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Salicylic acid for warts: Does it work?

There are countless hacks for getting rid of warts. Experts explain how this one stands up.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 31, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
Hand with Wart
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 31, 2023 • 9 min read
Medically reviewed by Laura Phelan, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Warts are a common skin issue that many people deal with. Most of the time, they go away without any treatment. However, sometimes, you’ll want a quicker solution. That’s where salicylic acid comes in—it’s often the first-line treatment option for common warts. 

Here, Curology’s licensed dermatology providers will dig into how well salicylic acid works for warts and what other treatments are available. We’ll also cover the important signs that tell you it’s time to stop trying home treatments and see a healthcare provider instead.

Here at Curology, we currently focus on the diagnosis and treatment of acne, rosacea, and anti-aging concerns. We do not treat many of the conditions mentioned in this article. This article is for information purposes.

What are warts? 

Warts are small, often rough, bumps or growths that can appear on any body part—affecting about one in ten people globally. These peculiar skin changes are caused by certain strains of a virus known as human papillomavirus (HPV). There are over 100 different strains of HPV, but only a few are known to cause skin warts.¹

This virus is quite crafty. It can be transmitted by direct touch, like a handshake, or indirect contact, such as touching a surface that an infected person recently touched. Despite their sometimes off-putting appearance, the majority of warts are generally harmless and don't cause any discomfort or symptoms. However, warts that appear on the soles of the feet (plantar warts) are sometimes the exception: Due to compression or friction, they can sometimes lead to pain or bleeding.²

Warts are rarely a permanent condition, though they do carry a small risk of enlarging and may even spread to other areas. 

Can salicylic acid get rid of warts?

Warts often don’t need any medical treatment at all. These pesky little skin bumps will usually go away on their own within a couple of years. However, for those bothered by their appearance or discomfort, several treatments are available—though none of them may guarantee complete or lasting success due to the stubborn nature of warts.³

One popular over-the-counter remedy that many people turn to is topical salicylic acid, which can be applied directly to the wart.⁴ Salicylic acid has been a go-to solution for warts due to its convenience; it doesn't require a prescription and can be administered right at home.⁵ Plus, it’s relatively simple to use: You just apply the medication to the wart, usually once daily. Just be sure to cover the wart and wash your hands immediately after touching the wart. These measures help prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of your body and to other people you come into contact with.⁶

But how effective is salicylic acid? The truth is, like many wart treatments, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Research shows that it has a success rate of 50% to 70% for removing warts. This means that for every ten people who use salicylic acid to treat their warts, about five to seven will see them disappear. It’s important to note, however, that even with successful treatment, warts can sometimes come back, as the virus that causes them can linger in the body.⁷

Other treatments for warts

Warts don’t necessarily need treatment and often resolve independently, or with an over-the-counter remedy such as salicylic acid. For those who experience multiple recurrent warts or those that are particularly stubborn, several other treatment options exist. While these alternatives are typically more invasive and expensive, they may prove effective when other methods fall short.⁸

One common medical treatment is cryotherapy, often referred to as “freezing the wart off.” In this procedure, a healthcare professional applies extremely cold liquid nitrogen to the wart, destroying the cells in its top layer. After a series of repeated sessions, typically spaced at least a week apart, the wart usually diminishes or disappears. While this might sound more aggressive, studies comparing cryotherapy and salicylic acid have found no significant difference in effectiveness.⁹

For particularly persistent or extensive warts, a variety of more specialized treatments exist. These can range from special ointments, and solutions applied directly to the warts to injections with different types of medicine. Curettage, a procedure where the wart is carefully scraped off, might be an option. Laser treatments are also sometimes used, where focused light energy is used to remove the wart. Photodynamic therapy, which uses a combination of a light-sensitizing substance and a certain kind of light, is another possibility.¹⁰

Home remedies for skin conditions can be hit or miss, with some old wives’ tales about wart removal being downright silly. However, there is one home remedy that’s actually supported by science—duct tape. You can also call it by the medical term “tape occlusion therapy.”¹¹

One small study even found that duct tape was more effective than cryotherapy for wart removal.¹² However, subsequent studies haven’t been able to back this up, and some people may experience redness or itching from using duct tape.¹³

When to see a healthcare provider

Most warts will go away on their own or can be treated at home with over-the-counter topical treatments like salicylic acid.¹⁴ However, there are specific instances when it’s important to consult a healthcare provider.

Firstly, if you’re uncertain whether a growth on your skin is a wart, it’s wise to seek professional advice.¹⁵ A healthcare provider can properly diagnose the condition and rule out other skin abnormalities that may require different treatments.

Secondly, if you discover a wart on sensitive areas like your face or genitals, you should definitely see a healthcare provider.¹⁶ Facial and genital warts require special care due to the delicate nature of the skin and the potential for complications.

