Pros and Cons of Salicylic Acid Peels

Overview of Salicylic Acid Peels

Salicylic acid is one of the most commonly used ingredients in many cosmetic products for acne-prone skin. Salicylic acid is also frequently used as a medication for treating psoriasis, warts, seborrheic dermatitis, ringworm, corns, calluses, and many other types of skin conditions. Salicylic acid is generally better known as beta hydroxy acid (BHA).

The concept of using salicylic acid peels is not a new concept. In fact, people have been using salicylic acid peels for over 2,000 years for a variety of skin treatments.(1)

Pros and Cons of Salicylic Acid Peels

Salicylic acid can also be naturally found in wintergreen leaves and willow barks, but nowadays, many cosmetic companies are manufacturing these peels in the laboratory as well.

Salicylic acid has been proven to be great for eliminating oil from the skin, and when it is used as a facial peel, it is suitable for removing pimples and acne.

Pros of Salicylic Acid

There are many benefits associated with using salicylic acid peels, including:

  • It is a Comedolytic: Comedolytic means that salicylic acid helps unplug the dead skin cells and removes the accumulated oils in the pores that can lead to acne blemishes.
  • It is a Desmolytic: This means that salicylic acid has the ability to exfoliate your skin by disrupting the intercellular connections. This is what is referred to as a desmolytic effect.
  • It is Anti-Inflammatory: Salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties on the skin but at low concentrations. This is another property of salicylic acid that helps in the treatment of acne.

Due to these beneficial effects of salicylic acid, it is often prescribed and used by dermatologists for treating skin conditions such as:

  1. Acne
  2. Freckles
  3. Melasma
  4. Sunspots

Salicylic acid has a 3-in-1 effect on your skin. It not only exfoliates the skin but at the same time, it also decreases inflammation and also kills harmful microbes that are responsible for causing acne. The anti-inflammatory properties of salicylic acid are related closely to acetylsalicylic acid, which is another anti-inflammatory compound commonly known as aspirin.

Salicylic acid is also an excellent compound for oily skin. This is because of its ability to breakdown fats and lipids. I help get rid of any excess oil on your skin and helps restore balance to the skin.

Additionally, salicylic acid is also capable of penetrating into the pores of your skin and unclogging them. This helps in the prevention of whiteheads and blackheads. By removing the impurities from your skin, salicylic acid helps minimize the skin’s photosensitivity or sensitivity to the sun.(2) There is also some concerns about the use of salicylic acid in darker racial ethnic groups.(3)

When salicylic acid is used in low concentrations, it is found to be suitable for all skin types. Not only does salicylic acid soothe irritated skin, but it also reduces pigmentation and redness. It also boosts the healing of blemishes and acne. It does all these without increasing your skin’s sensitivity to the sun, which is a side effect observed in many other chemical peels.

Cons of Salicylic Acid

In spite of the many benefits of salicylic acid, there are some drawbacks to using it as well. However, these drawbacks are quite minor as compared to the many benefits of the compound, but nevertheless, you should be aware of these before using salicylic acid peels.

Salicylic acid can cause allergic reactions in people who are sensitive or hypersensitive to salicylic acid and its related compounds. The rule of thumb you can follow is that if you are allergic to aspirin, then understand that you are most likely going to be allergic to salicylic acid as well. So do not use salicylic acid or any products that contain salicylic acid for treating acne.

Salicylic acid is known for its ability to penetrate into your skin. However, due to this ability, salicylic acid can also cause moderate chemical burns when used in high concentrations.

Salicylic acid peels may also cause discomfort and irritation to your skin, especially if you have very dry skin. Remember also that if you end up over-exfoliating your skin, or if you combine too many active compounds in your daily or weekly skin care routine, then also it may cause irritation to the skin.

So salicylic acid peels are an extremely useful anti-acne product that is more or less safe to use for everyone, but only as long as you take the necessary precautions. To ensure safe usage of salicylic acid peels, it is better to do a sensitivity test first to make sure that you are not allergic to the compound. If you have never used chemical peels or other acid-based cosmetic products before, then you should begin with using the gentlest product you can find that has the lowest concentration of salicylic acid. You can then gradually build up to a higher concentration product.

If you have acne-prone skin and are using salicylic acid, then pay attention to some adverse side effects such as peeling, flaking, redness, dryness, tightness, or irritation. If you experience any such discomfort during or after using salicylic acid, then you should switch to a lower concentration, or you can discontinue the use of salicylic acid altogether.

While there are many benefits of salicylic acid, there can be certain side effects as well. In particular, there are some people who should not be using salicylic acid peels. These include:

  • Pregnant women
  • People who are using Accutane (isotretinoin)
  • People who have irritation or active dermatitis on the face
  • People who have a history of being allergic to salicylates, including aspirin
  • Women who are breastfeeding

If a person is having skin cancer, then they should not be applying the salicylic acid peel to that affected area. Since salicylic acid peels are generally milder than other chemical peels, they do not have too many side effects. However, the side effects they can cause include:

  • Peeling
  • Increased sensitivity to the sun
  • Mild tingling sensation
  • Redness

How to Apply a Salicylic Acid Peels?

Often times, salicylic acid peels may be solder under the name of beta hydroxy acid peels. So when you are shopping for them, you should consider looking for both these label types. However, before you decide to try chemical peels, especially for the first time, always make sure to talk with your dermatologist first.

Here are some general guidance on how to apply a salicylic acid peel:

  • Begin by washing your skin with a gentle cleanser
  • Now apply the salicylic acid peel to your skin. Some peel products even come with a special fan-like applicator that makes it easier to distribute the peel evenly.
  • Leave the peel on your skin for the recommended amount of time, as mentioned on the box.
  • Neutralize the peel if directed.
  • Use lukewarm water to rinse the peel away.
  • Apply a gentle moisturizer if required after the peel.

It is essential that you leave the peel on your skin only for the amount of time the manufacturer has recommended on the box or instruction label. Otherwise, there is a high chance that you will experience irritation.


There are many chemical peels available on the market today, one of which is salicylic acid peels. These products can help clear up your skin and reduce the incidence of many skin conditions.

However, if you find that the salicylic acid peel is not helping you achieve your skincare goals, or you find that your skin is very sensitive to many products, then it might be a good idea to consult a dermatologist for your skin conditions.

A dermatologist will be able to suggest a skincare regimen that will be customized as per your individual skin condition and skin health.

Salicylic acid peels are an excellent treatment option if you are suffering from skin conditions such as hyperpigmentation or acne. However, remember that you should only perform these types of chemical peels under the guidance of a professional dermatologist.


  1. Arif, T., 2015. Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review. Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology, 8, p.455.
  2. Kligman, D. and Kligman, A.M., 1998. Salicylic acid peels for the treatment of photoaging. Dermatologic surgery, 24(3), pp.325-328.
  3. Grimes, P.E., 1999. The safety and efficacy of salicylic acid chemical peels in darker racial‐ethnic groups. Dermatologic surgery, 25(1), pp.18-22.

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