salicylic acid vs benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: which one is better for acne? If you’ve ever experienced acne, you’re no stranger to these actives. For decades now, they’ve been the two top treatments dermatologists recommend over and over again for acne. There’s a reason for that: they work. In slightly different ways. Yep, multiple factors contribute to acne and different actives target it in different ways. Confused much? The temptation is to use them both at the same time to get rid of the acne faster. But, depending on your skin type, that can terribly backfire and leave you with a bad case or dryness – and acne!

So, what are you supposed to do? Fret not. Here’s all you need to know about the “Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid” debate, so you can choose the best active for your unique skin type and needs – or learn to use them together if you’re one of the lucky few who can. So let’s get into it!

What Causes Acne?

Let’s understand how acne is formed first. When your skin produces too much sebum (your skin’s natural moisturiser), the excess can’t flow freely to the surface of your skin. Instead, it gets stuck in your pores, where it mixes with dead cells, clogging pores. This alone is enough to give you blackheads and whiteheads.

This gooey mixture happens to be P. Acnes favourite food. This is the bacteria that causes acne. It starts feeding on the mixture of dead cells and excess sebum, inflaming skin. Next thing you know, your face is covered in pimples. Ugh.

Benzoyl Peroxide Is Better At Treating Acne

What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl Peroxide is one of the most effective acne treatments available. “Benzoyl peroxide is a topical medication that kills acne-causing bacteria. It works very quickly, and most people see results in as early as five days,” says board-certified dermatologist Arielle N.B. Kauvar, MD. “It works to reduce pimples and pustules because of its bactericidal properties.” Benzoyl Peroxide comes in 2.5%, 5%, and 10% concentrations, depending on whether your acne is mild, moderate, or severe. Use what you need, ladies! Higher = harsher, so if your acne is mild, stick to the lowest concentration. It’ll work and be gentler for your skin.

How Does Benzoyl Peroxide Fight Acne?

Benzoyl Peroxide treats acne in several ways. “After application, benzoyl peroxide degrades and releases oxygen which is lethal to cutibacterium acnesa bacteria that plays a role in acne formation,” Los Angeles board-certified dermatologist Dr. Christine Choi Kim explains. “Because it kills the bacteria and does not just slow down its growth (like antibiotics do), benzoyl peroxide does not contribute to bacterial resistance.” In other words, unlike antibiotics, this isn’t a treatment that’ll stop working in a year or two.

That’s not all. Benzoyl Peroxide also has a peeling action that helps fight acne. Put simply, it exfoliates skin, getting rid both of the dead cells on its surface, and the dirt and sebum that’s clogging your pores. Once all that crap is out of the way, breakouts can’t happen. Plus, P.Acnes. the bacteria that causes acne, feeds on these dead cells. The fewer it has to eat, the weaker its gets.

How To Use Benzoyl Peroxide For Acne

“Benzoyl peroxide should be used anytime someone is using a topical or oral antibiotic for acne,” says board-certified dermatologist  Arielle Nagler. It’s a powerful weapon, so use it carefully. Here are a few tips:

  • Use it only on active pimples. No need to apply them anywhere else on your face.
  • Use it up to twice a day. Morning and evening to fade away acne faster.
  • Alternate it with retinoids. They’re great at treating acne too, but should never be layered on the same people. Use them at different times of the day or on different days.
  • Go with the lower concentration you need. 10% is only for severe acne.
  • Moisturise well afterwards! Benzoyl Peroxide is drying, so give skin all the moisture it needs afterwards.
  • If your skin is sensitive, try a cleanser. Benzoyl Peroxide is more effective when left on the skin for hours, but if your skin can’t take that, using it in a cleanser can still provide some of the benefits without harsh side effects.

Benzoyl Peroxide Side Effects

Like all powerful skincare ingredients, Benzoyl Peroxide doesn’t come without side effects. The most common ones are redness and irritation. This happens when you use a higher dose than you need, you apply it often, or you don’t moisturise afterwards. Or if your skin is sensitive. If that’s the case, it may not be able to tolerate Benzoyl Peroxide at all, not even in 2.5% concentrations.

But, there’s another danger you (or should I say your clothes?) need to look out for. According to board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, Benzoyl Peroxide “can bleach dark fabrics. Be sure to apply the benzoyl peroxide after you pull that navy sweater over your face!”

