Salicylic Acid Peel: Everything You Need to Know
Salicylic acid peel, also known as BHA peel, is a highly effective treatment – especially for fighting acne. But let’s see what else this treatment can do for you.
By now you’ve probably heard of salicylic acid – an ingredient praised for its efficiency in treating and preventing acne. Masks, moisturizers, serums…
Whenever a product contains this ingredient it seems to be something people with acne-prone skin swear by.
But does the salicylic acid chemical peel offer the same benefits? Let’s take a look at the characteristics of a salicylic peel and what it can do for your skin.
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What Is a Salicylic Acid Peel?
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA, and has been used on the skin for more than 2000 years. It comes from natural sources of salicylates like willow bark, sweet birch, and wintergreen leaves; however, it can also be produced synthetically.
Salicylic acid is a precursor to aspirin and a common component in cosmetic products. It is a well-tolerated chemical peel that can be used on all skin types and tones.
A salicylic acid chemical peel is used to deeply exfoliate the skin. It breaks the bonds that hold the skin cells together, causing them to peel off and regenerate a new, healthier skin layer.
Image source: Instagram @jbuenolashskin
Salicylic Acid Peel Benefits
So, what does a salicylic acid peel do? Given that it’s very effective in controlling sebum production, salicylic acid peel benefits include:
- Comedolytic properties that help clean out pores from the blemish-causing debris
- Anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties
- Diminishing post-acne redness and swelling from inflammation
- Exfoliating sun-damaged skin
- Decreasing age spots
- Removing the dead skin cells from the skin’s surface
- Removing oil buildup, helping prevent acne from forming in the future
- Reducing skin dullness
- Brightening the skin by addressing the above problems
- It is helpful in preventing tumor-causing cell growth, especially with growths caused by sun damage
Salicylic Acid Peel Intensity
The concentration of acid used and the number of layers applied, as well as the extent to which the skin was prepped all affect how deep a salicylic acid peel will penetrate. Let’s take a look at all the different intensities of a salicylic acid peel:
Light Salicylic Acid Peel
Superficial salicylic acid chemical peel concentration goes up to 15%. A 15-salicylic acid peel intensity is used to treat acne, melasma, and hyperpigmentation. Low concentrations only affect the outer skin layer, the epidermis, so they can’t help with deep-rooted conditions.
Medium Salicylic Acid Peel
These peels penetrate the papillary dermis, which is enough to treat solar keratoses (dry scaly patches of skin that have been damaged by the sun), and pigment disorders. A 20-salicylic acid peel is usually needed to achieve a medium intensity.
Deep Salicylic Acid Peel
Deep peels can penetrate into the middle of the reticular dermis which means that it’s used to treat such as deep scarring, deep wrinkles, and severe sun damage.
In the case of intensity as high as 30 salicylic acid peel is done by medical professionals only as strong concentrations that penetrate too deeply can cause necrosis, the death of the skin tissue.
Although the concentration doesn’t exceed 50%, which a lot of other chemical peeling agents tend to, the pH is lower, making the solution more powerful.
What Conditions Does Salicylic Acid Peel Treat?
Salicylic acid peel has proven to be effective in treating many skin conditions.1 It can be used on areas both on the face and body, so let’s review what problems this treatment can help resolve.
Salicylic Acid Face Peel
Other than fixing specific skin issues, the salicylic acid face peel is great for achieving an overall better and more even-toned complexion. Improving skin texture and boosting collagen production gives your skin a fresh, healthy glow.
This means that salicylic acid face peel is successful in treating the following conditions:
Salicylic Acid Peel for Large Pores
Salicylic acid peel leaves your skin feeling smoother and softer right away. Dead skin cells that clog up your pores and give you a dull complexion are peeled off, making pores appear smaller and improving the texture of your skin.
Image source: Instagram @skinbeauty_journey
Salicylic Acid Peel for Hyperpigmentation
A series of salicylic acid peel treatments can fade dark spots and discolorations.2 So whether it be melasma, freckles, or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (for example, left behind a breakout), a salicylic acid peel can help diminish it.
