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What is a salicylic acid peel?

With a history dating back to ancient Egypt, acid peels are one of the oldest known cosmetic treatments. Whilst science has certainly moved forward, applying naturally-derived acids to the skin continues to provide huge cosmetic and medical benefits.

Peels provides deep exfoliation that stimulates long-term improvement in skin health. A professional salicylic acid peel is highly effective in treating many skin concerns relating to pigmentation, skin ageing, blocked pores and acne.

Here we explore salicylic acid peels and how they can help to manage and resolve specific skin issues, reduce the signs of ageing and influence skin health.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is an organic compound, an acid naturally found in willow bark. It belongs to the beta hydroxy family of acids, which are known for their exfoliating action when used on the skin.

What are properties of salicylic acid?

There are several beneficial properties that salicylic acid brings when used in the treatment of the skin:


Comedones are small bumps on the skin that can be white, dark or skin-coloured. They are a form of acne blemish caused when oil and dead skin cells become trapped in the pores. Salicylic acid has a comedolytic action which can unblock these built-up oils and cells to renew the skin surface.


Salicylic acid is used to exfoliate skin through disrupting intercellular connections. This effect is known as desmolytic. This exfoliating action removes dead skin cells to reveal fresher, rejuvenated skin.


When used at lower concentrations, for example with a ‘light’ peel, salicylic acid has an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin, which can be beneficial for treating and managing acne.

What is a salicylic acid peel used for?

Because of all these beneficial properties, salicylic acid peels are regularly used by dermatologists and aesthetic practitioners to treat skin concerns such as:

Salicylic acid peels are also used to boost collagen and elastin production, to improve skin elasticity.

Because this type of peel is non-invasive and relatively gentle on the skin, patients often see early improvements such as tighter feeling skin and a brighter complexion.  

What does salicylic acid peel treatment involve?

Peel treatment works through applying the salicylic acid to the skin using a special soft brush.

There are three types of skin peel:

  1. Light peels – these penetrate the outer layer of the skin only. The results are significant, but more temporary and can be regularly repeated to maintain skin health.
  2. Medium peels – this type of peel reaches the middle and outer layers of the skin using stronger, naturally-derived acids such as trichloroacetic acid (related to vinegar), or glycolic acid (from sugar cane). These peels effectively remove damaged cells.   
  3. Deep peels – these peels are used to treat more problematic skin issues as they fully penetrate the middle layer of the skin to remove damaged cells. The acids are used in higher concentrations. This type of peel treatment requires medical monitoring during treatment and is only administered once.

Salicylic acid is regularly used for lighter peel treatments. It exfoliates the skin and unblocks pores by breaking down oils.

It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, which are particularly beneficial for acne prone skin. It is also suitable for the back and chest areas.

What should I expect during treatment with salicylic acid?

During a light peel, your practitioner will use a brush or sponge to apply the salicylic acid solution.

The treated skin begins to whiten and there can be a mild stinging sensation, which passes after a few minutes. A wash is then used to remove the solution from the skin.

Salicylic acid for acne scars

Peels are very effective in improving the appearance of mild scarring. The new skin that replaces the damaged skin cells is usually smoother and more even.

Therefore, salicylic acid peels are particularly helpful in treating acne scarring.

Breakout after salicylic acid peel

Occasionally, breakouts or mild lightening or darkening of the skin may occur in the days following the chemical peel.

Peels accelerate the turnover of new skin cells, so it is normal to have a ‘purging phase’ when the skin is treated – this is the skin naturally getting rid of any remaining bacteria.

After the first week post-treatment, side effects should start to subside, though it can take up to 10 days for medium or deep peels.

Salicylic acid peel for hyperpigmentation

Salicylic acid peels are often used to target areas of mild to moderate hyperpigmentation.

The exfoliating and renewing action of the peel treatment is an effective way to even out skin tone.

Salicylic acid peel before and after

Salicylic acid peel before and after
Before and after peel treatment for acne scarring
Before and after peel treatment for skin ageing

Salicylic acid peel downtime

With lighter peels that are gentler on the skin, such as a salicylic acid peel, there is virtually no downtime.

These types of peel are often used by patients to prepare for a special event, or as a regular part of their skincare regime.

Because peels are so effective at exfoliating the skin, they can help to support effective hydration, so play an important role in boosting overall skin health.

Salicylic acid peel aftercare

Your practitioner will advise you about the best way to care for your skin following treatment. This will include advice about cleansing, moisturising, and using any soothing ointments.

With all peels, the new skin is temporarily more sensitive to the sun, so your practitioner will advise about protecting your skin.

Can I wear makeup after a salicylic acid peel?

As part of their aftercare advice, your practitioner will also advise about wearing makeup after your peel treatment.

With a light peel, you can usually wear makeup immediately following treatment, but your practitioner may advise you to wait 24 to 48 hours before applying makeup if you’ve had a deeper peel.

Which peel is right for me?

Depending on the reason the peel is required along with your desired outcome, your practitioner will recommend which type of peel is best for your specific needs.

At Melior Clinics, we offer three peel options:

You can book online for an initial, free consultation to discuss your treatment, call us or email