Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Sritama Dutta (Medical Science) on 22nd Mar 2021

Salicylic Acid is One Of The Most Commonly Used Topical Face Acids! Here’s How To Use It!

How to use Salicylic Acid in Skincare

Not all acids are scary chemicals. When used in the right concentration, some acids can have wonderful effects on our skin. The facial acids are low concentrations of mild organic acids that can miraculously fight acne, remove dark spots and hyperpigmentation marks, scarrings, wrinkles, and age spots, and help even out skin complexion.

One of such incredible face acids is Salicylic acid. It has been used in the skincare industry for a long time and has been seen to be a very effective exfoliant and remedy against fighting acne. Salicylic acid has a lot of beneficial effects on the health of the skin. This article would discuss Salicylic acid and how to use salicylic acid topically.  

What is Salicylic Acid? 

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Salicylic Acid is classified as BHA or Beta Hydroxy Acids. It is readily available in the market as an over-the-counter product. It is a colorless acid that has been used in skincare products as an important ingredient for treating various dermatological conditions.

Salicylic acid is procured from the bark of a willow tree. These willow trees are scientifically termed as “Salix alba.” This is from where Salicylic Acid has received its name. Centuries ago, ancient Egyptians used Salicylic acid as an analgesic and an antipyretic medicine.

Salicylic acid works wonderfully in fighting non-inflammatory acne and acne scar as well as hyperpigmentation of the skin. It is also a remedy against warts, corns, ringworms as well as dandruff. Salicylic acid is also an active ingredient in medicines used to treat skin disorders such as psoriasis, keratosis pilaris, and seborrhoeic dermatitis. 

How Does Salicylic Acid Work on Skin? 

Salicylic acid works better on non-inflammatory acids than inflammatory acne-like pimples and pustules. It helps eliminate blackheads and whiteheads and helps prevent further episodes of breakouts on the skin. Let’s see how salicylic acid works on the skin.

Our skin continuously produces sebum (natural oil of the skin) and sheds old and dead skin cells. These sebum and dead skin cells often get accumulated in the skin pores and hair follicles and congest them. This leads to the formation of blackheads (open clogged pores) and whiteheads (closed clogged pores). These clogged pores also have bacteria-infested in them. If such congested pores get inflamed, they get filled with pus, forming pimples or pustules.  

Topical Salicylic Acid as Anti-acne Agent: 

When applied to the skin, salicylic acid penetrates the deeper dermal layers to unclog the pores and dissolves the accumulated dead skin cells and sebum. It then flushes away the debris and cleanses the skin.

This comedolytic property of salicylic acid helps in opening congested pores and reducing acne and further clogs the enlarged pores of the skin.

Salicylic acid also has a bacteriostatic property. It does not kill the bacteria present in the skin but can effectively slow down their proliferation. By reducing the bacterial count responsible for acne, it prevents the spreading of acne and breakouts.  

Topical Salicylic Acid as an Exfoliant: 

Salicylic acid also has a hemolytic property. When used in higher concentrations, salicylic acid is one of the most commonly used chemical peels. It penetrates the dermal layers, dissolves off the dead and dried up skin cells from the superficial layers, and reveals the younger skin cells underneath. This process is known as desquamation. It also promotes the growth of newer skin cells.

Apart from salicylic acid's keratolytic and comedolytic properties, it also has anti-pruritic, analgesic, and anti-inflammatory activities. Salicylic acid also helps in reducing fever. 

What is the Recommended Form and Dosage for Skincare? 

Different skin types need different concentrations of salicylic acid. It is always wise to consult your dermatologist before you start using topical salicylic acid. They will be able to recommend the ideal concentration and dosage for your skin type.

As recommended by Mayo Clinic, different topical salicylic acid products should have different concentrations to be effective against acne. 

  • When used as a gel or soap, the minimum requirement is 0.5%-5% and should be used at least once per day. 
  • If used as a lotion, it must have salicylic acid at a concentration of 1-2% and recommended to be used 1-3 times per day. 
  • When used as an ointment, it should contain at least 3-6% concentration and used as needed. 
  • When used as a serum or solution, it must be at a concentration of 0.5-2% and applied once a day. 

How to Use Salicylic acid in Your Daily Skincare Regime? 