Salicylic peel, just like any other chemical peeling agent, works by weakening and dissolving the melanocytes (aka pigment cells) and dead skin cells responsible for hyperpigmentation.
Image source: Instagram @aesthetics_by_andreajayne
Salicylic Acid for Freckles
Whether they occur on your face, chest, hands, or anywhere else on the body, the reason is mostly due to genetics or too much sun exposure. Chemical peels can help even out the skin tone, therefore it can help lessen the visibility of their freckles.
When used in high concentrations, the salicylic acid peel can penetrate deep into the skin to remove deep-rooted freckles.
Salicylic Acid for Melasma
Melanin is responsible for giving our skin its color but sun exposure and hormonal imbalance (like the one that happens in pregnancy) can affect its production.
By stimulating an increase in melanin production in certain areas of the body, you can develop darker skin patches which are called melasma.
And given that chemical exfoliants break down the bonds between skin cells and dissolve excess pigment within them, the salicylic acid peel is a good solution for treating such conditions.
Salicylic Peel for Acne
Since BHA is oil-soluble, it dissolves sebum which makes it especially efficient in treating oily skin with blackheads and whiteheads.
This ingredient also has a few other properties that make it a very suitable treatment for clients that are suffering from acne3, namely its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties that help reduce and prevent acne from forming in the future.
Image source: Instagram @lovebeautyskinclinic
Salicylic Acid Peel for Acne Scars
Chemical peels are helpful in treating dark spots related to acne scarring because by exfoliating the skin, peeling agents remove “stained” skin layers until the new, unaffected ones come to the surface.
While other peeling agents like lactic acid are praised for their skin-lightening properties, those dealing with simultaneous acne and hyperpigmentation may benefit from an acid mixture that also contains salicylic acid.
Salicylic Acid Peel for Wrinkles
This procedure can also be used to reduce wrinkles. Although it can’t remove deep creases, salicylic acid chemical peel helps boosts collagen production to fill out shallow wrinkles and fine lines, eliminating the first signs of aging.
Salicylic Acid Body Peel
The skin on your body isn’t as delicate as the one on your face, so it can take on more powerful formulas.
Salicylic acid body peel has a higher percentage and can help erase stretch marks, fight body acne and sun spots, as well as help smooth out the rough and bumpy skin (aka keratosis pilaris) on your legs, arms, back, chest, and hands.
Here’s a look at all the different uses of salicylic acid peel on the body:
Salicylic Acid Peel for Body Acne
Salicylic acid peel is great for fighting acne so it makes sense to use it on areas that can be otherwise challenging to treat.
Regular acne products aren’t able to penetrate as deep on thicker, body skin. But salicylic acid body peel, on the other hand, can help penetrate the pores at a deeper level, unclog them and reduce further breakouts.
Salicylic Acid Foot Peel
Salicylic acid is applied topically to the skin to treat common skin foot conditions. This ingredient aids in the removal of calluses and corns.
As a keratolytic, salicylic acid works by bringing the skin’s moisture level up while also dissolving the bond between skin cells. By separating them, the skin cells can be shed more easily and as a result, you’re left with smoother and softer foot skin.
Salicylic Acid for Dark Underarms
These particular dark spots are caused by constant friction. Your skin feels like it needs extra protection so it starts producing additional melanin to ensure so.
If the discoloration is bothering you, chemical solutions are generally safe to use on underarms – as long as it’s in lower concentrations.
But if the skin’s protective barrier gets compromised, this can lead to pigment worsening so don’t use salicylic acid for dark underarms too frequently or in high concentrations.
Salicylic Acid for Dark Knees
Similar to the underarms, the elbows and knees are under constant friction due to our normal day-to-day activities. And as a defense mechanism the skin thickens, appearing darker.
But exfoliation with lactic acid can prevent the accumulation of dead skin cells and brighten the area.