Best Products With Benzoyl Peroxide

  • Paula’s Choice Clear Regular Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment with 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide ($22.00): A gentle treatment for mild acne, it’s loaded with soothing agents to calm down the irritation and counteract the side effects of Benzoyl Peroxide. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice.
  • La Roche Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Acne Treatment with Benzoyl Peroxide ($22.99): The brand says you can use it all over the face, but 5.5% Benzoyl Peroxide is too harsh for that. Instead, use it on active pimples and moderate acne to help it heal faster. It’s a simple formula that just works. Available at Boots, Dermstore, and Ulta.
  • Tula Go Away Acne Spot Treatment with Benzoyl Peroxide ($22.00): This 5% Benzoyl Peroxide is enriched with niacinamide and other soothing ingredients to moisturise skin and soothe inflammation while fighting acne. Available at Dermstore, Nordstrom, and Ulta.

Salicylic acid Is Better At Preventing Acne

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is the only member of the Beta Hydroxy Acid family used in skincare. If you see BHA on a bottle, it’s Salicylic Acid. Derived from the bark of the willow tree, it’s oil-soluble. This isn’t a minor detail. Being oil-soluble means it can penetrate the lipid skin’s barrier and get inside your pores, where acne forms. Salicylic acid is usually used in concentrations ranging from 0.5% to 2%. 2% is the most effective (and gentle enough!) and what I recommend for most people. Only if your skin is sensitive and can’t tolerate 2%, go for a lower dose. It still works, but it’ll take longer to see results.

How Does Salicylic Acid Fight Acne?

Unlike Benzoyl Peroxide, Salicylic Acid can’t kill acne-causing bacteria. But like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid exfoliates skin too. In fact, it exfoliates skin in two ways: it removes the dead cells that accumulate on the surface of your skin, so they don’t end up in your pores, clogging them up. Plus, it gets deep into your pores and exfoliates them from within, removing all the dead cells and excess sebum that’s currently lodged there and giving you breakouts. This exfoliating action starves P. Acnes (it can’t feed on the clogs anymore) and prevents breakouts.

Salicylic Acid has another superpower up its sleeve: powerful anti-inflammatory properties. A lot of acne fighters, like Benzoyl Peroxide, make skin red and inflamed while skin adjusts to them. Salicylic Acid, on the other hand, has a soothing effect that calms down inflammation. Fun fact: Salicylic Acid is closely related to a famous anti-inflammary drug, aspirin.

How To Use Salicylic Acid For Acne?

Salicylic Acid is way gentler than Benzoyl Peroxide, but you still need to use it with caution.

  • Use it every other night. Exfoliants aren’t for daily use. Every other night is a good frequency for most skin types. If yours is sensitive, two or three nights a week is safer.
  • Alternate it with other actives. If you’re using retinoids or Benzoyl Peroxide, apply it on alternate days.
  • Use it once a day. If Salicylic Acid is in a spot treatment, you can use it twice a day on the pimple only. If you’re apply it all over your face, use it at night only.

Salicylic Acid Side Effects

Let’s be clear: Salicylic Acid is a lot gentler than benzoyl peroxide, BUT it can still cause some mild dryness and irritation – especially when used too often or together with harsh actives. Moderation is key here. If that happens to you, cut back and use it only three times a week or so.

Best Products With Salicylic Acid

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): Don’t let the name fool you. This exfoliant has both salicylic acid to unclog pores and glycolic acid to fade away the dark spots pimples sometimes leave behind. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): The cult exfoliant from the brand, it unlclogs pores and treats blackheads and acne. The texture’s a little sticky, but if you can take that, this is one of the best salicylic acid exfoliants out there. Available at Cult BeautyDermstoreNet-A-PorterPaula’s ChoiceSephora, and SpaceNK.
  • The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A simple, no-frills salicylic acid exfoliant for people on a budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Sephora.

Related: Salicylic Acid: Why It’s Key To Keeping Oily Skin Spot-Free

Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: What’s The Main Difference?

The main difference between Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid? Benzoyl Peroxide has anti-bacteria properties that targets the acne itself. It can literally kill the bacteria that give you acne. Salicylic Acid is primarily an exfoliant and targets one cause of acne: clogged pores. They work slightly differently, but they both help reduce acne. One isn’t better than the other. It all depends on what your skin needs and what it can tolerate.

