What salicylic acid can do for your scalp

  • Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid most commonly used to unclog pores.
  • Salicylic acid is also beneficial when used on the scalp.
  • We spoke to a board-certified dermatologist to find out what you need to know and recommend some products.

You probably already know the skin-saving power of salicylic acid: This chemical exfoliator has long been a go-to ingredient in acne product formulations, helping to regulate cell turnover and prevent overclogging of pores. What you might not know is that the benefits of this hero ingredient are even more profound — head-to-toe, to be exact. Don’t forget, the scalp is also the skin, and salicylic acid helps there too.

Here, board-certified cosmetic dermatologist and Mohs surgeon Dendy Engelman, MD, FACMS, FAAD, explains the great benefits of salicylic acid for your scalp.

What is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is classified as a beta-hydroxy acid, or BHA, and can be synthesized or extracted naturally from the bark of willow trees. “It penetrates into the skin, dissolves the buildup of dead skin cells, and promotes exfoliation of the top layer of the skin,” says Dr. Engelman. “Mainly used to treat acne, salicylic acid has antibacterial, anti-pathogen and keratolytic — or help slough off dead skin — properties.”

What does salicylic acid do for the scalp?
Beneath all that gorgeous hair is the often-neglected scalp, which, like the skin elsewhere on the body, can run into problems. “Salicylic acid is a great treatment option for people with scalp problems like dandruff and overt dermatitis that can leave your head feeling itchy, dry and swollen,” explains Dr. Engelman. Salicylic acid works just like it does on your face, loosening dead skin, flaky skin, and oil buildup, which can lead to irritation.

What types of products does salicylic acid contain?
You can find salicylic acid in everything from shampoos to care products. A shampoo like Briogeo Scalp Revival ($42) is probably the easiest way to incorporate this into your routine, since cleaning your hair requires no extra effort. Even if you don’t have scalp problems, using a product like Virtue Exfoliating Scalp Treatment ($48) will help release product buildup and sebum from your hair follicles.

Serums like The Inkey List Salicylic Acid Exfoliating Scalp Treatment ($15), which are applied directly to the scalp, can help you really focus on your specific problem and give that area an emphasis. Because salicylic acid can treat inflammatory conditions like psoriasis and seborrheic dermatitis, be aware that there are some powerful products with high percentages of salicylic acid that can only be purchased by prescription, Dr. Engelman said.

Consult your dermatologist if you have serious concerns, and be sure to do a patch test before using the full amount of a new product.

Are there any side effects of salicylic acid?
“Salicylic acid is considered safe for most users, but it may cause redness, irritation, or burning,” Dr. Engelman said. She recommends starting with salicylic acid a few days a week and then increasing it if your skin likes it. If you have a dry scalp, you may want to use it less often. In case you’re wondering, there’s not much evidence that salicylic acid damages hair, she says. “In fact, a healthier scalp can lead to better overall hair health.

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