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Although psoriasis has no cure, various treatments are available, including topical creams, medication, and light therapy. One common topical treatment is salicylic acid. Read on to learn how salicylic acid works to treat psoriasis.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is an active ingredient in a wide variety of over-the-counter (OTC) products, including exfoliators, cleansers, creams, ointments, and shampoos. Otherwise known as beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), it may be used to treat the following:

  • acne
  • calluses
  • corns
  • dandruff
  • psoriasis
  • uneven skin tone
  • warts
  • wrinkles

Salicylic acid is a keratolytic agent, which means that it causes the outer layer of skin to peel and shed. In general, OTC skin care products contain between 0.5 and 5 percent salicylic acid.

Salicylic acid helps soften, lift, and clear away flakes of skin on psoriasis plaques. It may also reduce swelling.

It is often used in combination with other treatments, as removing scales may help to improve the effectiveness of some treatments.

What salicylic acid concentration is OK for psoriasis?

The recommended concentration of salicylic acid for psoriasis ranges 2% to 10%. Products with higher concentrations may be available only with a prescription.

In addition, keep in mind that while higher concentrations may be more effective at removing scales, they are also more likely to cause side effects. They may even worsen your psoriasis. Your doctor can help you find the right concentration.

There are many OTC products that contain salicylic acid for psoriasis. The following products were chosen based on their ingredients, customer reviews, and brand reputation, which we assessed using ratings on independent websites, including the Better Business Bureau and Trustpilot. If you’re looking for personalized recommendations, consult a dermatologist.

Price guide

  • $ = less than $15
  • $$ = $15-$20
  • $$$ = over $20

CeraVe Psoriasis Cleanser

  • Price: $$
  • Salicylic acid: 2% concentration
  • Vegan: No
  • Fragrance: None

Reviewers say this soothing body wash effectively relieves itchiness, scaling, and flaking caused by psoriasis. Along with salicylic acid, it also includes lactic acid, a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) that exfoliates and smooths the skin.

CeraVe’s Psoriasis Cleanser’s formula is designed to balance the drying effects of salicylic acid with natural moisturizers, including niacinamide, glycerin, urea, and shea butter. It’s best for people with mild to moderate psoriasis who want a body wash to help with dryness, itchiness, and flaking.

Pros

  • It won’t dry out the skin, a common side effect of using products with salicylic acid.
  • Most reviewers say it improves the appearance of their psoriasis.
  • It’s fragrance-free and suitable for sensitive skin.

Cons

  • It contains lactic acid, which can make your skin more sensitive to the sun.
  • Some users noted the watery consistency makes it hard to use.

Paula’s Choice BHA 9 Treatment

  • Price: $$$
  • Salicylic acid: 9% concentration
  • Vegan: No
  • Fragrance: None

This leave-on spot treatment is designed to target skin imperfections, including rough and scaly skin. It contains one of the highest concentrations of salicylic acid you’ll find, and the time-release formula means that it works around the clock to clear dry and flaky skin.

Plant extracts — including boerhavia diffusa root, avena sativa kernal, and sea whip — offer antioxidant properties to help to soothe irritated skin. This treatment is meant to be applied before bed and worn overnight.

Paula’s Choice BHA 9 Treatment could be helpful if you’re looking to improve skin imperfections caused by facial psoriasis.

Pros

  • The high concentration of salicylic acid makes this treatment more powerful than many others.
  • Reviewers say it works quickly and doesn’t cause their skin to dry out.
  • This cruelty-free product is formulated for sensitive skin, without fragrances or parabens.

MG217 Medicated Moisturizing Psoriasis Cream

  • Price: $
  • Salicylic acid: 3% concentration
  • Vegan: No
  • Fragrance: None

This moisturizer is part of a line of skin care products designed to be used in combination to target psoriasis. Users say that it helps to remove scales, reduce redness, and keep skin feeling moist to the touch.

In addition to 3-percent salicylic acid, it contains a number of additional skin-soothing and moisture-enhancing ingredients, including aloe, vitamin E, avocado oil, shea butter, and provitamin B5.

The treatment might be helpful for people experiencing moderate to severe psoriasis. It can be applied up to four times daily, but it may take a few days to notice the results.

Pros

  • This product is recognized by the National Psoriasis Foundation, demonstrating it was created or intended to be non-irritating.
  • Reviewers said that when applied regularly, it works to reduce the size and appearance of psoriasis plaques.
  • At less than $10, it’s an affordable option.

