Warts are small, raised bumps on the skin. They may have small dots on their surface, which are blood vessels. Salicylic acid is a common way to remove them.
There are many different types of the virus that causes warts. Warts happen when the virus causes skin cells to multiply faster than usual, creating a raised area of skin.
Most warts are harmless and often disappear without treatment after a few weeks, months, or years.
If people want to remove bothersome warts, such as those on the hands or feet, salicylic acid is often an effective treatment option.
People should not use salicylic acid products on sensitive areas, such as the face and genitals.
Does salicylic acid work?
Studies have shown that salicylic acid is significantly more effective than a placebo in treating warts.
Salicylic acid peels the skin away in layers, which removes the wart over time. The acid also irritates the wart area, which encourages the immune system to respond to the virus.
Salicylic acid is an affordable, accessible, and safe treatment option for getting rid of warts and has very few side effects.
How to use
Research suggests that people use an over-the-counter (OTC) wart treatment containing 17 percent salicylic acid. Salicylic acid treatments for warts also come as bandages.
To use a salicylic acid treatment:
- bathe or soak the wart in warm water for 5–10 minutes to soften the skin
- file the wart with a rough surface, such as a pumice stone or emery board
- apply the salicylic cream to the entire surface of the wart
- wash the hands
Repeat these steps once or twice a day, for 12 weeks, or according to the instructions on the OTC treatment packaging.
The skin may turn slightly red or dark, which is a normal reaction. People should stop using the product if it causes pain, bleeding, or blisters. If this happens, see a doctor for advice and alternative treatment options.
If people use a pumice stone or emery board to file the wart, do not let anyone else use the same item as sharing equipment may help spread the virus. People should also take care not to re-use the same item on their wart, as they may reinfect themselves.
People should not use salicylic acid or other home treatments if they have diabetes or any circulation or immunity conditions. If people with diabetes try to remove a wart on their feet, it could damage their nerves.
What if it does not work?
Salicylic acid may not work for everyone. Different factors can affect the success of wart treatment, such as the thickness of the wart, its location on the body, and individual immune systems.
If a person has used salicylic acid consistently for 12 weeks or longer and seen no improvement, they should see their doctor to discuss other treatment options.
We list other treatment options below that can help remove warts if salicylic acid is not sufficient.
Other treatments for warts
Several other types of treatment can help get rid of warts. These include:
Cryotherapy uses liquid nitrogen to freeze off the wart. A doctor may spray or swab a small amount of liquid nitrogen onto the wart. People may need repeat treatments before the wart disappears.
Studies have found cryotherapy to be effective in removing warts in 50–70 percent of cases where the person had 3 or 4 treatments.
Electrosurgery uses an electrical current to burn the wart off. A doctor may use electrosurgery to remove common warts on the hands, feet, and face.
A doctor may apply a substance called cantharidin to the wart. This causes a blister to form underneath the wart, lifting the wart away from the skin. The wart will fall off as the blister pushes it away.
A doctor can use a special instrument or knife to scrape or cut away the wart. Curettage may leave scarring and is not a good technique to remove warts on the soles of the feet.
Duct tape may help to remove warts, as preventing air and sunlight can sometimes kill a wart.
Cover the wart with duct tape after applying salicylic acid and letting it dry. The American Academy of Dermatology recommend reapplying duct tape every 5–6 days.
A doctor may prescribe an immunotherapy drug, such as imiquimod or diphencyprone (DCP), to remove warts. These drugs stimulate the immune system to respond and treat the wart. People can apply these medicated creams directly to their wart.
A doctor may inject substances such as bleomycin and 5‐fluorouracil into the wart. These drugs can trigger the immune system to fight the wart.
People should discuss the side effects of these medications with their doctor. These treatments can also be painful, so a doctor may use a local anesthetic before the injection.
A doctor may use laser surgery if other treatments have not worked. Laser surgery destroys the wart with an intense beam of light. This can sometimes cause scarring.
When to see a doctor
A person with bleeding or painful warts should speak to a doctor.
People should see their doctor if the wart:
- feels painful
- is severely itchy
People should also see their doctor if they:
- have a wart on their face or genitals
- think a wart might be another type of skin growth
- have diabetes, a weakened immune system, or circulation problems
Some warts can look similar to cancerous growths. If people have a wart that changes color or shape quickly, they should see their doctor.
A doctor will examine the wart and, if necessary, take a skin sample of it for testing.
If people are unable to get rid of their wart after using salicylic acid consistently for at least 12 weeks, or if they experience adverse side effects, they can see their doctor to discuss other treatment options.
Warts are common and usually harmless. Salicylic acid can often get rid of those on the hands or feet.
People should see their doctor for treatment if they have warts on the face, genitals, or have an underlying medical condition, such as HIV or diabetes.
Before applying salicylic acid, soak the wart in warm water and file the wart down with a clean emery board. This may help make the salicylic acid treatment more effective.
If people find salicylic acid does not remove the wart over time, then they can discuss other treatment options, such as using other medication, freezing, or laser therapy, with their doctor.
Salicylic acid products are available for purchase at drug stores, pharmacies, and online.
Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
Written by Beth Sissons