If you have multiple warts, or if your warts are causing discomfort like itching, burning, or bleeding, it’s recommended to consult a healthcare provider.¹⁷ They can guide the best course of treatment and help alleviate any discomfort you might be experiencing.

Finally, if you have diabetes or any medical condition that weakens your immune system, you should reach out to a healthcare provider if you notice a wart.¹⁸ Your immune system plays a role in combating the virus that causes warts, so having a weakened immune system could make treatment more challenging and necessitate professional care.

In summary, while most warts are harmless and can disappear on their own or be treated at home, there are situations where professional medical advice is the best way forward. 

Salicylic acid isn’t just for warts

Salicylic acid for wart removal is a safe and somewhat effective treatment. Here at Curology, we don’t treat warts, but we do use salicylic acid in some of our acne products, including our Acne Body Wash.

If you have skin concerns regarding acne, clogged pores, dark spots, fine lines, rosacea, or melasma, the licensed dermatology providers at Curology are here to help. Founded by dermatologist Dr. David Lortscher in 2014, we believe everyone should have access to expert skincare and effective ingredients. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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Getting started is easy. Just take a quick quiz and snap a few photos of your skin concerns. You’ll be matched with a dermatology provider licensed in your state who’ll review your information. If Curology is right for you, you will be prescribed a formula designed specifically to target your skin concerns with up to three active ingredients. Plus, you can ask your dermatology provider skincare questions you have or for product recommendations to complement the formula.

FAQs

How long does it take to remove a wart with salicylic acid?

The timeline for removing a wart using salicylic acid can vary considerably, as researchers have yet to agree on an ideal treatment length for optimal results. Most studies, however, suggest a range from six to 17 weeks, with an average treatment time of about 12 weeks.¹⁹ This means that while some warts may disappear in as little as a month and a half with daily treatment, others might take four months or more. Patience and consistency in applying the treatment are key.

What is the strongest treatment for warts?

Most warts respond well to minimally invasive treatments, but stronger approaches may be needed for those that are stubborn or widespread. These can include special ointments and solutions, injections with various types of medicine, or curettage where the wart is carefully scraped off. In some cases, laser treatments, which use focused light energy to remove the wart, might be used. Photodynamic therapy, a method involving a light-sensitizing substance and a specific type of light, is another stronger treatment option. All of these treatments require visits with a healthcare provider.²⁰

Why do warts turn white with salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid, when applied to warts, triggers a process called chemical ablation. This essentially means it actively destroys the top layer of the wart.²¹ The wart’s surface may turn white due to this process, a sign that the treatment is working. It’s a bit like peeling an onion—the layer of salicylic acid and the dead skin cells of the wart can be gently removed (if possible) before the next salicylic acid treatment is applied. Over time, this can lead to the complete removal of the wart.²²

• • •

P.S., We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

  1. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. (2023, April 16).

  2. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  3. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  4. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  5. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology Association. How to Heal Warts More Quickly and Prevent New Ones. (n.d.). 

  7. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  8. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  9. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. What are the treatment options for warts?. InformedHealth.org. (2019, November 7).

  10. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. What are the treatment options for warts?. InformedHealth.org. Ibid.

  11. Focht III, D.R., et al. The Efficacy of Duct Tape vs Cryotherapy in the Treatment of Verruca Vulgaris (the Common Wart). Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. (October 2002).

  12. Focht III, D.R., et al. The Efficacy of Duct Tape vs Cryotherapy in the Treatment of Verruca Vulgaris (the Common Wart). Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. Ibid.

  13. Craw, L., et al. Are salicylic formulations, liquid nitrogen or duct tape more effective than placebo for the treatment of warts in paediatric patients who present to ambulatory clinics?. Paediatr Child Health. (March 2014).

  14. Al Aboud, A.M. and Nigam, P.K. Wart. StatPearls. Ibid.

  15. American Association of Dermatology Association. Warts: Tips for Managing. (n.d.).

  16. American Association of Dermatology Association. Warts: Tips for Managing. Ibid.

  17. American Association of Dermatology Association. Warts: Tips for Managing. Ibid.

  18. American Association of Dermatology Association. Warts: Tips for Managing. Ibid.

  19. Ockenfels, H.M. Therapeutic management of cutaneous and genital warts. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. (2016, September 8).

  20. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. What are the treatment options for warts?. InformedHealth.org. Ibid.

  21. Ockenfels, H.M. Therapeutic management of cutaneous and genital warts. J Dtsch Dermatol Ges. Ibid.

  22. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care. What are the treatment options for warts?. InformedHealth.org. Ibid.

Laura Phelan is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner at Curology. She earned her Masters of Science in Nursing at Benedictine University and went on to get her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner at the University of Cincinnati.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Our policy on product links:Empowering you with knowledge is our top priority. Our reviews of other brands’ products in this post are not paid endorsements—but they do meet our medically fact-checked standards for ingredients (at the time of publication).
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Curology Team

Image of Laura Phelan Nurse Practitioner

Laura Phelan, NP-C

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