Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid. It’s well-known for reducing acne by exfoliating the skin and keeping pores clear.

You can find salicylic acid in various over-the-counter (OTC) products. It’s also available in prescription-strength formulas.

Salicylic acid works best for mild acne (blackheads and whiteheads). It can also help prevent future breakouts.

Keep reading to learn how salicylic acid helps to clear acne, what form and dosage to use, and what potential side effects to be aware of.

How does salicylic acid work on acne?

When your hair follicles (pores) get plugged with dead skin cells and oil, blackheads (open plugged pores), whiteheads (closed plugged pores), or pimples (pustules) often appear.

Salicylic acid penetrates your skin and works to dissolve the dead skin cells clogging your pores. It can take several weeks of use for you to see its full effect. Check with your dermatologist if you aren’t seeing results after 6 weeks Trusted Source.

Products with higher concentrations of salicylic acid may be used as exfoliants

Salicylic acid is also used in higher concentrations as a peeling agent for the treatment of:

  • acne
  • acne scars
  • age spots
  • melasma

Does salicylic acid have any side effects?

Although salicylic acid is considered safe overall, it may cause skin irritation when first starting. It may also remove too much oil, resulting in dryness and potential irritation.

Other potential side effects include Trusted Source:

  • skin tingling or stinging
  • itching
  • peeling skin
  • hives

Precautions to be aware of before using salicylic acid

Even though salicylic acid is available in OTC products you can pick up at your local grocery store, you should talk with your doctor before using it. Considerations to discuss include:

Allergies: Let your doctor know if you’ve experienced allergic reactions to salicylic acid or other topical medications before.

Use in children: Children may be at more risk of skin irritation. Speak with a doctor before your child starts using salicylic acid products.

Drug interactions: Certain medications do not interact well with salicylic acid. Let your doctor know what medications you’re currently taking.

You should also tell a doctor if you have any of the following medical conditions, as these may affect their decision to prescribe salicylic acid:

  • liver disease
  • kidney disease
  • blood vessel disease
  • diabetes
  • chickenpox (varicella)
  • flu (influenza)

Salicylic acid toxicity

Salicylic acid toxicity is rare, but it can occur from the topical application of salicylic acid. To reduce your risk, follow these recommendations:

  • do not apply salicylic acid products to large areas of your body
  • do not use it for long periods of time
  • do not use it under air-tight dressings, such as plastic wrap

Immediately stop using salicylic acid and see your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms or signs:

  • lethargy
  • headache
  • confusion
  • ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • hearing loss
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • increase in breathing depth (hyperpnea)
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