Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: What’s the Difference?



If you’ve ever had to deal with acne, you understand that it can be a difficult battle. Blemishes can be embarrassing and frequent breakouts can lower a person’s self-esteem. If you’re like most people, you’ve tried numerous skin care products that claim to clear your skin for good, but ultimately end up leaving you disappointed. So what can you do? We recommend using products with ingredients that are proven to be effective for preventing and treating acne. Two of the most effective ingredients for acne are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. If you’ve heard of these ingredients before, you may be wondering: is benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid better? To answer this question, below we are discussing the key differences between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.

Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: The Main Difference

Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid have exfoliating and antibacterial properties. The main difference between these two ingredients is that benzoyl peroxide is known to work best on mild pustules, while salicylic acid is best for blackheads and whiteheads. Below we’ll explain the details on how each of these ingredients fights acne, as well as whether benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid is better.

RelatedBest acne treatments – The Truth About 13 Top Acne Treatment.

What is Benzoyl Peroxide?

As the name implies, benzoyl peroxide is something known as a peroxide, the technical term for an unstable bond between two oxygen atoms that can create free radicals. While free radicals often have a negative connotation, in this case they can be used to effectively kill P. acnes bacteria by destroying the cell walls. Additionally, benzoyl peroxide can exfoliate and help peel the outer layer of skin. One drawback of benzoyl peroxide is that while it does effectively kill P. acnes, it also kills the good bacteria that keep your skin healthy. This can leave skin feeling dry and irritated, which for some people can make skin look worse. Benzoyl peroxide is available in many different types of products, including washes, creams, gels or pre-moistened cloths. The strength of benzoyl peroxide in these products varies considerably – between 2 and 10 percent.

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is the most commonly used beta hydroxy acid (BHA) in cosmetics and skin care products. In chemistry, a BHA is an organic compound made up of a carboxylic acid group (-COOH) and a hydroxyl group (-OH) separated by two carbon atoms. With salicylic acid, both the hydroxyl and carboxylic acid groups are attached directly to an aromatic benzene ring, rather than along a linear carbon chain. This structure makes salicylic acid oil soluble so it can penetrate into the pores of the skin.

After entering the pore, salicylic acid exfoliates the pore lining, which loosens clogged dirt and oil and helps to wash these impurities away. It also has the ability to dissolve keratin, the protein that acts as a “glue” to keep dead skin cells together in the stratum corneum. This is effective because dead skin cells can build up on the surface of your skin, leaving it looking dull and also possibly clogging pores.

Another way salicylic acid helps to fight acne is through its antibacterial activity. Salicylic acid has the ability to inhibit the production of various aspects necessary for binary fission (bacterial reproduction), such as fibrinogen, fibronectin, and alpha-hemolysis. Therefore, salicylic acid can neutralize the bacteria P. Acnes that is present in acne papules. Lastly, salicylic acid possess anti-inflammatory properties, which is ideal for treating acne since inflammation will worsen breakouts.

Is benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid better?

As you can see, both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are effective for preventing and treating acne. But is one better than the other? It turns out that salicylic acid has a few advantages over benzoyl peroxide.

Benzoyl peroxide is well known for drying out the skin, leading to peeling, flaking, and excess dryness. This is especially problematic with higher concentrations of benzoyl peroxide. Studies show products with higher benzoyl peroxide concentrations – above 2.5 percent – do not necessarily increase the effectiveness of products and can irritate the skin. Salicylic acid will not cause excess dryness and irritation like benzoyl peroxide. In fact, salicylic acid is completely non-abrasive, and has soothing and calming properties. Thus, if you’re concerned about these side effects, it might be best to stick with salicylic acid or a low strength benzoyl peroxide product.

Another advantage salicylic acid has over benzoyl peroxide is its anti-aging effects. Since salicylic acid gently sloughs off the top layers of dead skin cells, it is known to brighten a dull complexion. Exfoliation leads to reduction in thickness of the stratum corneum (the dead-skin-cell layer), which gives the skin a bright, glowing appearance. In addition, the exfoliative properties of salicylic acid have been shown, over time, to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by promoting collagen growth.

The one advantage benzoyl peroxide has over salicylic acid is that it’s considered to be better for larger blemishes and stubborn acne because of its strong antibacterial effects.

Can you use salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide together?

Since both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are known to be effective for preventing and treating acne, you may be wondering if you can use these two ingredients together. The short answer is yes, you can use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together. But what is the best way to incorporate these ingredients into your skin care routine? Below we have a few ways you can try using benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together.

Salicylic acid face wash + benzoyl peroxide spot treatment
One of the best ways to use these two ingredients together is a salicylic acid face wash and a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment. The salicylic acid face wash will gently exfoliate pores, while the spot treatment will target existing blemishes. This combination is effective since using benzoyl peroxide all over the face may cause side effects like dryness, peeling, and irritation.

Alternate benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid face wash
While there is no face wash with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide together, you can alternate using a salicylic acid face wash one night and a benzoyl peroxide face wash the next night. This way you can benefit from both of these ingredients. Always follow up with an adequate moisturizer after washing your face to prevent excessive dryness.

Leave-on salicylic acid exfoliant + benzoyl peroxide spot treatment
Another way to incorporate benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together is to use a leave-on exfoliant with salicylic acid after washing your face. Since a leave-on product stays on the skin all day, it has the ability to speed up the skin’s natural exfoliation process, leaving you with clear skin. Then, using a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment can help with existing blemishes.

Is it safe to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together?

While it is typically safe to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together, the American Academy of Dermatology warns that this combination can make the skin dry and irritated. If you notice these side effects, you may want to look for a lower strength of benzoyl peroxide. Another option is to only exfoliate with salicylic acid every other day.


References: “Dermatologists advise patients that over-the-counter acne products can have benefits and a place on their medicine shelf” Jan 2014, “We’ve All Been Underestimating This Acne-Fighter” July 2016



Carrot & Stick

Carrot & Stick takes a tough love approach to skincare. What does this mean? It perfectly balances the power of plants with innovative science, offering the best of both worlds. Read More


The philosophy of Formulyst is long-term and effective skincare, rather than covering up any imperfections. The comprehensive line of products tackles everything from wrinkles to dark spots and dry skin. While some brands rely on unnecessary fillers and scents, Formulyst focuses on ingredients that help create results, such as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Read More

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