Salicylic acid is a popular organic acid that, like its nearly identical brother acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin), was originally derived from the bark of willow trees. While the latter has been around for many centuries, relieving fevers, reducing swelling, and dulling pain, the former is a relatively modern discovery that is used primarily to alleviate the social anguish caused by acne, psoriasis, corns, warts, calluses, dandruff, and other dermatological afflictions. It can be found in many products both over and under the counter, and salicylic acid treatments can be administered through a variety of different forms. There are salicylic acid peels, gels, pads, shampoos, medicated strips, creams, etc.
Salicylic acid skin products are numerous because of the acid’s unique properties. It causes the outmost layer of skin—the epidermis—to hasten the rate at which dead skin cells are discarded. It also finds its way into oily follicles, keeping dead skin cells and debris from clogging the plumbing and creating a habitat for bacteria, acne, and other things that will keep you from dating. If used consistently, salicylic acid will eventually bring the skin’s natural cycles back to something like normal. Best of all, salicylic acid products are cheap and painless.
Salicylic Acid Safety
If you’re a conscientious consumer, you’ll probably read the warning labels on your salicylic acid products before using them, but just in case, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Some people are allergic to salicylic acid, and those with allergies to aspirin should abstain. If you are pregnant, or think you will be, cease all salicylic acid treatments, as not much research has been done in this area. While using salicylic acid, consult a doctor before using other skin care products, such as benzoyl peroxide, sulfur, or resorcinol, as this may overly irritate your skin.
Individuals with darker skin types should also consult a doctor, as prolonged exposure has been shown to cause hyperpigmentation and even skin damage. Salicylic acid is a great natural treatment, but it isn’t for everyone. If you’re in pain during treatment . . . stop.
Salicylic Acid Treatments
Salicylic acid is most widely known and used to treat acne, undoubtedly because most people experience acne and the accompanying double-takes and insecurities that come with it. Salicylic acid acne products are primarily for those with mild to moderate acne characterized by whiteheads and blackheads but not open wounds, cysts, and infections. Salicylic acid acne products provide a great alternative to benzoyl peroxide and sulfur, which can be too harsh for those with sensitive skin types. Besides exfoliating, reducing oil buildup, and keeping dead skin cells from blocking pores, salicylic acid is also mildly anti-inflammatory.
While psoriasis is a disease without a cure, some salicylic acid products can reduce the symptoms. Psoriasis is characterized by plaque-like scales and lesions on the skin from skin cells that multiply far too rapidly. Salicylic acid products are often used in tandem with other treatments; the salicylic acid cream or lotion is used to take off the top layer of skin so UV therapy, antibacterial creams, and moisturizers can penetrate to the living skin’s surface. As with warts, corns, and calluses, it is important only to apply to the affected areas, as strong salicylic acid formulas can irritate and even damage normal skin.
Salicylic acid is a perfect way to get rid of warts. I say perfect because it’s cheaper and easier than going to the doctor and completely painless, unlike freezing them off. However, this method does require patience. Before I applied my Dr. Scholl’s Invisible Strip, I soaked my wart in warm water for five minutes and reapplied every other day for six weeks. Other treatments ask you to peel the skin away yourself with a nail file (one that you’ll want to retire). With whatever salicylic product you choose, read the directions carefully.
There are many salicylic acid shampoos on the market to help get rid of dandruff. Dandruff, however, isn’t a straightforward stigma—experimentation is recommended to the point where the whole process ends up sounding like alchemy of the scalp. Always the hypocrite, I recommend alternating between salicylic acid products like Neutrogena T/Sal Anti-Dandruff Shampoo or Ionil T, and the highly effective antifungal shampoo Nizoral A-D Anti-Dandruff Shampoof. The salicylic acid shampoo will clear your scalp of dead skin and scales while the other will kill the fungus, Malassezia, which new research implicates as a major cause of dandruff.
Corns and calluses aren’t always painful, but for those that are—as well as those unsightly buggers—a mild salicylic acid formula will hasten their demise. Wearing protective gloves (for you blue collars), proper socks, and quality shoes that fit well will prevent and sometimes heal corns and calluses, but salicylic acid products like Keralyt or Sal Acid soften the dead skin for faster removal. You’ll want to buy a pumice stone or a mildly abrasive file to rub off the corn or callus. The only drawback of this treatment is that it will take time as well as the occasional soak.
Salicylic Acid Products
Salicylic Acid and Lip Balm: Salicylic acid in a lip balm or “Chapstick” doesn’t make sense. If your doctor recommends a salicylic acid product, it is going to be for severe cold sore sand other dermatological problems—not for chapped lips. Salicylic acid causes skin to shed at a higher rate, which will exacerbate your problem, creating a wretched cycle of short relief and reapplication. If you want to get rid of chapped lips, stop licking your lips and mouth breathing. Use a salicylic-free lip balm in moderation during those cold, dry days.
The Salicylic Acid Peel: The salicylic acid peel is the super-charged Rolls-Royce of anti-aging and blemish control methods. Many facial peels are done with AHAs, or alpha hydroxy acids. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxyl acid, which means instead of being just water soluble, it is also lipid soluble—it can get deeper into the skin to get rid of excess oils, dead skin, and cellular debris. Besides being better for individuals with oily skin, salicylic acid peels are anti-inflammatory, which really does help when you’re dousing your skin with acid. Unlike other salicylic acid treatments, this procedure isn’t cheap. You can have it done at salons or go to the doctor for a higher concentration of salicylic acid, which is more effective but will also lighten your wallet further.