This powerhouse treatment helps fight breakouts, dandruff, warts, and more.

By Jen McCaffery
Updated January 29, 2020
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Are you breaking out regularly or noticing dandruff flakes on your shoulders? You may attribute it to stress or other environmental factors, but these flare-up could be a sign that your body isn’t shedding dead skin effectively. The good news? Dermatologists recommend a liquid exfoliant called salicylic acid to help treat common conditions that result from dead skin build-up, which include breakouts, clogged pores, and dandruff. And even better news is that salicylic acid products are widely available to buy over-the-counter and online, so you don’t have to worry about making a doctor’s appointment to get a prescription.

But before you break out your wallet, you should know what exactly this versatile ingredient is, along with its benefits and drawbacks. Here, dermatologists weigh in on salicylic acid, who should use it, and the best salicylic acid products to try for various skin concerns. 

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is considered a keratolytic—in other words, a general exfoliant that’s a safe, effective treatment for several different kinds of skin ailments—says Omer Ibrahim, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology.  

According to Dr. Ibrahim, salicylic acid works by softening keratin, a protein in the skin, making it easier to remove dry outer layers that have built up on the skin over time. And since it’s oil-soluble, it can easily penetrate the skin to break up oil and dead skin cells that often clog pores and create pimples, says Rachel Nazarian, MD, a New York-based dermatologist and fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

How does salicylic acid work?

Unlike other common ingredients of acne medications, salicylic acid is anti-inflammatory, which decreases the redness and inflammation associated with red, tender pimples. It can also slough the outermost layer of skin by breaking apart the bonds between the skin cells, Dr. Nazarian explains. This leads to a gentle exfoliation process that’s useful for preventing and treating acne, along with other skin conditions like clogged pores, dandruff, and warts.

The benefits of salicylic acid

Since salicylic acid exfoliates dead skin cells and encourages new ones to appear, this action can help fade and lighten dark spots or acne scars, Dr. Nazarian says. And its anti-inflammatory power may help prevent those dreaded dark marks from appearing in the first place. 

When it comes to dandruff—another common condition it’s used for—typical dandruff medications won’t penetrate the scalp if you have too much scale built up on the area, Dr. Ibrahim says. But salicylic acid-based shampoos can loosen that scale, revealing the underlying healthy skin so it can better absorb medication. Dr. Ibrahim adds that salicylic acid is often employed to treat warts on the hands or feet in combination with in-office wart-freezing procedures done by a dermatologist. These at-home wart removers, which are readily available at drug stores, work by exfoliating the cells of the wart with salicylic acid to encourage the growth of new skin.  

Side effects of salicylic acid

As with any skincare ingredient, there are potential side effects to be wary of, too. “If you already have eczema or broken skin in that area or if it’s already dry and cracked, salicylic acid can cause burning and irritation,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “It’s not made for everybody. You have to consult with your dermatologist or physician before you use it.” 

Since it can dry out certain skin types, Dr. Nazarian cautions against using it every single day. “People who are dry at baseline, or have sensitive skin conditions like rosacea and eczema should avoid it or proceed with caution and with the guidance of their dermatologist,” she says. 

It’s also not recommended to use salicylic acid with other acne medications—like benzoyl peroxide or retinols—because it can over-dry the skin, which can even lead to peeling, says Dr Ibrahim. And like with all topical medications, there’s always the risk of allergy, though it’s extremely rare, he adds.  

“If you’re just using it for general skin health, in the winter you might not need to use it every day, a few times a week is plenty,” Dr. Ibrahim says. “Of course pairing it with moisturization and sunscreen is paramount, because if the skin if senses it’s too dry, it’s going to increase oil production to moisturize itself and that’s when you get wintertime breakouts and acne.”

The upshot? Using at-home salicylic acid products is a good start, especially if there’s a wait time to see a physician for whatever skin ailment you’re dealing with. Here, we asked dermatologists which salicylic acid treatments they recommend for acne, warts, dandruff, and more. Whether you’re looking for a salicylic acid shampoo to stand up to a flaky scalp or a face wash to reduce acne, it’s definitely a good idea to have this multi-use ingredient at the ready in your medicine cabinet.

Below, the 10 best salicylic acid products for your skin, according to dermatologists. 

Best Gel Cleanser: Vichy Normaderm Deep Cleansing Gel With Salicylic Acid

Dermstore

Perfect for people with acne and large pores, this lightweight gel cleanser combines salicylic acid with glycolic acid and micro-exfoliating lipo hydroxy acid to remove dead skin cells and excess oil without over-drying. The face wash is also paraben-free, so it’s good for sensitive skin, Dr. Nazarian notes.   

