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Lotions, potions and…warnings?

You have a bad case of acne, calves so sore it hurts to walk or an unsightly wart that won’t go away, but you have no time for a doctor’s visit, so you head to the drugstore for an over-the-counter (OTC) remedy. No big deal, right? Not always. Some of these are pretty powerful medications and can be poisonous—and not just if you swallow them—so you need to take caution, especially with the three lotions listed here:

Muscle-pain creams: Methyl salicylate is a winter-green-scented chemical that’s found in deep-heating creams, such as Ben Gay and Icy Hot, which are used to relieve sore muscles and joints. It works like aspirin and if you use too much, it can cause nausea, vomiting, breathing problems and kidney failure. To be safe, don’t use methyl salicylate creams for more than a week, and never rub the stuff on cuts or damaged skin.

Acne creams: Topical salicylic acid is used to help clear up and prevent acne. It can also help treat skin conditions such as psoriasis, dandruff, corns, calluses and warts. It comes in varying strengths, some only available by prescription. But even the OTC versions can be strong and may irritate your skin, so be sure to follow the directions on the package label. And if you’re taking aspirin or water pills or are using products containing methyl salicylate, check with the pharmacist about possible precautions or interactions.

Anti-aging lotions: Once available only by prescription, today you’ll find many forms of Vitamin A (retinol) on drugstore shelves. They’re used for treating different skin conditions, such as sun spots and wrinkles. Retinol is a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals—molecules that can break down your skin cells and cause wrinkles. However, retinol may cause skin irritation, rashes, burning or redness in some people. Pregnant women or women who may become pregnant should avoid vitamin A products because they can increase the risk of birth defects.