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Using salicylic acid on skin: What you need to know

Get the lowdown on this powerhouse skincare ingredient.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 4 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
smiling young woman washing her face
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 4 min read
Medically reviewed by Meredith Hartle, DO
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.

You’ve probably heard a lot about salicylic acid. It’s a common ingredient used in many skincare products, both prescription and over-the-counter. But what is it, exactly? And how does it work?

Here’s what you need to know about using salicylic acid on your skin, including the potential benefits and side effects.

All about salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (or BHA) known for its exfoliating properties, which helps clear pores and reduce acne. Generally considered safe for all skin types, skin tones, and ethnicities,¹ it exfoliates by dissolving the bonds between dead skin cells and the skin’s surface. It’s commonly used as a topical acne treatment because it may help reduce breakouts, including blackheads and whiteheads.² 

Different forms of salicylic acid

There are many different forms of salicylic acid to choose from, so you can experiment to find a SA product that works for your skin. Along with salicylic acid serums and cleansers, it’s available in several other forms, including:³

  • Gels 

  • Lotions 

  • Ointments 

  • Pads 

  • Soaps

Potential benefits of salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is one of those ingredients that’s effective at treating several skin concerns, which is why it shows up in so many different products. Adding an SA product to your skincare routine may result in smoother, brighter skin, reduce blemishes, decreased inflammation, and more. These potential benefits will make you want to try it for yourself, especially if you have acne-prone skin: 

  • Exfoliation:⁴ Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that sloughs off dead cells from the skin’s surface, clearing out pores.

  • Acne fighting: Salicylic acid helps reduce the occurrence of blemishes, including whiteheads and blackheads.  

  • Decreased inflammation: Salicylic acid’s anti-inflammatory properties are another reason this BHA helps fight breakouts.

  • Reduced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH): When used as a peeling agent, salicylic acid may help treat melasma, freckles, and lentigines.⁵ 

How to use salicylic acid on your face

If you’re just starting out using salicylic acid, we suggest introducing it to your routine gradually. Curology’s experts recommend using it up to twice weekly, then increasing the frequency as your skin tolerates it. 

Try a cleanser, cream, toner, wipe, or serum, but avoid using multiple products containing SA at once, as this may increase your chances of experiencing irritation. Follow the directions on the bottle and speak with your dermatology provider if you have any questions. If you experience any side effects, give your skin a break before slowly reintroducing the product. 

Wondering how long to leave salicylic acid on your face? We recommend following the instructions on the specific product you decide to use. If you want to add this ingredient to your nightly lineup, we recommend searching for a product containing 1-2% salicylic acid—the recommended concentration for regular exfoliation within a skincare routine. 

Potential side effects of salicylic acid

Salicylic acid is typically well tolerated, but sometimes it may trigger adverse effects, particularly if your skin is not used to the ingredient. You’ll likely be able to avoid them if you introduce the SA-containing product into your routine slowly and you’re careful not to overdo it.

Potential salicylic acid side effects, while usually mild, can include the following:⁶ 

  • Skin irritation

  • Stinging

  • Dryness and peeling

  • Redness

  • Hives or itching 

Does Curology offer salicylic acid?

Yes! Curology’s Acne Body Wash contains 2% salicylic acid to treat acne on the back, neck, shoulders, and chest. Designed by board-certified dermatologists, it encourages exfoliation and helps prevent the buildup of oil (sebum) and debris to help prevent new acne from forming. It’s fragrance-free and noncomedogenic, meaning it won’t clog your pores.

Depending on your unique skin goals, your Curology provider may also recommend salicylic acid as an active ingredient in your personalized treatment product.

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Curology uses proven effective ingredients

If you’re dealing with persistent breakouts, it may be time to consult the experts for something more effective than over-the-counter salicylic acid. Our experts help take the guesswork out of your skincare routine by providing a custom treatment plan and personalized prescription formula.*

Founded in 2014 by board-certified dermatologists, Curology is a full-service skincare company offering products made with proven ingredients, such as salicylic acid, tretinoin, clindamycin, and azelaic acid. Our prescription-strength formulas treat skincare concerns like acne, fine lines, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and rosacea. 

Ready to get started? Signing up is easy: Just answer a few questions and snap some selfies to help us get to know your skin better. If Curology is suitable for you, we’ll pair you with one of our in-house licensed dermatology providers. The best part? Your custom treatment comes with any of our recommended skincare products, such as our cleanser, moisturizer, or sunscreen

FAQs

What are the different forms of salicylic acid?

Along with salicylic acid serums and cleansers, it’s available in several other forms, including:

  • Gels 

  • Lotions 

  • Ointments 

  • Pads 

  • Soaps

Potential benefits of salicylic acid?

Adding an SA product to your skincare routine may result in smoother, brighter skin, reduce blemishes, decreased inflammation, and more. These potential benefits will make you want to try it for yourself, especially if you have acne-prone skin: 

  • Exfoliation: Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that sloughs off dead cells from the skin’s surface, clearing out pores.

  • Acne fighting: Salicylic acid helps reduce the occurrence of blemishes, including whiteheads and blackheads.  

  • Decreased inflammation: Salicylic acid’s anti-inflammatory properties are another reason this BHA helps fight breakouts.

  • Reduced post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (PIH): When used as a peeling agent, salicylic acid may help treat melasma, freckles, and lentigines.

How to use salicylic acid on your face?

Try a cleanser, cream, toner, wipe, or serum, but avoid using multiple products containing SA at once, as this may increase your chances of experiencing irritation. Follow the directions on the bottle and speak with your dermatology provider if you have any questions. If you experience any side effects, give your skin a break before slowly reintroducing the product.

What are the potential side effects of salicylic acid?

Potential salicylic acid side effects, while usually mild, can include the following: 

  • Skin irritation

  • Stinging

  • Dryness and peeling

  • Redness

  • Hives or itching

• • •

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

  1. Arif, T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. (2015 August 26).

  2. Zaenglein, A., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (2016).

  3. PubChem Compound Summary for CID 338, Salicylic Acid. PubChem. (n.d.).

  4. Decker, A., & Graber, E. M. Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. (2012).

  5. Arif, T. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. Ibid.

  6. Salicylic Acid (Topical Route): Side Effects. Mayo Clinic. (2022).

Meredith Hartle is a board-certified Family Medicine physician at Curology. She earned her medical degree at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Kirksville, MO.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary. 

• • •
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.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Meredith Hartle, DO

Meredith Hartle, DO

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