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Salicylic Acid in Seborrheic Dermatitis: An Evidence-Based Review

Seborrheic dermatitis is a common skin condition that causes red, flaky, itchy patches on the scalp, face, ears, chest, back or groin area. The exact cause is unknown, but it’s believed to involve several factors like overgrowth of skin yeast, excess skin oil production, and inflammation [1, 1, 2].

While not a cure, salicylic acid may offer a helpful option for managing seborrheic dermatitis symptoms. Let’s review the research on how salicylic acid works and its safety and efficacy for this chronic skin condition.

How Does Salicylic Acid Benefit Skin?

Salicylic acid works in a few key ways:

  • Exfoliates dead cells – As a keratolytic, salicylic acid breaks down keratin proteins in the outer layer of skin [3]. This helps shed excess skin cells and clear pores.
  • Reduces inflammation – Similar to aspirin, salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties that may calm redness and irritation [4].
  • Prevents pore blockages – By removing dead cells and debris, salicylic acid prevents clogged pores and allows oil to flow out freely.

These effects make salicylic acid helpful for various skin concerns like acne, rosacea, and seborrheic dermatitis. It can reduce common symptoms like redness, flaking, scaling, and itch.

[IMG: Diagram showing salicylic acid removing dead skin cells from the skin surface]

Is Salicylic Acid Safe for Skin?

When used properly, salicylic acid appears quite safe. Studies found:

  • Low-dose use in patients with systemic sclerosis caused minimal side effects [5].
  • Concentrations in anti-acne creams were within safe limits [6].
  • Peels with up to 30% salicylic acid had good safety and tolerability [7].

However, overuse may cause dryness, irritation, headaches or nausea [6]. It’s best to follow product instructions carefully and not over-apply salicylic acid.

Official Recognition as Seborrheic Dermatitis Treatment

The U.S. FDA recognizes 1.8-3% salicylic acid as an effective dandruff and seborrheic dermatitis treatment [8].

While not a standalone cure, salicylic acid offers helpful anti-inflammatory, exfoliating, and antimicrobial effects.

Research Evidence for Seborrheic Dermatitis

Most studies use salicylic acid alongside other active ingredients like herbal extracts or standard topical antifungal/steroid treatments.

Key findings:

  • 30% supramolecular salicylic acid improved moderate-severe seborrheic dermatitis symptoms [9].
  • Intense pulsed light and 30% supramolecular salicylic acid worked better than either alone for facial lesions [10].
  • Salicylic acid shampoo reduced time-to-relapse for scalp lesions [11].
  • Case reports highlighted efficacy [].

These studies suggest salicylic acid adds value as part of a multi-pronged approach.

[IMG: Before and after photo of seborrheic dermatitis improvement from one of the studies]

Supramolecular Salicylic Acid – What Is It?

Some studies mention “supramolecular salicylic acid.” This specialized formulation blends salicylic acid with substances like starch, collagen, and cyclodextrin.

The resulting gel has a unique structure that forms networks with water and salicylate molecules [12, 13]. It may allow deeper penetration and benefit over regular salicylic acid.

Evidence from Related Skin Diseases

Research in other inflammatory skin conditions further supports salicylic acid’s usefulness:

Rosacea – Improved symptoms and inflammation [14, ]. 30% supramolecular salicylic acid peels were beneficial [15].

Acne – Reduced lesions, normalized microbiome, lowered inflammation [16, 6, 13, 17].

Psoriasis – With turmeric, improved mild-moderate disease [18]. Case reports showed positive effects [3].

Likely the anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and exfoliating properties underlie salicylic acid’s broad usefulness for various inflammatory skin diseases.

How Does Salicylic Acid Compare to Other Treatments?

Potential advantages:

  • Alternative to steroids for inflammation.
  • Lower long-term side effect risk than steroids.
  • Antifungal activity against Malassezia yeast.
  • Unique exfoliating mechanism of action.

Potential disadvantages:

  • Less potent than prescription steroids.
  • Can cause dryness or irritation if overused.
  • Not a primary antifungal like ketoconazole.
  • Requires continued use to maintain remission.

Overall, salicylic acid is a promising option but works best alongside primary treatments.

The Takeaway

While more research is still needed, current evidence suggests:

  • Salicylic acid safely exfoliates skin and reduces inflammation when used properly.
  • Low concentrations from 1.8-3% are officially recommended for seborrheic dermatitis.
  • Studies show salicylic acid improves symptoms, especially when combined with other active ingredients.
  • Special supramolecular salicylic acid formulations may offer enhanced benefit.
  • Positive effects are also seen in related inflammatory skin diseases like rosacea, acne and psoriasis.
  • Salicylic acid is likely most effective alongside standard antifungal and anti-inflammatory agents.

For those with seborrheic dermatitis willing to experiment beyond primary treatments, salicylic acid offers a promising complementary option to help tame annoying symptoms and improve skin’s appearance.


