The hazards of salicylic acid

Updated November 21, 2016

Salicylic acid, also referred to as ortho-hydroxybenzoic acid, is a chemical compound made from carbon dioxide and dry sodium phenoxide. First prepared in 1838 by Italian chemist Raffaele Piria, salicylic acid occurs naturally in the bark of plants such as willow trees and is used to create aspirin and skin care products. Salicylic acid, whether used internally or externally, is associated with some potential hazards.

Salicylic Acid Uses

Salicylic acid is most commonly used topically to treat skin conditions such as acne, psoriasis, which manifests with scaly, red patches on the skin and ichthyoses, which also causes scaling and dryness. It is also used for the treatment of dandruff, warts, calluses and corns. Topical salicylic acid is available in many forms such as pads used to cleanse the skin, shampoos, gels, creams and lotions that are applied to the scalp or affected areas of the skin. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Medline Plus, salicylic acid should not be used to treat warts on the face, moles or birthmarks.

How Salicylic Acid Works

Salicylic acid works as an exfoliant, which makes it useful for sloughing off dead skin cells. This acid also works to treat acne because, as a derivative of aspirin, or acetylsalicylic acid, it is believed to possess anti-inflammatory properties. Medline Plus states that salicylic acid treats acne by unplugging blocked pores and reducing both swelling and redness. In the treatment of dry skin conditions, the exfoliating properties of the acid help to loosen scaly and dry skin so it can be removed.

Hazards of Salicylic Acid

The hazards most commonly associated with salicylic acid are redness, irritation, dryness and peeling of the skin in the areas where the acid was applied. Mild discomfort such as stinging or burning can also occur at the application site. Regular treatment with salicylic acid can also make the skin more sensitive to the sun. In some cases, severe side effects can accompany an allergic reaction to salicylic acid. These symptoms, according to, include hives, swelling, itching, difficulty breathing and tightness in the chest. Avoid getting topical salicylic acid in your mouth, eyes and nose.


Several precautions can be taken in order to avoid any negative side effects from the use of salicylic acid. Be sure to wear plenty of sunscreen to prevent the increased sensitivity to the sun associated with salicylic acid products. Only apply topical salicylic acid to areas of your skin that are affected by the skin condition you are using the product for and avoid applying it to skin that is broken, infected, red or irritated. Follow the product labels strictly; Medline Plus recommends gradually increasing the number of product applications in order to allow your skin to adjust to the levels of salicylic acid.

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