Medically reviewed by Minimalist Health Specialist -  Written by Sritama Dutta (Medical Science)  on 03rd Oct 2020

Salicylic Acid Vs. Benzoyl Peroxide: Which is Better for Acne-prone Skin

Salicylic Acid Vs. Benzoyl Peroxide

Acne is a common problem among pre- and post-pubertal females. As a remedy, several skincare products are available with various ingredients that claim to reduce and prevent acne formation and breakouts.

However, among the plethora of ingredients that floods the skincare market, two specific ingredients are quite noteworthy for their efficacy.

They are two skin-friendly organic compounds, Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide. Both of these chemicals have been found to have a beneficial effect on acne-prone skin and have helped to reduce further breakouts.

If you are familiar with the two names, but unsure about how they affect your skin, we have come to your help. As you read further, you will be able to unravel all the answers to your concerns regarding Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl peroxide.

We have striven to provide you with an information-packed, well-rounded article comparing Salicylic Acid vs. Benzoyl Peroxide. We've also covered their uses, benefits, and potential side-effects.  

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic Acid is a Beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), which is colorless and crystalline in pure form. It is a widely used ingredient in skin products and has been used for treating dermatological conditions such as warts, corns, acne, ringworm and dandruff. It is also an active ingredient in medicines for psoriasis, seborrhoeic dermatitis and keratosis pilaris.

Did You Know?

Salicylic acid was extracted from the bark of a tree named "Willow" or Salix alba. This is from where the compound received its name. Members of Cherokee tribes and other Native Americans are known to use this bark as a remedy for various illnesses. Scriptures from Ancient Egypt also stated the use of an infusion of the bark of Willow tree as a pain-reliever and also to reduce fever. 

How Does Salicylic Acid Work?

Salicylic Acid is a versatile compound. It has the keratolytic property that causes the sloughing of the hardened outer layer of the skin. It also has a comedolytic property, which means it can open up clogged pores and prevent further clogging of your skin's enlarged pores.

Salicylic Acid is also known to have a bacteriostatic property that slows down the proliferation of bacteria in your dermal layers. Apart from these, salicylic acid also has analgesic, antipyretic as well as anti-inflammatory effects.

Salicylic acid penetrates your dermal layers, dissolves the dead skin cells (desquamation), and opens up the blocked pores. It also neutralizes the bacteria within the pores and promotes new cell growth.  

What is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl Peroxide is a generic ingredient used widely in various medications, alone or in combination with other compounds.

It is a white granular crystalline solid incorporated in various cleansers, gels, creams, and ointments to treat acne lesions.

It is also formulated in different concentrations with other drug combinations like clindamycin, salicylic acid, and adapalene for the topical remedy of acne. 

Did You Know?

Using Benzoyl Peroxide can result in a bright, beautiful smile. It is an important ingredient used in dentistry as a Teeth Whitening Agent. 

How Does Benzoyl Peroxide Work?

Benzoyl Peroxide has a three-fold effect on our skin. It has a sebolytic property that helps to regulate the keratinization process and also the sebum production by the sebaceous glands. It also has comedolytic activity.

Benzoyl peroxide undergoes a free radical reaction that breaks down the keratin in the clogged pores. This causes unblocking of the pores and facilitates sebum drainage from the dermis. Benzoyl peroxide also has a bacteriolytic property. It acts as an oxidizer and causes peroxidation of the Propionibacterium acnes, the main acne-causing bacteria.

P.acnes releases some lytic enzymes, which cause the breakdown of the proteins and lipids in the sebum, which leads to an inflammatory reaction. This gives rise to inflammatory acne, such as pustules and pimples. Benzoyl Peroxide effectively kills the associated bacteria and provides relief from the painful acne.  

How Are They Different?

Salicylic Acid Vs. Benzoyl Peroxide

How Are They Different?

Both Salicylic acid and Benzoyl peroxide are over-the-counter ingredients that can effectively fight acne and breakout. However, they differ in some aspects of their use and mechanism of action. While Benzoyl peroxide is more effective in treating red, pus-filled inflammatory acne, Salicylic acid works best on non-inflammatory acne such as blackheads and whiteheads.  

Which One is Best For You?

There is no definite remedy for acne. Every individual might benefit from different ingredients or combinations of them. So while choosing which product to pick, you need to evaluate other facts such as; 

The type of acne you have:

The bacteriolytic and sebolytic effects of benzoyl peroxide prove beneficial to the inflammatory type of acne (pustules or pimples). Due to the comedolytic and keratolytic property of Salicylic acid, it is a more effective treatment against non-inflammatory acne.  

The texture of your skin: 

If you have oily skin, benzoyl peroxide might be a better option for you. Its sebolytic activity helps to regulate the sebum production in your skin. However, if you have dry, flaky, or scaly skin, Salicylic acid can be more beneficial. It acts as a mild exfoliating agent, thanks to its keratolytic property, that sloughs off dead, dried skin cells, leaving your skin smooth and flawless. 

The overall health of your skin: 

Salicylic acid is milder than Benzoyl peroxide on your skin. So, if you have sensitive skin, you might want to consider salicylic acid over benzoyl peroxide. SA does not aggravate sensitive skin.

