Why is Salicyclic Acid Making Me Hairy?

Personal/Inspirational, Skin Care

Domo by karaphernelia

Hi! Whenever I use a product with salicylic acid for more than 3 nights in a row I get this strange irritation around the fine hair follicles on my face. It’s almost like a blackhead (but it’s white/clear) that won’t come out unless I use a tweezers. I’m sorry to be gross but that’s the best way to describe it. The irritation goes away a few days after I stop using the product..They look like hair follicles with hard white skin like stuff poking up and no change in my acne or other clogged pores…Can you all tell me why is this happening…? Thanks!


Dear Pink,

Salicyclic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid that is used to cleanse and exfoliate the skin. Salicyclic acid improves acne, wrinkling, roughness, and mottled pigmentation of photodamaged skin with at least 6 months of daily application in 2-12% concentration, making it one of the most popular ingredients in skin care today.

Salicyclic acid revitalizes the skin by increasing the rate of cell turnover. It used to be believed by many (including myself) that salicyclic acid softens keratin, a protein that forms part of the skin structure, leading to skin cell death signals that trigger another round of replication. However, fairly recent research has shown that salicyclic acid actually works by dissolving the intercellular “cement” that holds adjacent skin cells together (British Journal of Dermatology, 2006).

Neutrogena Body Clear Body Wash, with 0.5% salicyclic acid.

Normal salicyclic acid reactions include erythema, redness, and peeling. If salicyclic acid is particularly irritating to you, this means two things to me: First and foremost, get thee to a dermatologist! The reason why brings me to reason two: Irritation after salicyclic acid use is associated with skin conditions like dermatitis and/or the use of harsh ingredients in other products that are perturbing the skin (British Journal of Dermatology, 1999). In one study, salicyclic acid absorption was found to be 2.2 times higher in acetone-treated skin, 46 times higher in patients with dermatitis, and 157 times higher (yes, you are reading that right) in patients with severe dermatitis or tape-stripped skin. What’s more, not only does acetone or dermatitis enhance the penetration of salicyclic acid, but salicyclic acid also enhances the penetration of other ingredients as well!

If you’re not sure which of the ingredients you are using simultaneously with your salicyclic acid cleanser is causing the irritation, simply discontinue your products, one at a time, for about a week each. You should see an improvement with discontinuation of one of the products if ingredient-based irritation is in fact the cause of your problems.

You may also have an underlying skin condition, like rosacea, eczema, or psoriasis. Skin conditions like rosacea can be aided with cleansers of salicyclic acid and sulfur combined, but not nearly as much with salicyclic acid alone (American Journal of Nursing, 2001), whereas therapies like tacrolimus are sometimes combined with salicyclic acid for psoriasis (Archives of Dermatology, 2005).   Your dermatologist can best assess the right combinations of therapies for you if you have an underlying skin condition.

For more reasons that I can count, you should see a dermatologist ASAP. To find one in your area, please visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s “Find a Dermatologist” page.

Hope this helps,

Photo source:  Domo, a photo by karaphernelia on Flickr.


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  • Hi Nikki,
    You’ve given some great responses to reader skin concerns in the past, but this one was a little hard to read. For starters, I count eighteen misspellings of the word “salicylic.” I know that one’s not in spellcheck, but you are studying to become a dermatologist. Next, as a practicing skincare pro myself, I detect a pretty substantial disconnect between Pink’s complaint and your assessment of salicylic acid’s irritant potential. I realize that at this point in your studies, your recommendation will usually be to see a dermatologist, but I was dismayed that you didn’t address the plugs in the hair follicles at all.

  • Hi! Thanks for answering my question. This helps a lot. Yup. looks like I need to go back to the Dermatologist and bring this with me t remind myself to mention it to her. I always forget. This time I’ll bring a list! you rock!

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