“The biggest difference between the two ingredients is that benzoyl peroxide has antibacterial properties and is more helpful for inflammatory acne lesions like tender red papules and pustules,” explains Dr. Kim. “However, salicylic acid has stronger comedolytic effects, so it’s more effective at treating and preventing blackheads and whiteheads. Because of their different advantages, they work well together.”

Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Works Better For Acne?

Let’s take a look at what the science says now. I’m not a huge fan of cleansers with Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid because these actives work better and faster when they stay on the skin for several hours instead of being rinsed down the drain. But if you have sensitive skin that can’t tolerate leave-on acne products, which one works best: a cleanser with Benzoyl Peroxide or a cleanser with Salicylic Acid?

A 1989 study comparing the effectiveness of two acne cleansers, one with 2% salicylic acid and the other with 10% Benzoyl Peroxide shows that Salicylic Acid works better as a cleanser. “Patients treated with the Salicylic Acid cleanser for the first two weeks showed a significant improvement in acne, but worsened during Benzoyl Peroxide therapy over the following two weeks. In contrast, patients initially treated with the Benzoyl Peroxide wash for the first two weeks continued to improve with Salicylic Acid cleanser over the next two weeks.” Good to know.

Another factor to take into consideration is the type of acne you’re dealing with. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology shows that “Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide demonstrated equivalent performance in improvement of inflammatory lesions,” but Benzoyl Peroxide is more effective at treating non-inflammatory acne. In both cases, patients treated with Benzoyl Peroxide experienced more dryness and irritation.

The Verdict: If you have inflammatory acne and/or sensitive skin, go with Salicylic Acid. If you have non-inflammatory acne and your skin isn’t sensitive, Benzoyl Peroxide is the better option.

Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide And Salicylic Acid Together?

A study published in the Journal of Chinese Medicine compared a Benzoyl Peroxide product, a Salicylic Acid Product, and their combination. Which one is more effective? The results showed that all three tremens helped clear acne, but the combination of Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid provided the most improvements in the shortest amount of time.

So, in theory yes, you can use Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid together. In practice, things are a bit more complicated. Benzoyl Peroxide is harsh and can cause dryness and irritation in most people. Both ingredients can irritate and dry out skin if used too much, too often. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them together. It means you need to be careful.

How To Use Benzoyl Peroxide And Salicylic Acid Together

“A common problem in patients with acne is that they layer on too many products too often hoping to clear their acne faster, but they slow down their recovery when skin irritation develops,” says Kauvar. “It can be irritating, and some people quickly develop redness and irritation.” Now that’s out of the way, let’s see how you can use them together safely.

  • Use them at different times of day. You can use Benzoyl Peroxide in the morning and exfoliate with Salicylic Acid in the evening. This way, you get the benefits of both while minimising side effects.
  • Use them on alternate days. Another option is to use Benzoyl Peroxide one day and Salicylic Acid the next. This way, your skin has the time to get used to both while reducing the potential for dryness and irritation.

Which One Should You Use?

Now you know everything about Benzoyl Peroxide, Salicylic Acid, and their combination, which one should you use? As a rule, Salicylic Acid is better for prevention, Benzoyl Peroxide for cure. Start with salicylic acid and, if your acne’s really stubborn, upgrade to benzoyl peroxide (if you have sensitive skin, you may want to stick to benzoyl peroxide anyway). Here’s a quick guide:

Opt for Salicylic Acid if:

  • You have inflammatory acne.
  • You want to prevent new breakouts.
  • Your skin is sensitive.

Opt for Benzoyl Peroxide if:

  • You have non-inflammatory acne.
  • You’ve been using Salicylic Acid without seeing results.
  • Your skin is resistant.

Opt for Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid together if:

  • You have severe acne.
  • You have resistant skin.

The Bottom Line

Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid are two effective acne treatments you can use together or separately. Salicylic Acid is better at preventing acne, while Benzoyl Peroxide is more effective at treating it. It’s also harsher on the skin. If you have sensitive skin, stick to Salicylic Acid. Use them together only if you have resistant skin – and always consult with your dermatologist, just in case.