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How Does Salicylic Acid Work on Acne?

By Staci Eastin ; Updated July 18, 2017

According to the Journal of Dermatological Treatment, Americans spend $100 million every year on over-the-counter acne treatments. Salicylic acid is a common ingredient in many skin care products. It's found in products designed to treat acne, along with products to remove warts, callouses and corns.

Life Cycle of the Pimple

Pimples start in the sebaceous gland, a gland in the hair follicles of the face, back and chest. Sebaceous glands produce a substance called sebum. Excess sebum, along with extra skins cells and a protein called keratin, can clog up this gland. A pimple results when the clogged gland enlarges beneath the surface of the skin.

Sebaceous glands are stimulated by the hormone testosterone. Although testosterone is usually considered a male hormone, it's also produced in females by the ovaries and adrenal glands. This explains why acne begins during puberty.

Severe cases of acne occur when these pimples are infected by the bacterium called Propionibacterium acnes. P. acnes is an anaerobe, which means it doesn't require oxygen to grow.


Salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent. It dissolves keratin, a protein found in the skin. Salicylic acid breaks up the layer of skin that clogs the sebaceous gland. This allows the pimple to heal and the hair follicle to return to normal.

Salicylic Acid in Skin Care

A comparison study published in the journal Clinical Therapeutics showed that salicylic acid was more effective than benzoyl peroxide in reducing the number of pimples. It's not as potent as retinoids, such as Retin-A, but it's a good option if your skin is too sensitive to tolerate retinoids. Salicylic acid is often found in chemical peels, but there is no scientific evidence that peels are an effective acne treatment.

Most preparations of topical salicylic acid have a concentration of 3 percent to 6 percent. In concentrations above 6 percent, salicylic acid damages skin tissue. Although only small amounts of salicylic acid can enter the bloodstream through the skin, high concentrations are absorbed by the system if applied too frequently, especially when used by children.

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