Salicylic acid

What does it do?
Chemically exfoliates the skin, lifting off dead skin cells
Reduces inflammation
Reduces oil production
Unblocks pores

What’s it used for?
Oily, acne-prone skin
Blackheads and whiteheads
Fine lines
Skin brightening
Keratosis pilaris

Potential drawbacks
Can cause skin irritation

Ideal concentration
0.5-2% in cleansers and leave-on preparations, 10-30% in chemical peels

Evidence rating

Salicylic acid is one of the most effective, readily available treatments for oily, acne-prone skin. Here’s a summary of what exactly it does, what other benefits it has, and how best to use it. 

What is salicylic acid, and what does it do? 

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid. It’s a chemical exfoliant, which helps to remove dead skin cells from the top layer of the skin, and increase new cell turnover. It’s anti-inflammatory, comedolytic (reduces the appearance and formation of comedones, which are blackheads and whiteheads), anti-bacterial, and reduces oil production.

Why should I use it?

Salicylic acid is a good choice if you have oily, acne-prone skin. It helps reduce oil production, unblock pores and reduces inflammation. It’s also used for keratosis pilaris, sun spots and, at higher concentrations, for viral warts. It may also improve the appearance of fine lines and hyperpigmentation

How should I use it?

Salicylic acid is available in lower concentrations as cleansers, toners and serums, and in higher concentrations in superficial chemical peels. As it can be irritating, it’s recommended to start using it one to two times per week as either a cleanser or a leave-on product, and slowly increase use if tolerated. If used in the form of a chemical peel, every four to six weeks is recommended. It’s best to avoid using it at the same time as retinoids and alpha hydroxy acids, as the risk of irritation may increase. 

What are the potential drawbacks?

Salicylic acid may cause dryness, skin irritation and tingling. Salicylic acid is generally best avoided in pregnancy, although some experts consider it safe when used in small amounts for a limited time.

Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015;8:455-461. 

Moghimipour E. Hydroxy Acids, the Most Widely Used Anti-aging Agents. Jundishapur J Nat Pharm Prod. 2012;7(1):9-10.


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…