Limitations of Salicylic Acid Peel
While salicylic acid has many uses, there are also certain restrictions.4 A salicylic acid chemical peel isn’t right for you if you:
- Have a history of allergy to salicylates – including aspirin
- Are using isotretinoin (Accutane) or have been on it in the past 6 months
- Have active dermatitis, rash, broken skin, sunburn, or irritation on the area you wish to treat
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding
How to Prepare for a Salicylic Acid Peel
Salicylic acid peel might require a special pre-peel skin care plan – if your treatment provider deems it necessary.
This pre-peel regimen can last about 2-4 weeks. The point of this is to help prepare your skin and ensure you get the best results with the fewest side effects.
Unlike before getting other chemical peels where you’re advised to stay away from additional exfoliants, to prep for a salicylic acid peel you might be prescribed tretinoin, AHAs, kojic acid, etc. in various combinations.
You will also be advised to minimize sun exposure and use sunscreen religiously.
What Happens During the Salicylic Acid Peel?
The procedure is quick and consists of only 4 steps:
Prepping the Skin
First, your skin will be thoroughly cleansed, after which it’ll be prepped with a preparation solution. This is a liquid similar to an astringent which cleanses irritants from the skin and reduces the chances of inflammation.
Your skin will also be protected with a bit of petroleum jelly that’ll be applied to the lips, nostrils, eye area, and other sensitive areas.
After the preparation comes the actual application of the salicylic acid peel.
This step only takes a few seconds, but it’s important the layer is thin and even. One to three layers may be applied, one on top of the other, depending on the intensity needed. The more applications you get, the stronger the treatment will be.
How Long Do Salicylic Acid Peels Last?
After the salicylic peel is applied, it is then left on your skin for 3-5 minutes, during which the skin’s reaction is monitored.
You might feel some slight stinging or mild burning – but it shouldn’t be painful. If it is, let your technician know right away. Some doctors will use a little hand-held fan to help cool your skin and minimize the stinging sensation.
After the appropriate amount of time has passed, the peel gets neutralized and washed off. The last step is protecting the skin by applying a mild moisturizer and sunscreen.
What to Expect After a Salicylic Acid Peel?
Immediately after the procedure, your skin will most likely be red, tight, and feeling hot or even stinging a bit. Many people compare the feeling to a sunburn.
Peeling after salicylic acid is normal, and it can last a couple of days. During this period, treat your skin extra gently, and don’t try to speed up the process by peeling it off yourself! Keeping it moisturized with a mild moisturizer will help with the flaking.
Image source: Instagram @skinbycherokee
Salicylic Acid Peel Recovery
The healing process depends on how strong the concentration of salicylic acid peel was, so the salicylic acid peel recovery period might take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
Salicylic acid peel recovery from superficial and even medium peels won’t require any serious downtime. Skin redness and flaking usually resolve within a couple of days.
But recovering from a deep peel isn’t as quick and requires following a serious aftercare regimen.
How Often Should You Get a Salicylic Acid Peel?
That depends on the results you wish to achieve with this treatment.
Usually, people witness noticeable results after having just one treatment. Having just one peel done will give your skin a healthy glow and leave it feeling smoother. But keep in mind that it’ll probably take 3-4 weeks until you’ll be able to see the improvement.
Treating more severe skin conditions takes a while. Severe skin issues require you to undergo multiple sessions – in between which you need to wait for the skin to fully heal.
How Safe Is the Salicylic Acid Peel?
Remember – the deeper the peel, the higher the risks.5 So while superficial peels aren’t likely to cause the following side effects, with a deeper peel you may experience some:
- Mild tingling sensation
- Mild stinging
- Peeling or flaking
- Dryness and tightness
- Greater sun sensitivity
- Flare up of cold sores, if you’re prone to them
- Hyperpigmentation or hypopigmentation (generally temporary)
Can Salicylic Acid Chemical Peel Be Done on Dark Skin?