CeraVe SA Lotion for Rough and Bumpy Skin

  • Price: $$
  • Salicylic acid: 3% concentration
  • Vegan: No
  • Fragrance: None

This leave-on lotion targets uneven patches of skin linked to psoriasis. With 3 percent salicylic acid — plus lactic acid, another gentle exfoliant — it softens and adds moisture to dry, scaly skin.

Free of parabens, dyes, and fragrances, it is formulated with hyaluronic acid, vitamin D, and ceramides, a type of fatty acid naturally found in the cells that make up the outer layer of the skin. Plus, it features slow-release technology to ensure moisture is locked in all day long.

It’s ideal for people who need a daily moisturizer to reduce dryness and bumpy skin caused by psoriasis.

Pros

  • Users rave about its effects on bumpy skin.
  • Reviewers say it’s good value for the price and quantity.
  • It’s a great choice as a daily moisturizer for those with sensitive skin.

SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser

  • Price: $$$
  • Salicylic acid: 2% concentration
  • Vegan: No
  • Fragrance: Citrus, lavender, orange, and lemon

Along with salicylic acid, SkinMedica’s luxurious facial cleanser includes a number of AHAs — including lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, and malic acid — to boost exfoliating action. The formula also includes jojoba oil in the form of tiny spheres that gently exfoliate the skin, provitamin B5 for moisture, and plant extracts.

Reviewers give this cleanser high ratings, and say it keeps the skin on their face feeling smooth, silky, and clear without drying it out. This product is ideal if you’re looking for a daily facial cleanser to help with dryness and imperfections.

Pros

  • Users say this gentle cleanser can provide some alleviation for common facial issues, such as uneven skin tone and clogged pores.
  • The cleanser features a mild, floral scent derived from plant extracts.
  • It’s suitable for all skin types.

ProductPriceTypeKey Ingredients
CeraVe Psoriasis Cleanser$$body wash2% salicylic acid, lactic acid, niacinamide, glycerin, urea, shea butter
Paula’s Choice BHA 9 Treatment$$$facial cream9% salicylic acid, boerhavia diffusa root, avena sativa kernal, sea whip
MG217 Medicated Moisturizing Psoriasis Cream$cream3% salicylic acid, aloe, vitamin E, avocado oil, shea butter, provitamin B5
CeraVe SA Lotion for Rough and Bumpy Skin$$lotion3% salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid, vitamin D, ceramides
SkinMedica AHA/BHA Exfoliating Cleanser$$$facial cleanser2% salicylic acid, lactic acid, glycolic acid, citric acid, malic acid, jojoba oil

Your dermatologist is your best resource when it comes to choosing skin care products for psoriasis. They can help you understand which treatments will work best on your skin.

That said, there’s still some work you can do on your own. Start by identifying the type of product that you need — for example, a cleanser or moisturizer. You may need to consider different products for your face, scalp, and body, as the face tends to be more sensitive than the rest of the body, and certain treatments may work better on the scalp if you have hair.

Once you’ve determined the type of product you want, round up a few options and look at their customer reviews and ratings. You’ll also want to check the ingredients list — particularly if you have known allergies or overly sensitive skin. You can use INCIDecoder’s search tool to look for harsh ingredients in skin care products.

Finally, keep in mind that finding the right product might require a bit of trial and error. You may wind up trying one or two products before you get one that works well for your skin and psoriasis. Also, remember that results may not be overnight, it could take a bit of time and consistent use before you see results.

Follow the instructions on the product or prescription label carefully.

When you first start using a salicylic gel, cream, lotion, or ointment, apply only a small amount to a single patch of psoriasis. Try this for several days to see how your body responds.

At first, you might find that symptoms such as dryness and itchiness worsen as your skin adjusts to the treatment. If you don’t experience any significant side effects, you can begin using the product as directed.

Apply salicylic acid to patches of psoriasis as needed up to several times per day unless otherwise directed by your doctor or pharmacist. Note that it may take a few weeks before you see an improvement.

You should avoid applying salicylic acid to more than 20% of your body surface area, as it is absorbed through the skin and too much can cause side effects. In addition, steer clear of your eyes, nose, mouth, and genitals.

If you have specific concerns about using salicylic acid and your skin, routines, or health, it’s best to speak to a doctor or pharmacist.

Salicylic acid is one of the most commonly used topical treatments for psoriasis, according to a 2015 literature review. The authors analyzed three studies featuring salicylic acid monotherapy and five studies featuring salicylic acid used in combination with other treatments.

