What is a Salicylic Acid Chemical Peel?

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  • Written By: J.S. Metzker Erdemir
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 02 January 2020
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A salicylic acid chemical peel is a cosmetic skin treatment. Chemical peels that use salicylic acid are considered light or superficial peels because they remove just the top layer or layers of skin. Superficial peels are best for treating acne and for making the skin look brighter and smoother.

Salicylic acid is a synthetic acid derived from willow bark. For a salicylic acid chemical peel, it is usually a gel which is odorless and colorless. Salicylic acid is similar to the active ingredient in aspirin, and can also be used as a food preservative. Many over-the-counter products for acne or for doing light chemical peels at home contain salicylic acid, usually at solutions of 5 percent or less. A salicylic acid chemical peel contains 20 percent to 30 percent salicylic acid.

Chemical peels are most successful on fair, light-skinned people, though some people with darker skin may respond to light peels for treatment of acne or mild discoloration. A dermatologist should decide if a patient is a good candidate for this type of cosmetic treatment. A salicyclic acid chemical peel helps remove acne, including whiteheads and blackheads. They can also reduce the appearance of fine wrinkles, improve some blemishes, and even out skin tone and discoloration from sun damage.


A salicylic acid chemical peel is generally done as an outpatient procedure, though it might also be done in a beauty salon by a trained technician. The procedure takes less than an hour. There is some burning, stinging, and discomfort associated with chemical peels, but in most cases, painkillers are unnecessary and stinging can be relieved with a fan or cool compresses. Salicylic acid is an anti-inflammatory that helps reduce irritation and swelling after the procedure. It is also effective on oily skin.

Salicylic acid may be used on any part of the body except around the eyes. The solution should sit on the skin for 10 to 20 minutes. It works by detaching the layer of dead skin cells from the live cells below. Following the procedure, the skin comes off in flakes, and the skin underneath may appear red, shiny and sunburned. The peeling may continue for a few days.

In most cases, there is no recovery time for superficial peels, and they can be repeated every four to six weeks to maintain results or achieve desired results. Following a chemical peel, high SPF sunscreen must be used daily, since the new skin is very susceptible to damage from the sun.


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Post 3

@burcidi-- That's interesting because as far as I know, salicylic acid peels go deeper down in skin than glycolic acid peels do. I thought that this meant more irritation and longer recovery time but you're saying the exact opposite.

I have never tried a salicylic acid peel but I've been hearing a lot about it. I have used salicylic acid facial cleansers and toners before. They worked fine but they only contain 2% salicylic acid. So I'm not sure how a peel will work since it contains much more salicylic acid.

Also, I have a medium olive skin tone, so I'm undecided about salicylic acid peels.

Post 2

@burcidi-- What do you use salicylic chemical peels for?

As far as I know, different chemical face peels are best for different problems. Some are better for acne, some are better for hyper-pigmentation and some are better for wrinkles.

Salicylic acid is usually used for acne and acne blemishes. Is that what you're using it for?

Post 1
I've had very good experiences with low strength salicylic acid peels. As long as it's not done too frequently and as long as the peel isn't a high percentage, it renews skin without much irritation.

I tried a glycolic chemical peel recently and it irritated my skin and caused a weird breakout. I've never experienced this with salicylic acid chemical peels.

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