What is a Salicylic Acid Treatment?

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  • Written By: Christine Hudson
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 11 March 2020
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A salicylic acid treatment is a topical medicine most commonly used to remedy non-inflamed acne, especially in the form of whiteheads or blackheads. This treatment is generally available by prescription or in more mild, over-the-counter products. It works by promoting the exfoliation of dead skin cells from within the follicle or pore and by preventing the buildup of sebum. While it is most common use is for acne, the treatment is also sometimes used to for dandruff, warts, corns, psoriasis, and other skin conditions.

Salicylic acid is a popular beta hydroxy acid found in many skin products. Lotions, creams, gels, cleansers, treatment pads, toners, and other solutions may contain the acid. Extracted from plants as a serum, the ingredient tends to be gentle and effective on most skin types, but the need for stronger doses is generally available only by prescription from a dermatologist. Some skin types experience excessive dryness or even rash with the use of a salicylic acid treatment. For this reason, following all directions for use and cautions found on the product can be a good idea.


Under ideal skin processes, the skin regularly sloughs off dead cells and grows new, healthy skin. Skin with an abnormal shedding process tends to become acne-prone, which a salicylic acid treatment may be able to help correct. The acid is a keratolytic, or peeling agent, that prompts the old skin cells to slough off and spurs the growth of new skin cells. Causing the buildup, blockage, and debris in the pores to wash away, this process helps to keep them clear and prevent future breakouts.

Conditions caused by dead or thickened skin, such as corns or calluses, can also benefit from the use of a salicylic acid treatment. These normally do not require a prescription-strength treatment and can be treated with drops or medicated pads. Medicine containing salicylic acid is applied two to three times daily, and the area is then covered to allow the salicylic acid to soften the skin. Once the area is soft enough, the corn or callus may be filed or scrubbed away.

Though salicylic acid is a commonly used ingredient and typically mild, use of salicylic acid treatments can cause some irritation to the skin. Irritation can create sensitivity to other skin treatments and the sun. Most dermatologists suggest that other acids or retinoids not be used in conjunction with salicylic acid, and sunscreen should be used after any salicylic acid treatment.



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