Salicylic acid

  • Salicylic acid preparations are usually applied each day, but read the manufacturer's printed information leaflet from inside your pack for full details.
  • Do not apply salicylic acid to raw or inflamed areas of skin.
Type of medicineKeratolytic
Used forWarts and calluses
Scaly skin conditions such as psoriasis
Fungal nail infections
Available asOintment, gel, paint, paste, topical liquid, scalp application and shampoo

Salicylic acid is used for a number of different skin conditions caused by thickened, hard skin, such as warts, psoriasis, scaly skin conditions, and some nail infections. It is a keratolytic, which means that it works by softening the outer layer of your skin allowing it to loosen and shed.

Salicylic acid is applied directly to the area of skin affected. There are a number of different formulations and strengths of salicylic acid available which can be purchased at pharmacies, or may be prescribed for you by your doctor. Which preparation is suitable for you will depend upon the type of skin condition you have, and the area of your body which is affected.

Some preparations of salicylic acid also contain other preparations such as coal tar, dithranol, zinc, or sulphur.

To make sure this is the right treatment for you, before you start using salicylic acid it is important that your doctor or pharmacist knows:

  • If you have diabetes, or poor circulation such as in Raynaud's disease.
  • If you are pregnant or breast-feeding.
  • If you have ever had an allergic reaction to any medicine.
  • Before you start this treatment, read the manufacturer's printed information leaflet from inside your pack. The leaflet will give you more information about the brand you have been given and how to use it.
  • Use salicylic acid exactly as your doctor or pharmacist has recommended. It is usual to apply most preparations once each day.
  • If you are using it to remove warts or verrucas, rub off the dead tissue from the top of the wart once a week. You can do this with an emery board, pumice stone, or something similar. It may take two weeks or more before you notice any improvement, and it can take up to three months of daily applications for warts to go completely.
  • Try not to get salicylic acid on healthy areas of skin and do not apply it to skin which is raw or inflamed. You can protect the nearby skin by putting some Vaseline® on the normal skin beforehand or, alternatively, if you are using it as a wart treatment, you can use a plaster with a hole in it which just exposes the wart.
  • If you are using salicylic acid for nail infections, do not use nail varnish or artificial nails at the same time.
  • If you are using a topical liquid or paint, this may be flammable, so do not apply either of them near flames or open fires.
  • You should not apply salicylic acid to your face because of the risk of skin irritation which may cause scarring.

Salicylic acid occasionally causes skin irritation, dryness, or soreness. If this happens, stop the treatment for a few days to allow your skin to recover, and then re-start treatment. If the irritation is severe, or if your skin becomes very red and itchy, these may be signs of an allergy - stop using salicylic acid and ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

If you experience any other symptoms which you think may be due to salicylic acid, discuss them with your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Keep all medicines out of the reach and sight of children.
  • Store in a cool, dry place, away from direct heat and light.
  • Make sure that the person prescribing this medicine knows about any other medicines that you are using. This includes medicines you buy and herbal and homeopathic medicines.
  • If you buy any medicines check with a pharmacist that they are safe to use with your other medicines.
  • If you suspect that someone has swallowed this medicine, go to the accident and emergency department of your local hospital at once. Take the container with you, even if it is empty.
  • This medicine is for you. Never give it to other people even if their condition appears to be the same as yours.
  • Never keep out-of-date or unwanted medicines. Take them to your local pharmacy which will dispose of them for you.
  • If you have any questions about this medicine ask your pharmacist.

Further reading & references

  • British National Formulary; 63rd Edition (Mar 2012) British Medical Association and Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, London

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Helen Allen
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Helen Huins
Document ID:
3739 (v24)
Last Checked:
Next Review:
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