What to Know About a Salicylic Acid Peel

Medically Reviewed by Debra Jaliman, MD on July 23, 2023
4 min read

Salicylic acid peels are a prescription strength exfoliation treatment. You can buy cosmetics that have salicylic acid, but a peel will treat deeper layers of your skin.

Salicylic acid peel is a chemical peel mostly used to treat acne. Chemical peels are sometimes called dermal peeling or chemexfoliation.

The process involves applying a chemical to the skin that causes the skin to break down and shed. Different chemicals are used, including glycolic acid, mandelic acid, lactic acid, and salicylic acid, which affect the skin at different depths.

Salicylic acid is known as a beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA, and has been used on the skin for more than 2000 years. It comes from natural sources of salicylates like willow bark, sweet birch, and wintergreen leaves, but it can be made synthetically. 

Salicylic acid is a precursor to aspirin and is an ingredient in lots of different cosmetics. It is a safe and well-tolerated peel that can be used for all skin types.

Salicylic acid peels have some benefits for your skin. 

Comedolytic. Salicylic acid cleans out your pores and sloughs away dead skin cells that build up around your hair follicle and cause blemishes.

Anti-Inflammatory. Salicylic acid can lower inflammation, redness, and swelling caused by acne

Antifungal. Salicylic acid is an ingredient in Whitfield’s ointment, which is used for fungal infections. A salicylic acid peel can also help treat fungal infections like fungal acne.

Desmolytic. This means that salicylic acid can break down and shed the connective tissues in your skin by disrupting the connections in your cells. The shedding of skin cells helps keep pores clear.

Lowers oil production. Sebum is a natural oil that moisturizes your skin. Too much oil and dead skin cells together can clog your pores and cause a break out. Salicylic acid lowers the amount of oil in people with acne.

Improves hyperpigmentation. While not used for dark spots as often as other acids, a salicylic acid peel can help improve sun spots or melasma. Breaking down the superficial layer of the skin can help rejuvenate the skin and improve appearance.

Prevents tumors. Salicylic acid can help stop cell growth that leads to tumors in your skin. It can especially help with growths caused by sun damage. 

You can try salicylic acid peel products at home, but these are low concentrations and are usually masks, face washes, creams, or serums. These have a mild exfoliation effect and can help mild acne, but they’re nothing like a chemical peel at the doctor’s office.

Salicylic acid peels are stronger and involve deeper layers of the skin than what these at home products can do. 

If you get a peel, your doctor will make a pre-peel skin care plan that lasts about 2 to 4 weeks. They might prescribe tretinoin during this time, which helps prepare your skin and make sure you get the best results with the fewest side effects. 

Here’s what to expect on the day of your peel:

  1. Your doctor will prep your skin and thoroughly wash it before the procedure. 
  2. They will apply a salicylic gel or liquid all over the area. You might start with a 20% or 30% solution, but it can be as high as 50% salicylic acid. The percentage depends on your skin condition. 
  3. The peel will stay on your skin for 3 to 5 minutes and will form a white crystalized crust on your face. This is sometimes called frosting.
  4. Your doctor will rinse the solution off with tap water and wash your skin with a gentle cleanser.
  5. A gentle moisturizer is applied to your face.

You will need to wash and moisturize with gentle products for the first 48 hours after you get the peel. You’ll also need to wear sunscreen daily to protect your skin.

Your doctor might want to do a few more peels over the next few weeks to get the best results, but they’re meant to be a temporary treatment. Your skin will continue to age and you might still get growths on your skin from sun-damage. 

Salicylic acid peels are well-tolerated and safe for most people. The peeling process will naturally cause some side effects, but your skin will heal usually within 1 to 2 weeks. 

You might experience:

There are some reports that a salicylic acid peel causes a loss of pigment in the skin, called hypopigmentation. This seems to be rare and temporary though. Salicylic acid peels are generally thought to be safe for people with darker skin, but it’s best to make sure your doctor has experience treating darker skin.

Salicylic acid peels are safe and have few side effects, especially if they’re done by a skin doctor. If you have ongoing skin problems, talk to your doctor about having a chemical peel.