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Probably sometime in your life, you’ve been on the lookout for effective ways to deal with breakouts, pesky pimples and full-blown acne. If you’re looking for a workhorse ingredient to do battle against blemishes and a host of other unpleasant skin conditions, salicylic acid might be it.

Salicylic acid is known as a keratolytic agent. It is an ingredient used to separate the scaly, thick layer of the skin by peeling it off and ultimately refreshing your skin. And it’s been used for thousands of years!1

Where Does it Come From?

Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring chemical in plants. The name is derived from the Latin word salix, meaning willow tree. Why a willow tree? Because salicylic acid naturally occurs inside the willow’s bark and leaves. But getting the benefits of salicylic acid isn’t as simple as cracking open the bark or tearing up a leaf. The bark first needs to be powdered, treated with oxidants, and filtered to make the actual acid.

Salicylic Acid

Who knew beauty grows on trees?

The discovery of this organic acid and its medicinal properties can be traced back centuries ago, when people used the willow tree’s bark for various treatments. It was Hippocrates, the Greek physician, who introduced the ingredient to the medicinal market. And since then, it has been touted as an aid in helping to relieve, combat, or possibly improve fever, aches and pains, inflammation, circulation, and even as a food preservative. But it is mostly known for its ability to treat warts and other skin conditions. In the past, researchers referred to it as “Vitamin S,” because they thought it might be an actual vitamin. It was a drug explored and studied by doctors worldwide.2

Salicylic acid is primarily found in willow trees, but it can also be found in several kinds of plants, such as tobacco and potatoes. In fact, you can even find it in fruits and vegetables, such as raspberries, Granny Smith apples, cucumbers, cantaloupe, and strawberries. Some herbs and spices also contain some amounts of salicylic acid.3 Additionally, salicylic acid and aspirin are in the same class of drugs. Although they’re not the same thing, they both have anti-inflammatory effects.4

How Does Salicylic acid Work?

Do you know keeps the top and bottom layer of skin attached? It’s keratin – a major protein found inside the cells of your skin that anchors the epidermis to your dermis. It is what holds your skin together, forming the outermost layer of your skin, and protecting you from the environment. Keratin forms the structure of your skin.5,6

So, what does it have to do with salicylic acid? Quite a lot, actually.

Keratin is the protein that salicylic acid breaks down to loosen or separate the cells that stick together. This makes way for keratolysis to take place. This is the peeling of the scaly outer layer of your skin. And what happens when the scaly plaques of your skin shed? Regrowth! And this equates to revitalized, glowing skin!7

Salicylic Acid in the Skincare and Cosmetics Industry

The use of salicylic acid has been going strong for years. Aside from its medicinal uses, its growing use in personal skincare and cosmetics has also contributed to salicylic acid’s popularity.

Today, salicylic acid is popularly known for its beneficial effects in helping to lessen breakouts, acne, warts and other related skin conditions. Products are often fortified with salicylic acid in their formula. You’ll also find topical versions of salicylic acid in pads, creams, lotions, liquids, gels, ointments, and even as shampoo and conditioner.8

And it’s also a key ingredient in our very own acne-fighting gel.

How can Salicylic Acid benefit your skin?

It may help remove blackheads and whiteheads.

What happens when skin cells are separated from each other? They are loosened up. This helps to avoid clogging. And avoiding clogging can help reduce the appearance of those dreaded whiteheads and blackheads. By helping to loosen cells, salicylic acid may also help to prevent the development of other inflammations related to blackheads.9

It may help soothe razor burn.

Razor burn: Hate it. Who doesn’t?! But guess what? Salicylic acid in a topical wash might be a useful way to soothe irritated skin from shaving. It may also help to alleviate or lessen ingrown hairs and relieve freshly shaved skin. Aside from being an amazing de-clogging formula, salicylic acid is, after all, a popular pain reliever.10

It aids in getting rid of excess oil.

Is your oily skin giving you fits? By stimulating your skin’s circulation and opening up pores, salicylic acid may help to alleviate pimples from breakouts due to excess oil.11Salicylic Acid

It helps fight acne from deep inside the skin.

Suffer from deep, painful cystic acne? Because of its ability to loosen links between cells, salicylic acid can penetrate your skin well and reach those deep pustules. Creams, gels, lotions, toners, and facial washes that are fortified with salicylic acid can help to alleviate these painful bumps. With its antibacterial action, your blackheads and whiteheads don’t clog up, dirt and excess oil are released, and your skin is left bacteria-free and cyst-free.12

It can help to dry up pimples.

Salicylic acid is thought to be skin-safe enough to avoid damaging your skin by overdrying. It may also be potent enough to help deal with pesky pimples, drying them up without the typical skin irritation (and possible skin damage) you might get with some products designed to help with acne.13

It may help with warts.

Warts are just awful. And they’re so ridiculously stubborn. It is believed that salicylic acid, applied topically, may help to alleviate warts on the skin. However, a caveat: Don’t ever try to treat warts without first consulting your doctor. Topical creams with salicylic acid aren’t supposed to be used on warts on the face, genitals, in the nose or mouth, or on birthmarks.