Available at dermstore.com, $18

Best Moisturizer: CeraVe SA Cream for Rough and Bumpy Skin

Amazon

If you have dry skin, Dr. Nazarian recommends this salicylic acid-based cream because the base contains several ceramides that can help improve hydration and moisturize sensitive skin. Bonus points? While salicylic acid is removing dead skin cells, the vitamin D included in the cream boosts the skin’s tone and improves texture. 

Available at amazon.com, $18

Best Budget-Friendly Cleanser: Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash

Walmart

This widely-used $7 face wash is great for people who are prone to breakouts. ”It helps to keep the pores open and unclogged with a little bit of anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties,” Dr. Ibrahim says. And if you’re wondering how much of a concentration you should look for in a salicylic acid face wash, Dr. Ibrahim recommends “anywhere between 2 to 5%.” “You really don’t need to overdo it, because these can be pretty intense,” he adds. This budget-friendly option clocks in at 2%, so it should be gentle enough for use on combination skin, too. 

Available at walmart.com, $7

Best Antioxidant-Rich Face Wash: IS Clinical Cleansing Complex

Dermstore

Safe for all ages and skin types, this clarifying cleanser uses a paraben-free formula that blends salicylic acid, herbal extracts, and antioxidants to minimize pores, protect against environmental damage, and gently exfoliate for softer, brighter skin. “I like it because it has some vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E, which are great anti-inflammatories, and the vitamin C also gives you some skin brightening,” says Dr. Ibrahim. 

Available at dermstore.com, $44

Best Wart Remover: DuoFilm Salicylic Acid Wart Remover

Amazon

Dr. Nazarian recommends this liquid wart remover because it’s “super concentrated” with 17% salicylic acid. This means you’ll only need one small drop daily to treat warts. With time and continued use of this affordable product, she notes, they will shrink down. 

Available at amazon.com, $9

Best Exfoliating Peel: M-61 Powerglow Peel

Amazon

A salicylic acid-based peel for reducing large pores, fine lines, and acne scars, this 10-pack of pre-soaked exfoliating sheets also include vitamin K, which can be used to minimize spider veins on your legs. Dr. Nazarian likes that this treatment contains gentle ingredients, including chamomile and lavender, along with glycolic and salicylic acid to balance out the potential irritation for people with sensitive skin. Plus, hundreds of Amazon reviewers raved that these exfoliators gave them a glowing complexion and effectively treated hyperpigmentation and acne scars.

Available at amazon.com, $30 for 10 towelettes

Best Dandruff Shampoo: Neutrogena T/Sal Therapeutic Shampoo

Walmart

Dr. Nazarian likes this customer-favorite salicylic acid shampoo for treating dandruff or other scalp conditions because “unlike a lot of other medicated shampoos, this one is safe to use daily and cleans like a regular shampoo, so you don’t need to use anything else,” she says. It uses 3% salicylic acid to minimize flaking on the scalp and, in turn, prevent build-up. “Just condition the tips of your hair [after each use] to prevent drying out,” she suggests. Even better? The shampoo is only $6, so it’s a cost-effective way to deal with dandruff. 

Available at walmart.com, $6

Best Salicylic Acid Strips: Compound W One Step Wart Remover Pads

Walmart

Salicylic acid wart removers, like this trusted option from Compound W, work particularly well in conjunction with in-office freezing treatments, says Dr. Ibrahim. These maximum-strength strips offer a convenient way to treat warts because you can stick them right on the wart like a band-aid, leave them on overnight, and let the medication do the work while you sleep. 

Available at walmart.com, $7 

Best Brightening Cleanser: Revision Skincare Facial Wash

Dermstore

Another great choice for acne-prone or combination skin, this rejuvenating face wash contains moderate amounts of both salicylic and glycolic acids to deeply cleanse and exfoliate without over-drying. Plus, the addition of vitamin C and licorice extract work to brighten and even out skin tone. Dr. Ibrahim likes this cleanser because the combination of salicylic acid and vitamin C “helps with breakouts but also brightens the complexion.”

Available at dermstore.com, $33

Best for Stubborn Warts: Curad Mediplast Corn, Callus, and Wart Remover 

Walmart

For stubborn warts, Dr. Ibrahim recommends choosing treatment pads with a 40% (or higher) concentration of salicylic acid, like these super effective wart, callus, and corn removers from Mediplast. “Mediplast makes great pads for warts because they stay on really well and they continue to work throughout the day,” Dr. Ibrahim says, adding that you should use them on the infected area every day until you can see a doctor for further wart treatment. Plus, a 25-pack of the pads costs just $20. 

Available at amazon.com, $20 for 25 pads

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