Salicylic Acid

Written by Dasha Saian, L.E

At one point or another, skin care professionals will all use salicylic acid – it is one of the most popular ingredients in anti-acne skin care. Salicylic is the only beta hydroxy acid used in skin care; it occurs naturally in wintergreen leaves, sweet birch, and other plants, and is topically an anesthetic and a keratolytic with a mild peeling effect. For milder acne, salicylic acid helps unclog pores to resolve and prevent lesions. It is derived from the metabolism of salicin, which is an alcoholic β-glucoside.

Salicylic accomplishes the same goals in skin care as alpha hydroxy acids, such as lactic acid and glycolic acid, but is used in a weaker concentration. Applied to the skin, it breaks down fatty compounds, such as the oily sebum that can clog pores; taken inside the body, salicylic acid (the main ingredient in aspirin) relieves pain and improves circulation. One of the most important benefits of this ingredient is that it is significantly less irritating than other products.

Salicylic acid acts as a keratolytic, which loosens keratin, therefore allowing thickened, scaly plaques of skin to shed more easily. Using an exfoliant that contains salicylic acid not only sloughs off dead skin like a traditional face scrub, but also contains mild acids that will decrease inflammation and prevent further breakouts.

As a mode of chemical exfoliation, salicylic acid increases cell turnover, refreshes the skin, helps kill germs and bacteria, and tightens pores. It is most useful in oily skin and, like aspirin, it can relieve inflammation and redness.

The word salicylic comes from the Latin salix, meaning a plant or a tree of the willow family – it was first made from a complex carbohydrate found in willow bark. The ingredient is not directly found in the bark; the powdered bark has to be treated with oxidants and filtered to make the acid.

It is a monohydroxybenzoic acid, a type of phenolic acid, and a beta hydroxy acid with the formula C7H6O3.
Monohydroxybenzoic means any hydroxybenzoic acid having a single phenolic hydroxy substituent on the benzene ring. Monohydroxybenzoic acid may refer to any of three isomeric phenolic acids:

Salicylic acid (2-hydroxybenzoic acid, o-hydroxybenzoic acid)
3-Hydroxybenzoic acid (m-hydroxybenzoic acid)
4-Hydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
Phenolic acids or phenolcarboxylic acids are types of aromatic acid compound. Phenolic acids can be found in many plant species. Their content in dried fruits can be high.

Over-the-counter treatment products with 0.5 percent to two percent salicylic acid are safe to use in the treatment room, as well as at home. The problem with most acne products that list salicylic acid as their active ingredient is that they do not contain the correct concentration of salicylic acid at the right pH. For facial products, two percent salicylic acid is used with 98 percent of product being a neutral carrier agent. Up to three percent salicylic acid can be used on other body parts and a 10 percent to 30 percent spot treatment will dissolve warts.

Compared to alpha hydroxy acids in acne care products, which can be up to 30 percent, the same treatment is safely achieved by 0.5 percent to two percent concentration of salicylic acid. Because salicylic acid can cause mild stinging and skin irritation, dermatologists highly recommend using it in moderation.

Salicylic acid is generally a safe compound when applied at proper concentrations for the treatment of acne, but there are some instances where salicylic is contraindicated: People that are allergic to aspirin (which is a similar ingredient) or have rosacea/couperose should avoid salicylic acid.

Pregnant women and breastfeeding women should avoid salicylic acid.

This ingredient also should not be used on children younger than two years old and only with a physician's prescription for children because the absorption through skin is greater.

Also, doctors advise being cautious in the use of salicylic acid on Fitzpatrick types IV, V, and VI.

These three skin types contain many cells that produce the pigment melanin; the skin uses this melanin to limit inflammation. When treated by salicylic acid, acne in these skin types may be replaced by brown or black hyperpigmentation.

Be careful when using salicylic acid if the client already has a strong exfoliation routine. Professionals will need to advise them to limit exfoliation to two or three times a week and, furthermore, cut back on any facial scrubs, harsh soaps, or exfoliating masks. At home, it is recommended that clients use a salicylic acid exfoliant two or three times a week, but start with once weekly at night to determine how the skin will react. Salicylic acid does not have any effect on sebum production and does not kill bacteria, so it is important to use products with a variety of ingredients in addition to salicylic acid when working on acneic skin.

Among the most common types of products containing salicylic acid are peels. Jessner's Solution (or Jessner's Peel) is the common name often used for a deeper chemical peel solution consisting of 14 percent lactic acid and 14 percent salicylic acid peeling agent with a resorcinol solvent. The lactic acid assists in the exfoliation of the skin, salicylic acid aids in penetration, and resorcinol assists in the treatment of acne. This procedure was named after Max Jessner, the New York dermatologist who invented it, and is layered on the skin to treat uneven pigmentation, acne, and acne scarring and reduce the appearance of large pores, wrinkles, and uneven skin tone.

After the client's skin is thoroughly cleansed, the peel chemicals are applied. As a general rule, two-to-five coats are applied for the best possible results. The client can expect aggressive peeling and occasional crusting within two-to-four days after the peel has been applied.

Not everyone is a good candidate for a Jessner's Peel. The following people are contraindicated for this type of procedure: clients with active cold sores, sunburn, or severe asthma; clients with lupus, eczema, rosacea, or psoriasis; pregnant women; and clients with chronic skin disorders and dermatitis conditions.

For homecare, the most common product is salicylic acid exfoliants. Clients are encouraged to exfoliate two-to-three times a week maximum with pre-soaked salicylic pads or by applying the exfoliant to swabs and buffing the face for one-to-two minutes. This product is generally best removed with cold water, since it may have a stinging sensation while on the face and cold water alleviates any discomfort.

Another product based on salicylic acid that is advised for homecare is a salicylic acid-based spot treatment.

This type of product will generally contain camphor, zinc, magnesium, and iron oxide. It should be applied directly to the blemish at night for inflammation control. This type of product generally consists of two percent salicylic acid in an alcohol base and should only be used on the blemish directly and not on the entire face. Acneic clients will greatly benefit from using this product between their facial appointments to control and maintain their breakouts.

As with any ingredient, there are a variety of products containing salicylic acid advertised on the market. To stay away from toxic added chemicals, select product lines without parabens, added artificial fragrance and artificial colors, and those that are cruelty-free. High quality products will add value to services and be a great asset in the treatment room!


Dasha-SaianDasha Saian, the co-founder and current CEO of SAIAN®, has over 17 years of experience in the spa industry. In addition to her Business/Marketing degree, she is a licensed aesthetician, certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, official Ambassador of the Aesthetics International Association (AIA), and certified Family Herbalist. Saian gives lectures and classes internationally and regularly contributes to global trade publications. She is an expert adviser on natural living, alkaline diet, alternative oncology protocols, and positive body image.

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