Also, if you have an existing, underlying skin condition, it is wise to consult your dermatologist before using any of them.  

How Are They Beneficial? 

Benefits of Salicylic Acid:

  • Salicylic acid can gently exfoliate your skin and help you to get rid of dead cells and dried outer layers of the skin without causing any harm to your healthy skin layers. It also boosts the cell turnover in your skin.  
  • It is also helpful in treating skin conditions like acne, acne scars, spots, blemishes, and melasma.
  • Apart from being beneficial to your facial skin, salicylic acid helps fight body acne and back acne.  
  • It helps treat the existing acne, but it also prevents future breakouts and bumps. It unclogs blocked pores and facilitates sebum to drain out, reducing the incidence of acne formation.  
  • Salicylic acid keeps the excess oil/sebum production in check and leaves your face feeling fresh and matte. 

How to Use Salicylic Acid?

A concentration of 0.5-2% of salicylic acid in serum, face washes, or cream works best for daily use on oily acne-prone skin. The best practice is to apply Salicylic acid twice daily at AM and PM for effective results.

After cleansing your face with a mild water-based cleanser, apply the product over your face and neck, and let it rest for a few minutes. 

Pro-Tip by Minimalist Experts:

1. Avoid oil-based or greasy products before applying the salicylic acid serum. This will prevent its action on your skin.

2. Avoid going out in the sun without protection soon after using salicylic based products. The newly revealed skin might be damaged by the harmful rays of the sun. Make sure you layer your skin with SPF 30 or more before you step out.

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Salicylic Acid 2% Face Serum
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Benefits of Benzoyl Peroxide:

  • Benzoyl acid is best for treating mild to moderate acne. Its bacteriolytic property helps to kill bacteria rather than just slowing down their growth. It attacks the P.acnes bacteria responsible for acne formation and diminishes breakouts.  
  • Cystic acne is a severe form of acne that is difficult to recognize because of its lack of head. It has a hardened cyst underlying the dermal layer. Benzoyl peroxide is an effective treatment of cystic acne. It acts by eradicating the harmful bacteria and by kicking the pores to drain the pus. 
  • It is also an excellent ingredient for oily skin. It can regulate the sebum secretion effectively and prevent you from having greasy skin.  
  • Benzoyl peroxide is also useful in the treatment of Acne vulgaris, a severe form of acne.

How to Use Benzoyl Peroxide?

Dermatologist suggests a concentration of 2% of Benzoyl peroxide for the treatment of acne. It can penetrate your skin to kill the acne-causing bacteria and acts as a mild yet deep-skin scrubber. It helps to flush out all the pus, debris, dirt and oil and give you fresh, radiant skin. It can also be used in combination with glycolic acid or clindamycin phosphate.

It is ideal to use Benzoyl peroxide once daily, after proper cleansing and toning your face. If you are layering with multiple products, allow it to absorb for a few minutes. Your skin may take some time to get acquainted with the formulation. Try using intermittent it until your skin is comfortable with it.  

Pro-Tip by Minimalist Experts:

Retinoids and Benzoyl acid together can have a better effect in the treatment of inflammatory acne. However, continuous use of them in a combination can cause excessive drying of the skin. So, if you prefer to use both, apply the retinoid product at night and the Benzoyl peroxide in the morning.

How Can They be Harmful?

Side Effects of Salicylic Acid: 

Although salicylic acid is considered safe to use in the recommended concentration, it can have some unfavorable effects on the skin in certain conditions.  

  • It can cause excessive sloughing of skin. 
  • May cause irritation and itching.
  • May cause hives. 
  • Salicylic acid may cause severe tingling or stinging sensation on your skin. 
  • Some people may experience an allergic reaction from it.  
  • Prolonged use of salicylic acid may result in Salicylic Acid Toxicity, which may have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, headache, lethargy, and even hearing loss. 

Side Effects of Benzoyl Peroxide: 

Benzoyl peroxide is usually harmless to use on the skin. However, it can have some side effects in some conditions.  

  • Using it in higher concentrations or for long-duration can cause excessive drying of the skin.
  • It can also give rise to redness and excessive peeling of the skin layers. 
  • It can cause skin irritation and itching. 
  • Some people are known to have an allergic response to Benzoyl peroxide.
  • It should not be used when you have broken skin or sunburn.  
  • Patients suffering from seborrhoeic dermatitis or eczema also must avoid using benzoyl peroxide.  
  • Benzoyl peroxide is an excellent bleaching agent. It must be taken care of while using any product to discolor your hair or clothes.  

Should They Be Used Together?

Studies have demonstrated that using both Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide in your skincare regime is safe. However, their inherent properties can have a synergistic effect and cause excessive drying and peeling of your dermal layers.

To prevent this, a much safer approach is to assess your skin's needs and the type of acne you have and then pick the one best suited for you.  

To Sum It Up:

Every individual wears their skin with unique qualities. Some may benefit from a set of ingredients, while others might not.

Though there is no definite cure for acne, both the ingredients discussed today can act as excellent acne-remover.

While Salicylic acid is a safe, well-rounded method for treating acne, benzoyl acid is more effective as a topical spot treatment. Each has its known benefits and risks but is undoubtedly worth the trial. You may expect a favorable outcome in just four to six weeks.