Salicylic Acid and Acne

Most experts recommend benzoyl peroxide as an the over-the-counter acne treatment. However medications containing salicylic acid are a more popular option. Salicylic acid is skin-friendly, but weak, so it is often used by those who suffer from mild acne rather than more serious cases.

Salicylic Acid and Acne

Wondering if a salicylic acne treatment is right for you? Read on for an overview of salicylic acid and what it can do for your skin.

What is salicylic acid?

Originally extracted from willow bark, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid that works as a keratolytic agent. This means that it softens keratin, a protein that forms part of the skin’s structure. It also acts as an exfoliant in that it promotes the sloughing of dead skin cells.

How exactly does salicylic acid treat acne?

Salicylic acid penetrates skin follicles and breaks down comedones (blackheads and whiteheads). This allows your skin to follow a normal cell-replacement cycle, making acne less likely. This also serves to ease swelling and redness caused by clogged pores.
However salicylic acid does not have any effect on the production of sebum (skin oil). Nor does it have the ability to kill acne bacteria. Benzoyl peroxide works by targeting the acne-causing bacteria, which is why it is more often recommended.

What are the different forms and strengths of salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is commonly used as a topical spot treatment (applied to individual pimples). Concentrations range from 0.5% to 2% and different forms include:

  • Creams
  • Cleansers
  • Gels
  • Medicated pads
  • Washes

We strongly advise against using many salicylic acid treatments at one time. This can cause excessive skin drying and will not alleviate your acne any faster. Once your skin improves, a salicylic acid face wash can often replace spot treatment or pads to maintain clear skin.

Are there downsides to using salicylic acid?

The only major downside to salicylic acid is that it only works for VERY mild acne and it combines poorly with other treatments. There are few side-effects; some experience mild stinging, irritation, and flushed skin.

If any of these symptoms become severe or persistent, reduce your application and consult with a dermatologist.

How to avoid side effects:

Stay away from the following products while using medications containing salicylic acid (unless specifically prescribed by a dermatologist).

  • Exfoliators
  • Abrasive soaps or cleansers
  • Products containing alcohol
  • Drying cosmetics
  • Topical acne medication containing a peeling agent, such as benzoyl peroxide

Bottom Line.
While salicylic acid can be useful for spot treatment, benzoyl peroxide is a better OTC option. If you have more than the occasional pimple, we suggest consulting with a dermatologist. He/she will determine if a prescription medication might be the optimal treatment for you.


About us: YoDerm is the only way to get a prescription medication safely and legally online. Each of our dermatologists are board-certified and will treat your acne within 24 hours. If you’re struggling to get clear, click here, and let us help.



  1. Christine, Jacobson C., Karina Arambula, Susan Chon, and Alexa Kimball. “A Double-blind Comparison of the Efficacy of a Salicylic Acid Based Acne Treatment Regimen versus a Benzoyl Peroxide Based Acne Treatment Regimen for the Treatment of Acne Vulgaris.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology50.3 (2004): P13. Print. Ngan, Vanessa. “Salicylic Acid.” DermNet NZ. DermNet NZ, n.d. Web. <>.
  2. Smith, Geoffrey, Ellen S. Kurtz, and Richard S. Berger. “Gentle and Fast-acting Relief From a Salicylic Acid Acne Treatment With Soothing Natural Extracts.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 50.3 (2004): P12. Print.
  3. “Salicylic Acid Topical.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. <>.
  4. “Salicylic Acid for Acne.”, n.d. Web. <>.

Let's hear your thoughts!