What Exactly Does Salicylic Acid Do To Your Skin?

Feature | Woman treating warts | What Exactly Does Salicylic Acid Do To Your Skin

You can find salicylic acid in a lot of skin care products, but is it safe? Learn all about it and it’s possible long-term effects on your skin.

In this article:

  1. What Is Salicylic Acid?
  2. How Does Salicylic Acid Work?
  3. Where Is Salicylic Acid Usually Used?
  4. Who Should Be Using Salicylic Acid?
  5. Why Should You Be Careful When Using Salicylic Acid?
  6. What Are Some Organic Skincare Alternatives to Salicylic Acid?

Everything You Need to Know About Salicylic Acid


What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is actually named after its source—a willow tree. Salix actually means willow tree in Latin. This complex carbohydrate was first found in the bark of a willow tree. Today, this form of beta hydroxy acid is mostly made in laboratories. Salicylic acid and aspirin have similar chemical components. Just like aspirin, it works by opening up pores while reducing redness and inflammation.

It can relieve pain and enhance circulation. And at some point, scientists thought that it might even make a good vitamin. They even called it vitamin S. But these days, it’s a key ingredient in skin care products.

How Does Salicylic Acid Work?

Salicylic acid works by:

  • Exfoliating skin
  • Removing dead skin cells
  • Encouraging skin cell renewal

Ideally, these would lead to the break down of fatty compounds, such as oily sebum, that can block pores, so it works well on people with oily skin. Sometimes, it’s used in anti-aging products because of its ability to promote skin cell renewal.

Where Is Salicylic Acid Usually Used?

Woman scratching her head | What Exactly Does Salicylic Acid Do To Your Skin

Salicylic acid is usually used on the skin. Specifically, the face, hair, hands, and feet. It is effective in treating certain skin conditions. You’ll find it in products that treat the following conditions:

  • Acne
  • Dandruff
  • Warts
  • Psoriasis
  • Ringworms
  • Corns

It comes in the form of gels, creams, cleansers, shampoos, medicated pads, and concentrated solutions. It’s important to understand the concentration levels of this ingredient in the different products you are using. If it’s able to remove warts, that means it can be very potent at high levels. Here are the acceptable concentration levels for its different uses:

  • For topical products that you leave on your face, there is a maximum concentration level of 2% (ex: creams and gels).
  • For topical products that you wash off, there is a maximum concentration level of 3% (ex: shampoos and cleansers).
  • Wart removal solutions should have a concentration level between 17-27%.
  • Wart removal strips should have a concentration level between 20-50%.

Always use the product as it was made to be used and never interchange the uses of these products. For instance, it’s never safe to use wart removal solutions to treat acne. If you have sensitive skin and you need to use products with salicylic acid, find products with the lowest concentration level.

Related: What’s My Skin Type? | Different Skin Types and How To Care For Each

Who Should Be Using Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid works for people who suffer from acne, dandruff, warts, psoriasis, ringworms, and corns. It is effective for treating these conditions for a period of time. Although, it works better for those with fair skin.

People with beige, brown, deep olive, and very dark brown skin should use it with caution because they are more prone to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. Post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation is a dark or discolored flat spot from inflammatory wounds. People with darker skin tones are more prone to this because their skin cells tend to overproduce melanin when it experiences inflammation.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women should take extra care if they intend on using any products with salicylic acid. They should consult with their doctor before using it topically. Likewise, parents should also be careful when using these products on their children. Generally, it’s not recommended for children under the age of 2.

Why Should You Be Careful When Using Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is commonly used to help in treating the conditions listed above and can generally provide temporary relief. But, there is a downside to the prolonged use of products with this ingredient. If your skin becomes dryer because of the constant exfoliating process brought about by the product your using, your skin may react by producing more oil, which makes it more prone to acne. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Other common side effects include:

  • dry skin
  • redness of skin
  • burning sensations
  • general skin irritation
  • increased sun sensitivity or photosensitivity

Too much salicylic acid could also lead to thinner skin which may enhance the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. If you have to use a product with salicylic acid, it’s best to try a few drops in a less visible area of your body (ex: side of your neck or upper arm). That way, you can check if you will have any adverse reactions before fully applying it.

What Are Some Organic Skincare Alternatives to Salicylic Acid?

woman showing bottle with oil | What Exactly Does Salicylic Acid Do To Your Skin

There are a few organic ingredients that are milder and can offer some of the benefits of salicylic acid:

  • Witch Hazel is an astringent. It has anti-inflammatory properties and it tightens the skin. It’s useful in treating acne.
  • Marine Algae Extracts helps to regulate oil production and unclogs pores while keeping your skin moisturized at the same time. It also helps reduce redness and inflammation.
  • Tea Tree Oil has antimicrobial properties, which help fight acne-causing bacteria. It also helps dry out blackheads and whiteheads.
  • Lemon Essential Oil is full of vitamin C, so it will make your skin look brighter. It also helps fight acne and hyperpigmentation.
  • Guto Kola Extract comes from a herb that has anti-inflammatory properties. It’s also rich in antioxidants and promotes skin cell renewal.

Organic facial scrubs are also useful for exfoliating your skin. There are many organic facial scrubs available in the market, or you can do it yourself and make it at home!


What is best for your acne care, salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide? Learn in this video from StackedSkincare:

It’s important to understand the appropriate use and possible effects of salicylic acid. If you intend on using a product with high levels of concentration, it might be best to consult your dermatologist first. If you are already using products with salicylic acid daily, perhaps it’s time to reconsider and look for an alternative? While it may be useful in treating certain skin conditions, it may not be best for every day and long-term use.

Have you tried any of the salicylic acid organic alternatives recently? How does it affect your skin? Let us know in the comments section. 

Up Next: 13 Best Ways to Naturally Shrink Pores On Your Face

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