Salicylic Acid Vs. Benzoyl Peroxide: which is Better for Acne?

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

What are the benefits of each ingredient?

Both ingredients remove dead skin cells, which can clog pores and contribute to acne breakouts.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid works best for blackheads and whiteheads. When used regularly, this ingredient may also prevent future comedones from forming.

Benzoyl peroxide

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, benzoyl peroxide is the most effective acne-fighting ingredient available without a prescription. It works best on traditional red, pus-filled pimples (pustules). In addition to removing excess oil and dead skin cells, benzoyl peroxide helps kill acne-causing bacteria beneath the skin.

What are the associated side effects?

Although the side effects of each ingredient vary, both products are considered safe overall. They’re also considered safe to use during pregnancy. Salicylic acid should not be used by someone allergic to aspirin.

Both ingredients may cause dryness and irritation when you first start using them. Allergic reactions are rare, but they are possible. You should seek emergency medical attention if you develop extreme swelling or have trouble breathing.

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid dries out excess oils (sebum) in your pores. However, it could remove too much oil, making your face unusually dry. Other possible side effects include:

  • hives
  • itching
  • peeling skin
  • stinging or tingling
Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide may not be safe for sensitive skin. It’s more drying than salicylic acid, so it can lead to more severe irritation. If you have any of the following conditions, talk to your doctor before use:

  • eczema
  • seborrheic dermatitis
  • psoriasis

This ingredient may also stain your hair and clothes, so apply with caution and wash your hands thoroughly after use.

How to pick the best one for you

The product you choose will depend on:

  • The type of acne you have. Salicylic acid is more effective for blackheads and whiteheads. Benzoyl peroxide works well for mild pustules.
  • The severity of your breakouts. Both ingredients are intended for mild breakouts, and they can take several weeks to take full effect. Benzoyl peroxide, though, might show some benefit as an emergency spot treatment.
  • Your activity level. If you’re active during the day, sweat can transfer benzoyl peroxide to your clothing and stain it. You may consider using related products only at night or using salicylic acid instead.
  • Your overall skin health. Salicylic acid is milder and may not aggravate sensitive skin as much as benzoyl peroxide.
  • Any underlying medical conditions. Although both ingredients are available over the counter, this doesn’t mean they’re safe for everyone. Double-check with your doctor if you have an underlying skin condition. You should also talk to your doctor if you have kidney disease, diabetes, or liver disease.

Products you can try

If you want to try salicylic acid, consider using:

  • Murad Time Release Acne Cleanser. Not only does this cleanser have a 0.5 percent concentration of salicylic acid, it helps reduce the appearance of fine lines, too.
  • Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Wash Pink Grapefruit Foaming Scrub. This maximum-strength wash is still gentle enough for daily use.
  • Clean and Clear Deep Cleansing Toner for Sensitive Skin. This nondrying formula is suitable for sensitive skin and easy to apply with a cotton ball.
  • Philosophy Clear Days Ahead Moisturizer. While salicylic acid helps fight acne, additional ingredients like oligopeptide-10 help prevent your skin from drying out.
  • Dermalogica Sebum Clearing Masque. This mask can help remove excess oil without over-drying your skin. As a bonus, this fragrance-free formula may be appealing to those who don’t like the smell of a mud mask.
  • Juice Beauty Blemish Be Gone. This spot treatment is ideal for the occasional breakout.

If you want to try benzoyl peroxide, consider using:

  • Mountain Falls Daily Acne Control Cleanser. With 1 percent benzoyl peroxide, this product is ideal for sensitive skin.
  • TLP 10% Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Wash. This daily-use cleanser contains a stronger amount of acne-fighting ingredients but is gentle on all skin types.
  • Neutrogena Clear Pore Facial Cleanser/Mask. This two-in-one product may be used as a daily cleanser or left on for longer as a mask.
  • Acne.org 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide. This gel is said to penetrate the skin more effectively without drying it out.
  • Neutrogena On-the-Spot Acne Treatment. With 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide, this formula also dries quickly on your skin.
  • Clean and Clear Persa-Gel 10. This prescription-strength spot treatment is 10 percent benzoyl peroxide.

How to use

You should never use a salicylic acid- or benzoyl peroxide-based product for every step of your skin care routine. For example, if you use a salicylic acid-based cleanser, make sure that this ingredient isn’t in your toner or moisturizer. Using the ingredient in each step of your routine can dry out your skin and worsen your acne.

It’s also important to wear sunscreen every day. Although these acne ingredients don’t cause sun sensitivity like retinoids and alpha-hydroxy acids, unprotected sun exposure can make acne worse. It may also increase your risk of skin cancer and scarring.

Salicylic acid

Topical dosages for creams, washes, astringents, and other OTC products usually contain concentrations between 0.5 and 5 percent. Salicylic acid may be used morning and night. Because it’s so gentle, it may also be applied as a midday spot treatment.

Benzoyl peroxide

When selecting a benzoyl peroxide product, you may want to start with a 2.5 percent concentration, as it causes less drying and irritation, and then move to a 5 percent concentration if you see minimal results after six weeks. You may start with a gentle wash, and then move up to a gel-based version as your skin gets accustomed to the ingredient. If you aren’t seeing results after six weeks, you may move up to a 10 percent concentration.

Benzoyl peroxide may be used up to twice per day. After cleansing and toning, apply the product in a thin layer around the entire affected area of skin. Let the product dry for a few seconds before applying your moisturizer.

If you’re new to benzoyl peroxide, start with once a day only. Gradually work your way up to morning and night applications. If you use a retinoid or retinol product at night, apply benzoyl peroxide only in the mornings. This will prevent irritation and other side effects.

Is it safe to use both at the same time?

Your treatment plan could very well include both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time. However, applying both products on the same area of skin — even at different times of day — can increase your risk for excessive drying, redness, and peeling. A safer approach is to use both ingredients for different types of acne. For example, salicylic acid may be a good all-over method to treat and prevent breakouts, while benzoyl peroxide may be applied as a spot treatment only.

The bottom line

While there’s technically no cure for acne, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide may offer relief and help clear up breakouts. If you aren’t seeing results after six weeks, you may want to check in with your dermatologist. They may recommend stronger treatments, such as retinols or prescription retinoids.

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