Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: Which Acne-Fighting Ingredient Is Right for You?

April 17, 2018
Claire Rodgers
By: Claire Rodgers | by L'Oréal
Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: Which Acne-Fighting Ingredient Is Right for You?

Without a doubt, two of the biggest power-players when it comes to waging war on acne are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. We’re all aware of their stellar zit-zapping reputation, but how exactly do the two ingredients differ? It’s an important question to ask, since the answer could help you determine which ingredient (if not both) could be better suited to help battle your breakouts. Here to break it all down for us is plastic surgeon, SkinCeuticals ambassador, and consultant, Dr. Peter Schmid. Read on for the key differences between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid—plus benefits, side effects, product recommendations and more!

Benzoyl Peroxide

If you’ve ever dealt with acne, chances are high that you’ve used a product formulated with benzoyl peroxide in your routine or—at the very least—have heard your peers or dermatologist talk about the ingredient. And while you may already be familiar with the ingredient, are you fully up to speed on how it can help your skin? If the answer is no, keep reading!

benzoyl peroxide

What Is Benzoyl Peroxide? 

“Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial made of benzoic acid and oxygen,” Dr. Schmid says. “It penetrates the pores or follicles of the skin and kills the bacteria that lives there and contributes to inflammation that results in acne.” You can find the ingredient in many different types of skin care products, including face washes, creams, lotions, gels, or pre-moistened wipes. 

What Does Benzoyl Peroxide Work Well On?

Dealing with whiteheads? Dr. Schmid says benzoyl peroxide is particularly effective on whiteheads. What’s more, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), benzoyl peroxide is also recommended as monotherapy for mild acne, or in conjunction with a topical retinoid for moderate to severe acne. 

What Percentage Should I Use?

You can find benzoyl peroxide in percentages between 2 and 10 percent. According to the AAD, studies have shown that products formulated with a higher percentage of benzoyl peroxide—over 2.5%—are not synonymous with increased effectiveness. In fact, they could even irritate the skin. “When first trying a benzoyl peroxide product, I recommend starting with the lowest percentage and working your way up if needed to minimize dryness and irritation that can often occur,” Dr. Schmid says.

Salicylic Acid

Salicylic acid, also known as beta hydroxy acid, is an incredibly popular acne-fighting ingredient which can be extracted from the bark of willow trees. To learn more about whether or not salicylic acid is right for your skin and concerns, keep reading! 

salicylic acid

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid works by exfoliating dead skin cells that can clog pores. “It’s very effective at getting through the oil that exists in our pores or follicles to exfoliate the skin cells that exist there,” Dr. Schmid says. “[This] ultimately reduces the formation of acne.” You can find salicylic acid in a wide range of skin care products, including face washes, creams, scrubs, cleansing cloths, and cleansing pads. 

What Does Salicylic Acid Work Well On? 

Salicylic acid can be applied on all types of acne, and can even be applied on the skin once the blemish clears. In addition, salicylic acid can help address visible signs of aging, working to exfoliate dead skin cells on the skin's surface.  

What Percentage Should I Use?

Salicylic acid is usually found in percentages of 1 or 2 percent. It can cause skin dryness when used in excess, so talk to your dermatologist about the best concentration and frequency to abide by.  

Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid 

The key difference between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid is that benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid removes dead skin cells that can clog pores. Both can help address acne and prevent new blemishes from forming, which is why some patients choose to combine the two in their routine. Keep in mind, however, that some may experience excess skin dryness or irritation when pairing benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together in a routine. Sensitive skin types should also avoid benzoyl peroxide products.

So when it comes to deciding whether benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid is best for your acne, the answer might just be both of them! Dr. Schmid’s go-to product for acne-prone skin is SkinCeuticals Blemish + Age Defense. “I recommend it to nearly all of my patients concerned with acne,” he says. “It contains the optimal combination of alpha-hydroxy acids (glycolic and citric) and beta-hydroxy acids (salicylic acid and LHA), as well as a 2% dioic acid, which helps to minimize excess sebum.” Dr. Schmid recommends using it to spot treat, area treat, or to simply use all over the face. The best part? All skin types can benefit from it! “I consistently have very positive feedback from our patients who incorporate it into their skin care regimen,” he says.

Editor’s note: Acne-fighting ingredients like benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are notoriously drying. Be sure to use all products as directed and keep your skin hydrated from the inside out. When using products formulated with benzoyl peroxide, unnecessary sun exposure should be avoided. If you must head outdoors, don’t forget to apply broad-spectrum sunscreen and reapply at least every two hours—even if it’s cloudy!

All of this acne talk may be sparking new questions you’d like to have answered. If that’s the case for you, we encourage you to take a look at the answers to some frequently asked questions about acne, here!

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