Salicylic acid intended for daily skincare is most commonly used as a serum. Though a mild acid, salicylic acid should be used only once a day. You can use it in your AM or PM regime, but Salicylic acid is better if included in your night skincare routine. This is because salicylic acid peels off the superficial dead skin cells to reveal newer and younger skin cells. These skin cells are more susceptible to sun damage.

If you are using a salicylic acid serum, you have to put 2-3 drops of the serum on your face and gently spread it all over your face and neck region after proper cleansing. Allow the ingredient to soak into our skin for a minute or two before you layer it with other products.

Salicylic acid will help open up your pores, and the newly unclogged pores will require proper hydration to keep your skin healthy and fresh. Thus, it is recommended to layer your skin with moisturizing ingredients such as hyaluronic acid after applying the salicylic serum. It will provide your skin with the required hydration and leave your skin feeling fresh and radiant.

Exfoliation with chemical peels reveals the younger skin cells from beneath the older, dried-up superficial skin cells, which are more prone to photodamage. Hence, it is recommended to layer our skin with a broad-spectrum sunscreen having at least SPF 30.

The salicylic acid serum will begin to show its beneficial effect after using it religiously for at least two weeks. To get its full benefit, you have to continue using salicylic acid for 8-10 weeks.  

What Are The Potential Side Effects of Salicylic Acid? 

Though topical salicylic acid is considered safe for use on the skin, some side effects might happen to certain individuals.

If you are using salicylic acid for the first time, you might experience some purging, which is completely normal. Purgings are breakouts in your skin that happen when your skin is getting accustomed to a new active ingredient. Purging due to salicylic acid may last from four to six weeks before it returns to normal. Salicylic acid might also remove excess oil from your skin and result in dryness and irritation. 

Other potential side effects that may happen while using salicylic acid are: 

  • Stinging or tingling of the skin 
  • Pruritus or itching 
  • Peeling of skin 
  • Hives  

Some cases have also been reported where few individuals faced hypersensitive reactions while using salicylic acid. You should always perform a patch test at least 48 hours before you start using salicylic acid products. You should consult your doctor if you experience any discomfort.

Though salicylic acid is safe to be used in children over two years, it is recommended that individuals must use it over 18-20 years of age. Using SA serum in younger individuals might welcome the risk of overdrying of skin and itchiness.

Salicylic acid might also react with certain drugs. If you are under any medication, it is wise to consult with your doctor before including salicylic serum in your skincare regime.  

The drugs prescribed for these diseases have a risk of adverse interaction with salicylic acid: 

  • Liver Diseases 
  • Kidney Diseases 
  • Blood Disorders 
  • Diabetes 
  • Chickenpox/ shingles 
  • influenza

Salicylic Acid Toxicity:

Though these cases are rare, accidental overconsumption of salicylic acid can result in salicylic acid toxicity. To reduce the risk for this to happen, there are some suggestions that you need to follow: 

  • Never apply salicylic acid over a large area at once.  
  • Never leave salicylic acid for a long period. 
  • After applying salicylic acid to your skin, leave it in the open air. Refrain from keeping it under an airtight dressing.  

If you are experiencing symptoms of salicylic acid toxicity, you must report to your doctor immediately. These are some symptoms that are common in cases of salicylic acid toxicity: 

  • Lethargy 
  • Headache 
  • Confusion 
  • Tinnitus 
  • Loss of hearing ability 
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • Difficulty in breathing

Can Pregnant or Lactating Women use Salicylic Acid? 

According to the American College of Obstetrician and Gynaecologists, Salicylic acid has been stated to be safe to be used during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. However, if you are under any special medication for pregnancy, you must consult with your doctor about using Salicylic acid.

According to a report filed in 2018, it was found that salicylic acid is unlikely to be absorbed in breast milk. However, you should not apply it in any area which might come in contact with your infant’s mouth or skin.  

The Bottom Line: 

Although there isn’t any sure-fire cure for acne and breakouts or hyperpigmentation, topical application of salicylic acid is an effective remedy against such skin conditions. It is also effective in testing acne scars, age spots, and even melasma.

We hope this article has helped you to gain a better perspective of Salicylic acid. With its amazing benefits on the skin’s health, salicylic acid can be a great addition to your daily skincare regime.