is available over-the-counter (OTC), it’s advisable to consult your doctor before use. Key considerations to discuss include:

  • Allergies: Inform your doctor of any past allergic reactions to salicylic acid or other topical medications.
  • Use in children: Children may be more prone to skin irritation. Discuss with a doctor before introducing salicylic acid products to your child.
  • Drug interactions: Certain medications may not interact well with salicylic acid. Inform your doctor about any current medications you’re taking.

Additionally, disclose any of the following medical conditions to your doctor, as they may influence the decision to prescribe salicylic acid:

  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Blood vessel disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chickenpox (varicella)
  • Flu (influenza)

Salicylic acid toxicity:

While rare, salicylic acid toxicity can occur through topical application. To mitigate risk, adhere to these guidelines:

  • Avoid applying salicylic acid products to large areas of your body.
  • Limit usage duration.
  • Avoid using under air-tight dressings like plastic wrap.

Cease salicylic acid use immediately and seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Lethargy
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears)
  • Hearing loss
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hyperpnea (increase in breathing depth)

Using salicylic acid during pregnancy or nursing:

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) generally considers topical salicylic acid safe during pregnancy. However, consult your doctor if you’re pregnant or nursing, especially regarding other medications you’re taking or existing medical conditions.

A 2018 report on salicylic acid use while breastfeeding suggests minimal absorption into breast milk. Nonetheless, avoid applying it to areas that might contact an infant’s skin or mouth.


Incorporating salicylic acid into your skincare routine can be an effective way to treat acne and improve the overall health and appearance of your skin. However, it’s essential to be aware of certain precautions to ensure safe and effective use:

  1. Conduct a patch test before using salicylic acid products on larger areas of your skin to check for any adverse reactions.
  2. Start with lower concentrations of salicylic acid, especially if you have sensitive skin, and gradually increase as tolerated.
  3. Consult with your healthcare provider or dermatologist before using salicylic acid if you’re taking medications or using other acne treatments to avoid potential interactions.
  4. Protect your skin from sun exposure by using sunscreen daily and limiting time spent outdoors while using salicylic acid products.
  5. Avoid contact with eyes, mouth, and other mucous membranes, and discontinue use if irritation occurs.
  6. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the specific salicylic acid product you’re using, including frequency of use and application techniques.

By following these precautions and guidelines, you can safely and effectively incorporate salicylic acid into your skincare routine to address acne concerns and achieve clearer, healthier-looking skin. If you have any concerns or questions about using salicylic acid, consult with a dermatologist or skincare professional for personalized advice and recommendations tailored to your individual needs.