  1. Sean E. Mangion, Lorraine Mackenzie, Michael S. Roberts, Amy M. Holmes "Seborrheic dermatitis: topical therapeutics and formulation design" Elsevier BV 185 (2023): 148-164.
  2. Qian An, Meng Sun, Rui-Qun Qi, Li Zhang, Jin-Long Zhai, Yu-Xiao Hong, Bing Song, Hong-Duo Chen, Xing-Hua Gao "High Staphylococcus epidermidis Colonization and Impaired Permeability Barrier in Facial Seborrheic Dermatitis" Ovid Technologies (Wolters Kluwer Health) 130.14 (2017): 1662-1669.
  3. Wilfredo Molina Wills, Vanessa Rodriguez "Topical Therapy of Skin Scabs in Psoriasis with Salicylic Acid: Case Report" Auctores Publishing LLC 10.02 (2022): 01-03.
  4. Vanesa Piquero, Daniela Moya, Edgar E. La Rotta "Salicylic Acid Peeling for Extra-Facial Areas" Springer International Publishing (2020): 127-133.
  5. G. Pellegrino, M. Duorsi, M. Cadar, I. Bisconti, D. M. Reza Beigi, F. R. Di Ciommo, S. Truglia, F. Conti, V. Riccieri "AB0839 SAFETY OF LOW-DOSE ACETYL SALICYLIC ACID IN PATIENTS WITH SYSTEMIC SCLEROSIS: A CROSS-SECTIONAL STUDY" BMJ Publishing Group Ltd and European League Against Rheumatism (2023).
  6. Lukky Jayadi "Analysis of Salicylic Acid in Face Creams Circulating in the Big Market Malang City" LPPM Universitas Abdurrab 6.1 (2023): 14-20.
  7. Kanza Aftab, Nadia Iftikhar, Majid Hussain, Zarnab Zainab, Maimoona Mumtaz, Shanza Obaid "Salicylic Acid Versus Glycolic Acid Peel in Active Acne" Army Medical College 72.3 (2022): 896-99.
  8. F R J Verhey, I Ramakers, J Jolles, P Scheltens, M Vernooij-Dassen, M Olde Rikkert "[Development of memory clinics in The Netherlands]." Tijdschrift voor gerontologie en geriatrie 38.5 (2008): 237-45. PubMed
  9. Jing Wang, Xin Zhu, Yao Bai, Zhuo Fan "Curative Effect of 30% Supramolecular Salicylic Acid Combined with Yufa Spray Dressing on Moderate to Severe Scalp Seborrheic Dermatitis" Bio-Byword Scientific Publishing, Pty. Ltd. 7.2 (2023): 25-34.
  10. Rui-Long Gu, Shan-Qing Wang "Clinical study on treatment of facial seborrheic dermatitis with intense pulsed light combined with 30% supramolecular salicylic acid" Elsevier BV 75 (2020): e1875.
  11. Philippe Massiot, Pascal Reygagne, Corinne Chagnoleau, Leila Kanoun-Copy, Florence Pouradier, Geneviueve Loussouarn, Catherine Queille-Roussel, Hussein Jouni, Delphine Kerob "Maintenance effect of a once-weekly regimen of a Selenium Disulfide-based shampoo in moderate-to-severe scalp seborrheic dermatitis after initial treatment with topical corticosteroid/salicylic acid" John Libbey Eurotext 33.S1 (2023): 13-18.
  12. Lingzhao Zhang, Xinyi Shao, Yangmei Chen, Jiawei Wang, Asoka Ariyawati, Yujie Zhang, Jiayi Chen, Lin Liu, Yihuan Pu, Yuxin Li, Jin Chen "30% supramolecular salicylic acid peels effectively treats acne vulgaris and reduces facial sebum" Wiley 21.8 (2022): 3398-3405.
  13. Hazrat Bilal, Yuanyuan Xiao, Muhammad Nadeem Khan, Jinyu Chen, Qian Wang, Yuebin Zeng, Xinyu Lin "Stabilization of Acne Vulgaris-Associated Microbial Dysbiosis with 2% Supramolecular Salicylic Acid" MDPI AG 16.1 (2023): 87.
  14. JingYu Wang, Yan Sun, LiangHong Chen, YiChong Wang, DongXin Shi, Yan Wu, XingHua Gao "Supramolecular salicylic acid ameliorates rosacea-like eruptions by suppressing NLRP3-mediated inflammasome activation in mice" Elsevier BV 118 (2023): 110057.
  15. Lian Wang, XiaouHua Li, Xiang Wen, XiaouXue Li, Dan Du, Yong Li, Xian Jiang "Retrospective analysis of 19 papulopustular rosacea cases treated with oral minocycline and supramolecular salicylic acid 30% chemical peels" Spandidos Publications 20.2 (2020): 1048-1052.
  16. Ana Caroline Silveira Santos, Camila Hellen Souza Oliveira, Brenda Medeiros da Costa Rego, Duebora de Alencar Franco Costa "The use of salicylic acid in the tratament of acneic skin: an integrative review / O uso do ácido salicílico no tratamento da pele acneica: uma revisão integrativa" South Florida Publishing LLC 8.5 (2022): 42451-42461.
  17. Xinyi Shao, Yangmei Chen, Lingzhao Zhang, Yujie Zhang, Asoka Ariyawati, Tingqiao Chen, Jiayi Chen, Lin Liu, Yihuan Pu, Yuxin Li, Jin Chen "Effect of 30% Supramolecular Salicylic Acid Peel on Skin Microbiota and Inflammation in Patients with Moderate-to-Severe Acne Vulgaris" Springer Science and Business Media LLC 13.1 (2022): 155-168.
  18. Zoe Diana Draelos "The Efficacy and Tolerability of Turmeric and Salicylic Acid in Psoriasis Treatment" Informa UK Limited Volume 12 (2022): 63-71.
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About Michael Anders

After being affected by seborrheic dermatitis, I have made it my goal to gather and organize all the information that has helped me in my journey.

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