Salicylic acid ointment is a topical treatment for conditions including acne, seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis, warts, corns, calluses and hyperkeratotic skin disorders. The main active ingredient, salicylic acid, is a beta hydroxy acid that comes from the bark of the willow tree. In addition to ointment, salicylic acid also is commonly available in the form of toners, gel, medicated pads, cleansers, shampoo and creams. Many brands of salicylic acid ointment are available over the counter.
For people with acne, salicylic acid cream works by exfoliating the skin and removing dead skin cells more effectively. The normal process by which skin cells are shed and replaced is called desquamation. During this process, new skin cells are created below the surface of the skin. The cells work their way toward the surface, and the older cells that are on the outermost skin surface are sloughed away.
In a person who is prone to acne, the dead skin cells often are not shed correctly, leading to clogged pores and blemishes. Salicylic acid ointment penetrates the follicles and facilitates the removal of dead skin cells from the pores. This helps get rid of current blemishes and reduce the number of future breakouts. The medication also reduces skin redness and swelling.
When used in the treatment of other skin conditions, salicylic acid cream works by softening and loosening affected skin. Some skin conditions cause scaling, flakiness and overgrowth of skin cells. Individuals apply the ointment to the area, encouraging the affected skin cells to fall off or become easier to remove.
Salicylic acid is available in several strengths, and individuals can obtain it over the counter or by prescription. Depending on the condition, an individual might need to apply the medication as frequently as several times a day or as infrequently as once or twice a week. When treating acne, it typically is recommended to apply the ointment over the entire face one or two times a day. The ointment must be used continuously for effective acne treatment. When an individual stops applying the medication, the positive benefits will cease.
Most side effects of salicylic acid ointment are mild. Some people might experience stinging, drying, peeling, redness or skin irritation at the application site. This irritation can subside with regular use, and moisturizing the affected area can help. It is a good idea to start with just one application a day to assess skin reaction and then determine appropriate frequency of use.