Darker skin tones are more susceptible to post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
The body’s natural reaction to inflammation is increasing melanin production, which is why BHA chemical peels like salicylic acid are possibly the best treatments for hyperpigmentation on dark skin6.
It has anti-inflammatory properties, therefore it will minimize any possible post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
You can learn more about this topic, as well as compare salicylic acid peel to other hyperpigmentation-fighting peeling agents here.
Salicylic Acid Peel Price
Salicylic acid peels cost anywhere from $100 to $3000. It mostly depends on the intensity of the peel, as deep peels need to be done by a medical professional – which means they will be expensive.
Light to medium peels are more affordable as they aren’t considered strictly medical treatments. The average price is somewhere between $150 and $300 but the price range tends to be wide depending on the location, provider, and exclusivity of the salon.
Another factor that influences the price is if there is a combination with another treatment such as dermaplaning or comedone extraction, for example.
Image source: Freepik
Salicylic Acid Peel at Home
Salicylic acid peel treatments are available for use at home, however, they typically come in low concentrations. To ensure they’re safe to use by non-professionals, they aren’t as potent and don’t penetrate as deep into the skin.
Obviously not as effective as the one you’d get in a salon, a salicylic acid peel at home can still help ease moderate breakouts, lighten skin discolorations, and give you smoother, softer, brighter skin.
At-home products with salicylic acid mostly come in the form of skincare products – masks, cleansers, creams, or serums. The ingredient has a mild exfoliating impact, but with regular use, it can help improve both inflammatory and comedonal acne.
Keep in mind that buying products intended for professional use can only result in the endangerment of your skin health. Stick to the at-home peels and make sure you do a patch test before using them on your face.
Here Are Our Product Recommendations for a Salicylic Acid Peel at Home
Here’s a list of products with overwhelmingly positive reviews:
Dr. Dennis Gross Salicylic Acid
Dr. Dennis Gross’s AHA/BHA peel pads are pre-soaked face wipes. This product contains a plethora of antioxidants and acids that are ready to be applied to the face.
So the application process is really easy and convenient. It ensures there’s no discomfort or necessary recovery period.
The Ordinary Peeling Solution Salicylic Acid
The Ordinary’s AHA+BHA Peeling Solution is probably the most viral product on our list. With the help of multiple acids, this product exfoliates multiple layers of the skin for a brighter, more even-toned appearance.
However, due to the high concentration of the acid mixture, this product might not be the best idea for beginners or those with sensitive skin.
Alternatively, opt for their 2% Solution Salicylic Acid, which doesn’t contain AHAs.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting Exfoliant
This is a leave-on exfoliating product that is gentle enough to be used even on sensitive skin. It unclogs pores and exfoliates dead skin cells for a more even tone. Plus it claims to improve texture and visibly reduce fine lines and wrinkles.
Salicylic Acid Peel – Main Takeaways
The salicylic acid chemical peel is a relatively safe method for improving the overall appearance of skin and treating a variety of skin conditions – most efficiently acne and comedones.
This treatment can be done on the face, or any body area. It’s suitable for pretty much any skin type and skin tone, but it’s most often recommended for oily and acne-prone clients.
- Arif, Tasleem. “Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review.” Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology 8 (2015): 455.
- Desai, Seemal R. “Hyperpigmentation therapy: a review.” The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology 7.8 (2014): 13.
- Dixit, Nibedita, et al. “A randomized prospective study of low‐dose isotretinoin alone and combination with salicylic acid and mandelic peel against acne tarda.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology (2022).
- Arif, Tasleem. “Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review.” Clinical, cosmetic and investigational dermatology 8 (2015): 455.
- Nikalji, Nanma, et al. “Complications of medium depth and deep chemical peels.” Journal of cutaneous and aesthetic surgery 5.4 (2012): 254.
- Grimes, Pearl E. “The safety and efficacy of salicylic acid chemical peels in darker racial‐ethnic groups.” Dermatologic surgery 25.1 (1999): 18-22.
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