They reported that salicylic acid appears to be effective when used alone to treat psoriasis on the scalp, but more studies are needed. In addition, salicylic acid is beneficial when used alongside other treatments, such as topical corticosteroids and anthralin.

The authors of a 2017 literature review found that a salicylic acid-containing ointment appeared to increase the effectiveness of topical corticosteroids by making psoriasis patches easier to penetrate. In addition, adding salicylic acid to anthralin appears to be more effective than using anthralin alone.

Finally, a small 2022 study involving 20 subjects with mild to moderate psoriasis found that an over-the-counter (OTC) gel containing turmeric and salicylic acid, followed by a moisturizer containing shea butter and salicylic acid improved the appearance of psoriasis plaques with daily use.

In other words: Multiple researchers and studies have found that salicylic acid can at least somewhat improve psoriasis.

The most common side effects of salicylic acid are irritation, dryness, and stinging at the site of application. Although these symptoms aren’t usually a cause for concern, you should mention them to your doctor if they persist.

Other side effects of salicylic acid are rare but potentially serious. You should seek emergency medical assistance right away if you experience any of the following:

  • confusion
  • diarrhea
  • hair loss
  • headaches
  • hearing problems
  • light-headedness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid breathing
  • tinnitus
  • weakness and fatigue

The authors of a 2015 literature review caution that salicylic acid is not a suitable treatment for psoriasis in young children due to its risk of side effects. In addition, people with kidney or liver problems and widespread psoriasis may be at an increased risk of experiencing side effects.

There are several other topical treatments for psoriasis, some of which may be used in combination with salicylic acid, including:

  • Anthralin. This tar product has anti-inflammatory properties and reduces scales. It must be washed off after it is applied. Using salicylic acid in combination with anthralin is more effective than using anthralin alone.
  • Calcineurin inhibitors. Also known as immunomodulators, calcineurin inhibitors reduce inflammation and plaque growth. They can be used alongside salicylic acid.
  • Coal tar. Topical coal tar may work to relieve psoriasis by suppressing the synthesis of DNA. It can be used alongside salicylic acid.
  • Corticosteroids. Mild-to-moderate strength topical corticosteroids help to reduce and prevent symptoms of psoriasis. They are commonly used alongside salicylic acid, which improves their effectiveness.
  • Moisturizers and emollients. Thick moisturizing creams and ointments help to lock in moisture, ensuring that the outer layer of the skin stays hydrated. They can be used alongside salicylic acid.
  • Retinoids. Retinoids are synthetic versions of vitamin A found in a variety of skin care products. They may help with psoriasis by slowing skin cell growth and reducing inflammation.
  • Vitamin D analogs. These synthetic versions of vitamin D reduce skin cell proliferation. Calcipotriol, a vitamin D analog, should not be used in combination with salicylic acid.

Are there other acids that work for psoriasis?

Lactic acid, a type of alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA), may also be helpful in the treatment of psoriasis. It is less potent than salicylic acid but may be gentler on the skin.

What does salicylic acid do for psoriasis?

Salicylic acid loosens the links between skin cells in the stratum cornea, or the outermost layer of the skin, and reduces pH. This is believed to help hydrate and soften the skin, in addition to relieving itchiness.

Some studies have found that the substance’s ability to loosen the links between skin cells may make it easier for other treatments, like corticosteroids, to penetrate patches.

Do you need a prescription to use salicylic acid for psoriasis?

No, you do not need a prescription to use salicylic acid for psoriasis. A number of OTC products formulated to treat psoriasis contain salicylic acid. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for a recommendation.

Does salicylic acid work for scalp psoriasis?

According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, OTC shampoos that contain salicylic acid may be helpful in cases of mild psoriasis or to boost the effectiveness of topical scalp treatments.

Is coal tar or salicylic acid better for psoriasis?

Coal tar and salicylic acid address different issues. Coal tar appears to reduce inflammation, itching, and scaling as well as slowing down skin cell regeneration, while salicylic acid helps to dissolve dead skin cells. Research suggests that salicylic acid can improve the effectiveness of coal tar.

Many psoriasis treatments that contain salicylic acid are available without a prescription. However, you should see a dermatologist if you haven’t found an OTC treatment that works for your psoriasis.

In addition, make an appointment with a doctor if you experience a change in psoriasis symptoms or treatment side effects.