Face Washes with Salicylic Acid

Salicylic Acid is a keratolytic medication that is commonly used as the active ingredient in Over-The-Counter (OTC) acne face wash products. There are many different brands of acne face washes that contain salicylic acid – too many to review individually. People may prefer one brand or another, but they all work in the same basic way.

Salicylic Acid Face Washes and Acne

OTC acne face washes/scrubs with salicylic acid are helpful for controlling oily skin, and they can be helpful for people with mild acne symptoms. Salicylic acid is a keratolytic medication, which helps reduce the formation of blackheads and clogged pores.

Generally speaking, OTC acne products (including all of the various face washes) are not effective treatments for moderate-to-severe acne symptoms. This is because moderate-to-severe (inflammatory) acne symptoms originate from infections deep inside the skin, and these products only affect the surface of the skin.

Acne is not caused by having dirty skin or failure to wash your face enough. It is a complex auto-immune reaction that involves over-production of sebum, clogged pores, hormones and bacterial infections. If acne could be cured by washing your face more or using an OTC acne product from the grocery store, almost everyone would have perfect skin. Just saying…

Salicylic Acid Face Wash Side Effects

Many different OTC acne products contain salicylic acid (eg. Cleanser pads, certain moisturizers, etc.). Combining many different salicylic acid products, or using a single product more than recommended by the manufacturer, will not provide additional benefit. But it will cause skin irritation and dryness.

Salicylic acid products, particularly at the relatively low concentrations used in OTC acne products, are generally safe. Allergic reactions and severe side effects are rare. But mild side effects associated with overuse of these products is common.


Over-the-counter acne treatments: a review. Decker, et al. 2012.
A study of the efficacy of cleansers for acne vulgaris. Choi, et al. 2010.
Effects of detergents on acne. Solomon, et al. 1996.
Cleansing and moisturizing in acne patients. Goodman. 2009.