Benzoyl Peroxide Vs. Salicylic Acid for Acne

The benzoyl peroxide vs. salicylic acid question is one that is bound to come up when you’re looking for an acne treatment. Many acne treatment products and medications contain either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid; some products include both.

So, which is the best acne treatment ingredient—benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid? It really depends on your skin.

products to include in an acne treatment kit
Verywell / Cindy Chung 

What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide is the quintessential acne treatment. It works to clear acne by reducing acne-causing bacteria and clearing the pores of excess oil and dead skin cells.

Benzoyl peroxide is found in countless over-the-counter products. In fact, benzoyl peroxide is the most effective OTC acne treatment ingredient available. 

But it's not just an OTC treatment. Many prescription acne medications, like Onexton and Epiduo, also contain benzoyl peroxide.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid works a bit differently than benzoyl peroxide. As a beta hydroxy acid, salicylic acid speeds up cell turnover rates. It exfoliates, helping your skin to shed dead cells more effectively. This, in turn, keeps them from building up within the pore.

Salicylic acid can be found in many over-the-counter products. It's also very popular as a chemical peel at the salon, skin spa, or dermatology clinic.

When to Choose Benzoyl Peroxide

Because benzoyl peroxide is a great bacteria-reducer, it is especially good if your acne is red and inflamed. 

Got lots of papules and pustules (basically, your typical zits and whiteheads?) Benzoyl peroxide is a great treatment choice.

When to Choose Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid's claim to fame is its ability to dissolve pore blockages and smooth out the skin, making it a good choice for blackheads and closed comedones.

If your skin has a rough, bumpy texture without many red pimples, you've most likely got comedonal acne, making salicylic acid a good choice for you.

OTC salicylic acid products tend to be less irritating and drying than benzoyl peroxide, so they are a good first-line treatment for young tweens with the beginnings of acne breakouts. For those with a sensitivity to benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid is obviously the better option.

You Can Use Both

You don’t necessarily have to choose one ingredient over the other, either. Using both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together can help increase their effectiveness.

Many OTC products contain both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. You could even use a cleanser containing salicylic acid, for example, followed by a benzoyl peroxide lotion.

The possible side effects of both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are similar—dryness, peeling, and irritation. Using them together can increase the chances of side effects, so scale back use if you're getting especially dry or irritated.

Just remember, whether they contain benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, OTC treatments work best for those with mild acne. If you’re not getting good results after using them for several weeks, it’s time to give your doctor a call for stronger prescription treatments.

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By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.