Salicylic Acid—It May Dry and Thin Your Skin

Salicylic Acid 2

If you've ever battled with acne, most likely you've used salicylic acid at some point or another. This ingredient can be found in all kinds of skin products, including cleansers, moisturizers, and masks, and now even in some foundations and other makeup products.

This beta hydroxy acid has a reputation for helping to diminish the appearance of acne. Though generally considered safe, some people may be sensitive to it, and if they use it regularly, may end up with skin that is dry, red, and peeling.

Salicylic acid may help with acne temporarily, but over the long term can dry and thin your skin.

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a type of beta hydroxy acid found in the bark of the willow tree. It is derived naturally from the metabolism of salicin, which is an anti-inflammatory agent produced from willow bark. In the plant itself, it acts as a hormone, participating in growth and development, photosynthesis, and plant defenses.

Salicylic acid, in its natural form, can also be found in blackberries, blueberries, dates, raisins, kiwis, apricots, green peppers, olives, tomatoes, mushrooms, radishes, and chicory, as well as in almonds and peanuts.

For commercial use, however, salicylic acid is typically prepared by treating sodium phenolate (sodium salt of phenol) with carbon dioxide at high pressure and temperature. It is then treated with sulfuric acid to create salicylic acid.

How Does it Work?

Salicylic acid helps kill the bacteria that create acne, and also helps encourage exfoliation, which opens up clogged pores and kills the bacteria inside. It can also constrict the pore diameter, helping to reduce the risk of future clogging.

To continue to see results, however, you must continue to use salicylic acid on a regular basis. This is not a cure for acne, but rather a tool to use in the daily battle.

What are the Concerns?

The main concern with this ingredient is that it is drying and somewhat irritating, especially for sensitive skin types. Since many people with acne have reactive or sensitive skin, the use of salicylic acid may provide temporary relief, but then may backfire in the long run.

As skin becomes dryer, it may react by producing more oil, which then will create acne once again, requiring the use of more salicylic acid, which then creates more dryness, setting you up for a vicious cycle that only causes the condition of your skin to deteriorate.

Another problem in today's world is that manufacturers are adding this ingredient to more and more products. That means that you may be exposed to it in your cleanser, moisturizer, body wash, primer, foundation, and more. This many applications can definitely cause your skin to say enough is enough, and flare up with redness, swelling, irritation, and more acne. Skin can also become thinner, which can highlight capillaries, fine lines, and wrinkles.

Those with dark skin may also be especially affected by this ingredient. The action of salicylic acid can cause discoloration, which can remain on your skin for an extended period of time. The FDA recommends continued use of sunscreen when using products containing this chemical.

Other concerns with salicylic acid are related to higher concentrations, which may be used in chemical peels. These may include up to 30 percent of the ingredient, which can increase the risk of other side effects such as dizziness, headaches, fatigue, and nausea.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that the ingredient not be used on children younger than 2 years of age, and that older children are more susceptible to skin irritation and other side effects, as salicylic acid readily penetrates skin. Children have lower body weights, which means that even a small amount of the ingredient can affect them more than it would adults.

What to Do?

If you're using products that contain salicylic acid, be sure you're protecting your skin with sunscreen. My preference would be to avoid it, and use natural, nourishing ingredients that are good for your skin!

Have you used salicylic acid? Have you noticed your skin becoming dryer and thinner? Please share your experience.

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Reader Interactions


  1. jada says

    I’m really nervous because I was told by my doctor to use salicylic acid(wart remover) on my wart and it turned the skin surrounding the wart a very pale white!!! Any suggestions??

  2. victoria says

    Salicylic acid works at very low pH of 2,0-4,0. On higher pH levels its activity decreases. Typical face cleansers are very alkaline, so this active ingredient won’t really work at all. Another thing to mention is that you need to leave salicylic acid on skin and not rinse in order for it to work. In my personal experience (clogged pores) very mild low pH cleansers (around level of 5, the natural acidness of skin), followed by toners with salicylic acid and then toners with alpha hydroxy acids provided exfoliation deep in my clogged pores. Salicylic acid is oil-soluble, so I avoided putting oil-containing products on top of it, to avoid my skin from drying out I used sleeping packs (masks) with aloe extract, panthenol, allatonin which are great for soothing and hyaluronic acid (not great if you live in dry climate). This routine was done nightly, in daytime in addition to regular products I used broad spectrum sunscreen (means it protects from both UVA and UVB rays). I have gone through mild purging and have experienced some dryness (mentioned earlier), but overall my skin is nicer than it was before.

  3. Samar says

    I am 14 and I was thinking of buying clean and clear balancing moisturizer containing salylic acid but after reading some comments I am not ready to buy it and surely from now not ever buy it

  4. olly.mbatha says

    Well I started using this facial exfoliater and it’s primary ingredient is salicylic acid…I used it once and my skin started burning up?I have red facial marks that just won’t go away…I stopped using the product right away and my skin started improving…salicylic acid sucks on sensitive skin

  5. Macel says

    I use the neutrogena with salicylic acid and my face is very dark now,dry and peeling.I hate it.I thought it is good for the whiteheads but I was wrong.Better use cetaphil for washing face.

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