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Salicylic Acid for Eczema: Is It Recommended?

Medically reviewed by Kelsey Stalvey, PharmD
Posted on September 14, 2023

While there’s no cure for eczema, many treatments and skin care products aim to reduce its symptoms, such as inflammation, itchiness, discoloration, and blistering. Many of these over-the-counter face washes, shampoos, toners, and body lotions contain salicylic acid. But is this ingredient safe and effective for eczema?

In this article, we’ll explore the topic of salicylic acid for certain types of eczema — specifically, seborrheic dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, and contact dermatitis — and discuss its potential benefits, the possible risks, and best practices for use.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid, found naturally in the bark of willow trees, is renowned for its exfoliating and anti-inflammatory benefits. Nowadays, this compound is produced in labs and widely included in various skin care products, such as shampoos, facial cleansers, soaps, toners, and body lotions.

Uses for Salicylic Acid

Three main properties make salicylic acid particularly effective for certain skin conditions. Salicylic acid is:

  • Exfoliative — As an exfoliant, salicylic acid helps loosen dead skin cells so that they can be removed from your skin. This shedding action helps unclog pores, improves texture, and makes your skin look smoother.
  • Anti-inflammatory — The slight inflammation-fighting properties of salicylic acid may help reduce swelling and discoloration associated with certain skin conditions.
  • Antimicrobial — Salicylic acid may help destroy or slow the growth of certain bacteria and yeast.

Because of these beneficial characteristics, salicylic acid is used to treat flaking and thickening associated with scaly skin diseases. These conditions include:

  • Acne
  • Psoriasis
  • Viral warts
  • Some types of eczema, including chronic (ongoing) atopic dermatitis and seborrhoeic dermatitis

Forms of Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid can be found in many formulations. The type you choose depends on your skin condition and the area of the body you’re treating.

For example, people with psoriasis and certain types of eczema may want a lotion or an ointment containing salicylic acid at a concentration of 2 percent to 3 percent. On the other hand, treating viral warts may call for a paint or gel with a very high concentration, up to 27 percent. It’s important to consult with a dermatologist or pharmacist to make sure you choose a product that’s right for you because using more salicylic acid than the skin condition requires could be harmful.

Safe Usage of Salicylic Acid

When using a product containing salicylic acid, make sure to follow the instructions on the label and as advised by your health care provider. Don’t use the product more often or longer than recommended.

Avoid getting salicylic acid on sensitive areas, such as the eyes, mouth, nose, and genitals. If you need to treat nearby skin, you can spread petroleum jelly on the vulnerable areas you wish to protect. Also try to keep salicylic acid from touching open wounds or infected, inflamed, or discolored skin.

Salicylic Acid and Seborrheic Dermatitis

Seborrheic dermatitis is a type of eczema that affects areas of the body where sebaceous (oil) glands are concentrated, especially the scalp, face, chest, and back. Skin may develop scaly, sometimes greasy patches that may be red or light in color, depending on your skin tone. This form of eczema is often linked to an overgrowth of yeast called Malassezia.

Seborrheic dermatitis responds particularly well to salicylic acid. Using shampoos, creams, or lotions containing salicylic acid can help manage symptoms on the scalp, face, and other affected areas.

  • Shampoos with salicylic acid can lift and remove scales, reducing flakiness and itchiness on the scalp.
  • Facial products containing salicylic acid can gently exfoliate the skin, reducing the discoloration and greasy appearance that often accompany seborrheic dermatitis.

One study examined the effects of salicylic acid with and without a type of light therapy for seborrheic dermatitis. The researchers found that combining the treatments worked better than using only salicylic acid. This may mean that salicylic acid can be a useful part of a larger treatment plan for eczema.

It’s important to note that salicylic acid may not be suitable for everyone with seborrheic dermatitis. As with any skin care ingredient, individual responses can vary, and some people may experience sensitivity or adverse reactions. If you’re living with seborrheic dermatitis, speak with your doctor before starting salicylic acid — or any new skin care product — to make sure it’s safe for you.

Salicylic Acid and Atopic Dermatitis

The use of salicylic acid in atopic dermatitis and other forms of eczema is more complicated. Atopic dermatitis involves a broken skin barrier and increased immune response, which makes the skin more likely to be irritated and inflamed. Introducing salicylic acid could worsen your eczema. The exfoliating properties might lead to increased sensitivity and irritation by further breaking down the skin barrier.

Dermatologists and health care providers generally exercise caution when recommending salicylic acid-based products to individuals with atopic dermatitis. Instead, they often advise milder, more hydrating skin care options to support the skin barrier and reduce symptoms.

Salicylic Acid and Contact Dermatitis

Contact dermatitis is an itchy rash caused by exposure to a substance, such as perfume, jewelry, or detergent. Salicylic acid’s role in contact dermatitis is less well studied compared with seborrheic and atopic dermatitis. Because contact dermatitis can result from exposure to irritants or allergens, using products with salicylic acid could potentially trigger your contact dermatitis.

If you have contact dermatitis, identifying and avoiding your specific triggers is crucial. Patch testing can help determine your sensitivity to salicylic acid before you incorporate these products into your skin care routine.

Alternatives to Salicylic Acid for Eczema

Given the potential risks associated with salicylic acid for individuals with atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis, it’s important to explore other treatments and skin care ingredients that may be better for eczema-prone skin. Your plan may include a combination of prescription medications and over-the-counter moisturizers, creams, and ointments. Speak with your doctor before introducing a new ingredient or product to your eczema skin care regimen.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEczemaTeam is the social network for people with eczema and their loved ones. On MyEczemaTeam, more than 49,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with eczema.

Have you used salicylic acid for your eczema? How did this ingredient work for your particular type of eczema? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on September 14, 2023
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    Kelsey Stalvey, PharmD received her Doctor of Pharmacy from Pacific University School of Pharmacy in Portland, Oregon, and went on to complete a one-year postgraduate residency at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Florida. Learn more about her here.
    Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H. is a medical student at George Washington University and a former Fulbright research scholar in Durban, South Africa. Learn more about her here.

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