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Salicylic acid peels aren’t a new approach. People have used salicylic acid peels for more than 2,000 years in their skin treatments. The acid is naturally found in willow bark and wintergreen leaves, but skin care manufacturers can make it in the lab, too.

Salicylic acid belongs to the beta hydroxy acid family of acids. Great for zapping oil on the skin, when used as a peel, this type of acid is good for those who have pimples and acne.

Salicylic acid has several beneficial properties that make it well suited for peeling applications. These include:

  • Comedolytic. This is a fancy word that means salicylic acid unplugs dead skin cells and built-up oils that can cause acne blemishes.
  • Desmolytic. Salicylic acid has the abilities to exfoliate skin cells through disrupting intercellular connections. This is known as a desmolytic effect.
  • Anti-inflammatory. Salicylic acid has an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin at low concentrations. This may help in treating acne.

Because of its beneficial effects, salicylic acid is often used by dermatologists to treat skin concerns like:

There are some people who shouldn’t use salicylic acid peels, including:

  • people with a history of allergy to salicylates, including aspirin in some people
  • people who are using isotretinoin (Accutane)
  • people with active dermatitis or irritation on the face
  • pregnant women

If a person has an area of skin cancer, they shouldn’t apply a salicylic acid peel to the affected area.

Because salicylic acid peels are usually milder peels, they don’t have too many side effects. They can include:

  • redness
  • mild tingling sensation
  • peeling
  • greater sun sensitivity

Cosmetic manufacturers can legally only sell salicylic acid peels that contain a certain percentage of the acid. Stronger peels, such as 20 or 30 percent salicylic acid peels are best applied at a doctor’s office.

This is because these peels must be left on for only a certain amount of time. A dermatologist must also consider a person’s skin type, color, and skin care concerns to determine what degree of salicylic acid peel will work best.

Some skin care manufacturers may sell stronger peels, but they’re often intended for application on the body and not on the more delicate skin of your face.

It’s best to talk with your dermatologist before trying any at-home salicylic acid peels, as you could unintentionally burn your skin. On the other hand, over-the-counter (OTC) salicylic acne washes from trusted brands are fine to use.

Sometimes, salicylic acid peels are marketed as beta hydroxy acid (BHA) peels. When shopping for them, you can look for both label types. Again, talk with your dermatologist before applying any at-home peels.

Some general directions for applying a salicylic acid peel include:

  • Wash your skin with a gentle cleanser.
  • Apply the salicylic acid peel to your skin. Some peel products sell a special fan-like applicator to evenly distribute the peel.
  • Leave the peel on for the recommended amount of time.
  • Neutralize the peel if directed.
  • Rinse the peel away with warm water.
  • Apply a gentle moisturizer if needed after the peel.

Salicylic acid peels are an example of a time when more isn’t more. Leave the peel on for the amount of time the manufacturer recommends. Otherwise, you may be more likely to experience irritation.

An in-office peel may be very similar to an at-home one. However, a skin care professional may apply or prep the skin with other products before the peel to enhance its depth.

They’ll also monitor you during the peel to make sure you don’t experience any adverse symptoms.

If you’re ready to try a salicylic acid peel at home, here are a few product suggestions to get you started:

  • The Ordinary Peeling Solution. This low-cost peel delivers high-value results. It contains 2 percent salicylic acid combined with 30 percent alpha hydroxy acids. Shop for it online.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Salicylic Acid Exfoliant. This product is a leave-on exfoliator meant for applications of every other day to every day for very oily skin. Find it online.

Doctors usually classify chemical peels into three categories. These include:

  • Superficial. These peels affect the outer layers of skin only. They can treat conditions such as acne, melasma, and hyperpigmentation. Examples include glycolic, lactic, or low concentrations of trichloroacetic acid peels.
  • Medium. These peels penetrate deeper into the dermis. Doctors treat conditions like pigmentation disorders, including sunspots, and wrinkles with medium-depth peels. A higher percentage of trichloroacetic acid peel (i.e., 35 to 50 percent) is usually a medium-depth peel.
  • Deep. These peels can penetrate deep into the dermis, into the middle of the reticular dermis. They’re only available at a doctor’s office and can treat skin concerns such as deep scarring, deep wrinkles, and severe sun damage. Examples include a Baker-Gordon peel, a phenol, or a high percentage of trichloroacetic acid.

The depth of a salicylic acid peel depends on the percentage of acid the skin care professional applies, as well as how many layers or passes are made with the solution and skin preparation. OTC salicylic acid peels are superficial.

It’s important to note that these OTC products aren’t regulated by the FDA, and they could cause burns or scarring. It’s always best to discuss using any at-home peels with your dermatologist.

A dermatologist can also apply a stronger peel that has a medium-depth effect.

There are lots of products out there — salicylic acid ones included — that can help clear your skin or reduce the incidence of skin care concerns.

Some signs you should see a professional include if you haven’t been able to meet your skin care goals with at-home products or your skin seems very sensitive to a lot of products.

If you aren’t sure where to start, a dermatologist can suggest a skin care regimen based on your individual skin health.

Going to a dermatologist doesn’t mean you’ll walk away with only a list of expensive or prescription products. If you explain your budget and goals, they should be able to recommend effective products.

Salicylic acid peels may be a great treatment if you have skin care concerns like acne or hyperpigmentation. You should only perform chemical peels under the guidance of a board-certified dermatologist.

If you have had problems with skin sensitivity before, talk to your dermatologist before using salicylic acid products. They can make sure the products are safe for your skin type.