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Benzoyl peroxide vs. salicylic acid for acne

It all comes down to what works best for you and the type of acne you’re treating.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
woman applying products to her skin
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 5 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

If you’re no newbie to the basics of skincare, chances are you’re familiar with benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Both are common over-the-counter acne ingredients that you can find in many skincare products at your local drugstore. But how do you know which to choose? Here we’ll explore benzoyl peroxide versus salicylic acid for acne and take a look at what each skincare ingredient does. We’ll also share expert tips on getting started with these ingredients and when you might benefit from using both.

Getting to know benzoyl peroxide

If you’ve ever experienced acne, you’ve probably tried benzoyl peroxide (BPO), one of the most common OTC acne-fighting ingredients. BPO works as an antimicrobial that targets acne-causing bacteria (Cutibacterium acnes) and reduces inflammation to help treat and prevent breakouts. BPO products include cleansers, face washes, and spot treatments.

BPO is generally considered safe, but it may not be the best option for someone with sensitive skin. It can cause hypersensitivity reactions, including redness and peeling.¹  

Dermatologists also often recommend using BPO alongside other acne products to help prevent antibiotic resistance that can be common with other antibiotic medications, like clindamycin.

What is salicylic acid? 

Salicylic acid (SA) is another great OTC acne-fighting topical, but it works differently than BPO. SA penetrates deep into the pores to unclog and decrease buildup. It stimulates natural exfoliation and exerts comedolytic activity (acne-fighting power) to slough off dead skin cells.² SA can also improve skin texture and may reduce the appearance of pores.

SA works to treat noninflammatory whiteheads and blackheads, as well as papules and pustules. It can also reduce inflammation caused by inflammatory acne. But since SA helps clear away excess sebum in your pores, it may cause dryness. Possible side effects include itching, peeling skin, and stinging. Dermatology providers recommend easing into using this skincare ingredient to give your skin time to adjust.

Benzoyl peroxide vs. salicylic acid: What’s the difference?

Both acne medications treat different types of acne, including hormonal acne and acne caused by makeup. But they do it in entirely different ways. BPO is a powerful antibacterial ingredient that kills the bacteria that contribute to acne,³ and helps reduce inflammation.⁴ SA is a lipid-soluble beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) and is commonly referred to as a chemical exfoliant. It clears and helps prevent clogged pores and buffs away dead skin cells.⁵

When to use which

Some people will choose more than one active ingredient when deciding between acne treatment options. If you choose to use both, dermatology providers generally recommend using one in the morning and one at night. Which one you use in the morning doesn't matter, but wearing sunscreen with broad-spectrum SPF (30+) is still a must. Also, both ingredients may cause dryness, so you may want to space out their use to one product once daily. 

How to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid also depends on what other topical ingredients you’re using. Mixing and matching these ingredients can cause over-drying, peeling, and irritation. When other topical antibiotics are prescribed, like erythromycin or clindamycin, BPO is often recommended to help prevent antibiotic resistance. Research shows that combining BPO with either erythromycin or clindamycin is more effective than using one on its own.⁶ If BPO is combined with other topical antibacterial creams, additional care should be taken before adding a third ingredient, like salicylic acid. 

Curology providers generally suggest starting with one product to see how your skin tolerates it. Adding both at the same time might be too much. Once your skin adjusts to one ingredient without dryness or irritation, it’s fine to try adding the next one.

More about the benefits of BPO and SA

Both BPO and SA improve acne-plagued skin. Whether you choose to use one or both will largely depend on what works for your skin type. 

Some potential benefits of using benzoyl peroxide for acne may be more appealing, like typically seeing noticeable improvements within a few weeks. Those with acne can combine BPO with other antibacterials to increase efficacy and reduce antibiotic resistance. Here’s a short list:

  • Helps kill bacteria that contribute to acne. BPO kills the bacteria that cause acne. When combined with other topical antibiotics, it’s even more effective. 

  • Provides anti-inflammatory properties. BPO can reduce the inflammation that often goes hand-in-hand with breakouts.

  • Helps unclog pores. BPO has keratolytic properties, meaning it may shed dead skin cells to help unclog pores.

  • Inhibits comedones. BPO is a moderate comedolytic and may effectively reduce and help prevent whiteheads and blackheads.

That’s not to say that salicylic acid products are without their merits. Potential benefits of salicylic acid include:

  • Exfoliates the skin. Lipid-soluble SA penetrates deep into the skin to slough off dead skin cells and unclog pores. 

  • Prevents new comedones from forming. SA’s lipid-soluble properties help to reduce sebum, which may help reduce future breakouts.

  • Reduces inflammation. SA also has anti-inflammatory properties, which may reduce redness and irritation from acne.

Choosing the right one for you

Consider your skin goals and the type of acne you have when choosing which is right for you. Here’s what you need to know: 

  • Both treat mild acne, but several weeks may go by before noticing any improvement. That said, benzoyl peroxide has shown results in as little as 5 days.⁷ Benzoyl peroxide spot treatments are also effective at quickly reducing angry blemishes in a pinch.

  • Salicylic acid is usually more gentle than benzoyl peroxide but may be more drying. You may also need to ease into using both, especially salicylic acid due to its exfoliating properties. 

The best way to choose which products to use is to work with licensed dermatology providers like the ones at Curology. Curology prescribes personalized prescription formulas to work with your unique skin.

Get help treating your acne 

Founded by a board-certified dermatologist in 2014, Curology’s mission is to provide accessible full-service skincare. Our licensed in-house dermatology providers work with you to examine your skin, assess your skincare goals, and provide custom treatment options. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If OTC products like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid don’t seem to be cutting it, we’re here for you! Curology can prescribe personalized prescription formulas with ingredients proven to treat acne, like tretinoin and clindamycin. We also offer dermatologist-designed OTC products, like the Acne Body Wash with 2% salicylic acid, and the Acne Cleanser with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide. They are both non-comedogenic and are vegan and cruelty-free.

FAQs

What is benzoyl peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is one of the most common OTC acne-fighting ingredients. BPO works as an antimicrobial that targets acne-causing bacteria (Cutibacterium acnes) and reduces inflammation to help treat and prevent breakouts. BPO products include cleansers, face washes, and spot treatments

What are the potential benefits of salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid (SA) is a great OTC acne-fighting topical that penetrates deep into the pores to unclog and decrease buildup. It stimulates natural exfoliation and exerts comedolytic activity (acne-fighting power) to slough off dead skin cells. SA can also improve skin texture and may reduce the appearance of pores.

How to choose between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide?

Consider your skin goals and the type of acne you have when choosing which is right for you. Here’s what you need to know: 

  • Both treat mild acne, but several weeks may go by before noticing any improvement. Benzoyl peroxide spot treatments are also effective at quickly reducing angry blemishes in a pinch.

  • Salicylic acid is usually more gentle than benzoyl peroxide but may be more drying. You may also need to ease into using both, especially salicylic acid due to its exfoliating properties. 

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Zaenglein, A., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (May 2016).

  2. Decker, A. and Graber, E.M. Over-the-counter acne treatments. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. (May 2012).

  3. Decker, A. and Graber, E.M. Over-the-counter acne treatments. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  4. Tanghetti, E. The evolution of benzoyl peroxide therapy. Cutis. (November 2008).

  5. Decker, A. and Graber, E.M. Over-the-counter acne treatments. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  6. Decker, A. and Graber, E.M. Over-the-counter acne treatments. Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Ibid.

  7. Zaenglein, A., et al. Guidelines of care for the management of acne vulgaris. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. (Ibid).

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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