What’s the Difference Between Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide? Here’s What You Need to Know…

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If you’re like most people, then chances are you’re not exactly the most well versed when it comes to the list of ingredients on your skin care.

Before working in the beauty industry, I definitely didn’t have a solid understanding of common cosmetic ingredients!

However, I think it’s important to understand the purpose of common ingredients that are put into our skincare products so we can better cater to the needs of our skin.

And if you have acne? Well then you should try and acquaint yourself with the 2 ingredient kingpins of the acne world: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. 

Related: The Best Products For Acne That Will Clear And Heal Your Skin

Read on to discover just how salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, the two most common acne fighting chemicals on the market, address the three acne causing triggers and learn which one you should be incorporating into your skin care regimen.

difference between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide

What is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is an exfoliant that is used primarily to remove dead skin cells that can lead to not only acne, but noticeable texture and discoloration of the skin.

It is closely related to what comprises Aspirin, acetylsalicylic acid, which gives it non inflammatory and soothing properties.

How Does Salicylic Acid Work on Acne?

Salicylic acid treats acne in a couple different ways.

First, it is able to penetrate the pores, due to it’s chemical makeup, and deep clean cells as well as exterminate left behind dead skin cells.

It is believed that when someone has acne, their skin cells are not going through a normal skin cell cycle where they are shed upon dying.

Instead, these dead cells die and stick together which can lead to clogged pores and breakouts, which is where salicylic acid comes into play to break up the “cement” so to speak that holds them together.

Secondly, salicylic acid can also help reduce the production of sebum, which is more commonly known as “oil”.

Lastly, salicylic acid is also great at soothing inflamed acne because of its close chemical relation to acetylsalicylic acid as aforementioned.

In regards to clearing up acne, it is important to remember that salicylic acid addresses two of the three proponents needed to produce acne: oil and dead skin cells.

What Percentage of Salicylic Acid is Good for Clearing Acne?

Most over the counter products contain between 0.5% to 2% salicylic acid concentration and never more than 3%, unless the product is to be used on thicker accumulations of dead skin such as with warts.

The reason salicylic acid is so powerful in such small doses is because it is a keratolytic, meaning it helps peel off skin by breaking up the protein keratin that holds skin cells together.

But fear not, salicylic acid is not going to make your face peel off, rather it will simply slough off the dead cells that are sticking around far past their expiration date because of the sticky keratin.

difference between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide

What is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide is a synthetic chemical that kills the bacteria inside pores that causes acne, unclogs pores through exfoliation and oil regulation, and calms the skin with anti inflammatory properties.

Benzoyl peroxide has been proven to be most effective when used daily and consistently over time, as it is not a “cure” for acne.

How Does Benzoyl Peroxide Help Clear Up Acne?

Benzoyl peroxide works in four main ways to help treat acne and keep skin clear. First, it adds oxygen into the pore to help kill the bacteria who cannot live, let alone reproduce, in oxygen rich environments.

Second, because it is an oxidizing agent, benzoyl peroxide can also be classified as having keratolytic properties, similar to salicylic acid, so it’s great at unclogging pores.

Third, when it breaks down upon contact with the skin, benzoyl peroxide releases benzoic acid which dries the skin and even causes peeling, both of which help with excessive oil production.

And finally, benzoyl peroxide soothes the skin with it’s anti inflammatory properties.

However, it is important to remember that although benzoyl peroxide helps fight acne in a variety of ways, it is not a cure for acne and it is important to use it regularly in your skin care regimen for long term results.

How Much Benzoyl Peroxide Should You Use?

Most products with benzoyl peroxide in them have between a 2.5% to 10% concentration of the chemical, with prescribed products leaning towards the higher percentages.

However, studies have shown that lower doses of benzoyl peroxide can be just as effective in treating acne as higher does.

Regardless, when first starting out with benzoyl peroxide, it is advised to opt for lower percentages first and apply the product to a small area to make sure no reaction occurs.

Keep in mind that a slight burn and or peeling of the skin upon first use is normal and rarely serious.

However, should the skin become inflamed, itch, significantly peel, and or swell, stop using the product and consult a medical professional immediately.

difference between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide

Should You Use Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid?

Which ingredient you primarily rely on should depend on the type of acne you have and it’s severity.

For instance, those who primarily suffer from comedonal acne (i.e. blackheads, bumps) would benefit from salicylic acid because it will help to exfoliate away the dead skin cells clogging pores and manage the excess oil production that can lead to larger, inflamed, and pus filled pimples.

Those who have these “larger, inflamed, and pus filled pimples”, or inflammatory acne, would be better off using benzoyl peroxide to kill the bacteria that is afflicting their skin.

Teenagers typically do well with benzoyl peroxide-based treatments because they tend to have a higher concentration of bacteria in their pores and oilier skin which helps offset the somewhat drying effects of this ingredient.

But despite there being clear distinctions on which ingredient works best in different scenarios, experts have found that when it comes to not only clearing up the skin but keeping it clear over time, that a combination of both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide works best!

Why? The salicylic acid helps to eliminate 2 of the 3 acne causing triggers (excess oil production and dead skin cells), while benzoyl peroxide helps to eliminate the 3rd trigger (bacteria).

Also, the use of salicylic acid prior to benzoyl peroxide helps the later sink into pores better and attack the bacteria.


I hope you found this article helpful in determining whether salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, or both are best for your skin. If you have any questions, please leave them below!

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