A dandruff fighter?

Salicylic acid may be able to help with hair issues, specifically dandruff. Remember keratin and keratolysis? Well, hair is also made up of this fibrous protein. And dandruff happens when the keratin in your hair is depleted, resulting in a dry, scaly, itchy scalp. Now, we already learned that salicylic acid is capable of loosening skin cells up by breaking down the keratin. In the same way this can benefit facial skin, a recent study shows it may also help with dandruff.15

Is Salicylic Acid Right For Me?

All that talk about salicylic acid’s relationship with aspirin wasn’t for nothing. It is one of the reasons why it has gained popularity over other anti-acne ingredients. Just like aspirin, salicylic acid can circulate oil out of your pores. It is also believed that salicylic acid, like aspirin, may help to combat skin inflammation and redness.16

So, if your skin is the oily type, you may benefit from using salicylic acid. However, not everyone can safely take advantage of salicylic acid’s potential benefits. Dermatologists often use something called the Fitzpatrick Skin Typing Test to determine specific skin types. This offers insight into how sensitive skin is to certain things, including ingredients in products.  

What is the Fitzpatrick Scale?

The Fitzpatrick Scale is the classification of human skin color.17 Skin Types IV, V, and VI, are the skin types that need to exercise caution using salicylic acid because they have cells that produce a lot of melanin. Studies show this may cause acne to dry up, resulting in dark spots.18,19 So, if your skin type belongs to these three types, be careful, and use under professional advice.

Type I Type II Type III Type IV Type V Type VI
Light, Pale White White, Fair Medium White to olive Olive, Moderate Brown Brown, Dark Brown Black, very dark Brown to Black

Generally, salicylic acid can benefit just about anyone with oily skin. Studies have shown that it is effective in helping to get rid of the appearance of spots and inflammation. Although, it doesn’t hurt to mind precautions.20

How to Safely Use Salicylic Acid

While we’re on the subject of safety measures, let’s talk about how to use salicylic acid properly. Salicylic acid is safe to use, but only at certain concentrations. For adults with acne, for example, topical salicylic acid lotions and creams with concentrations of two to five percent are the norm.

When you use products containing this ingredient, they may cause your skin to become dry, and sometimes irritated. Doctors advise applying a small dosage in the first stages and gradually increasing the amount as your skin adjusts. In addition, it is recommended that you only apply salicylic acid on active breakout areas of skin. Topical creams should only be used externally, and avoid contact with eyes, nose, and mouth. Never apply salicylic acid to swollen, broken, or irritated areas of skin. And always, seek professional advice before using.23

1Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. CCID. 2015:455. doi:10.2147/ccid.s84765.

2Salicylic Acid to Do Wonders for the Pharmaceutical Industry – Credence Research.Credenceresearchcom. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016. : What is Salicylic acid and in which foods does it occur?. Food-infonet. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

4Anti-Inflammatory Activity of Aspirin – It’s All About Salicylic Acid. Casorg. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

5Rivas-San Vicente MPlasencia J. Salicylic acid beyond defence: its role in plant growth and development. Journal of Experimental Botany. 2011;62(10):3321-3338. doi:10.1093/jxb/err031.

6Keratin Protein & the Epidermis – Video & Lesson Transcript | Studycom. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

7 Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. CCID. 2015:455. doi:10.2147/ccid.s84765.

8LodénWessman. The antidandruff efficacy of a shampoo containing piroctone olamine and salicylic acid in comparison to that of a zinc pyrithione shampoo. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2000;22(4):285-289. doi:10.1046/j.1467-2494.2000.00024.x.

9what-happens-to-your-skin-when-you-use-salicylic-a. Skinmatterscomph. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

10 STEPHENS A. The good painkiller guide. Mail Online. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

11what-happens-to-your-skin-when-you-use-salicylic-a. Skinmatterscomph. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

12what-happens-to-your-skin-when-you-use-salicylic-a. Skinmatterscomph. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

13what-happens-to-your-skin-when-you-use-salicylic-a. Skinmatterscomph. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

15 LodénWessman. The antidandruff efficacy of a shampoo containing piroctone olamine and salicylic acid in comparison to that of a zinc pyrithione shampoo. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 2000;22(4):285-289. doi:10.1046/j.1467-2494.2000.00024.x.

16Anti-Inflammatory Activity of Aspirin – It’s All About Salicylic Acid. Casorg. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

17Where Does Your Skin Fit In? Quiz – Skincancerorg. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

18Salicylic Acid and Acne: The Pro’s and Con’s. Facingacnecom. 2016.  Accessed September 19, 2016.

19Arif T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. CCID. 2015:455. doi:10.2147/ccid.s84765.

20Salicylic Acid and Acne: The Pro’s and Con’s. Facingacnecom. 2016. Accessed September 19, 2016.

23Salicylic acid. Salicylic acid for warts and more at Patient | Patient. Patient. 2016.  Accessed September 19, 2016.