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Benzoyl Peroxide vs Salicylic Acid: How to Use Both For Getting Rid of Zits Fast

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Photo by Lara Callahan / Refinery29 for Getty Images

With so many acne treatments out there, it’s easy to get lost in the many beauty buzzwords, home remedies, and fancy acne medications, all claiming miraculous skin-clearing benefits. In reality, most of these acne skin care treatments have one of two common–and often confused–ingredients: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Both active ingredients banish blemishes, but both do so in different ways. When developing a skin care routine to manage acne and breakouts, a great first step is to learn everything you can about these two skin care essentials. Keep reading below for our breakdown of salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and how to know which one is right for you.

About the Experts:

Ridah Syed is the senior medical aesthetician at Skinfluencer.
Manal El Hage is an aesthetician at the Dr. Kayle Aesthetic Clinic in Dubai.

What is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Acne (which includes all manner of blemishes like whiteheads, blackheads, pimples, pustules, etc.) develops when dead skin cells and excess oil (otherwise known as sebum) clog the tiny hair follicles in our skin. Benzoyl peroxide works to tackle acne straight at the source.

“Benzoyl peroxide is an antibacterial, acne-fighting ingredient that penetrates the skin’s pores to kill acne-causing bacteria and reduce sebum production,” explains Ridah Syed, senior medical aesthetician at Skinfluencer. “It is a great skincare ingredient to use if you suffer from mild to moderate acne, and when combined with other agents, it may be used to treat more severe cases of acne,” she says.

The ingredient is found in a variety of over-the-counter cleansers, masks, and spot treatments. Combining the powerful active ingredient with a more moisturizing ingredient, like glycerin or ceramides, can help keep zit-zapping benzoyl peroxide from drying out your skin, which is one of the acne ingredient's most frequent side effects.

What Is Salicylic Acid?

Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that works by dissolving and exfoliating the dead skin cells and sebum that clog pores, leading to breakouts. This makes it another ideal solution for attacking pesky whiteheads and blackheads.

According to Syed, it’s “another ingredient used in acne-fighting skin care products, but it works in a completely different way to benzoyl peroxide.” Salicylic acid “removes dead skin cells that can clog pores, while benzoyl peroxide eradicates the acne-causing bacteria,” she says. “Salicylic acid shrinks sebaceous glands, thereby reducing sebaceous elements so skin is less oily, which leads to less clogged pores.”

Since salicylic acid is derived from willow bark, it’s also a helpful anti-inflammatory for soothing cystic acne and redness. If you’re curious to learn more about exactly how and why salicylic acid works its magic, check out our guide to everything about salicylic acid products here.

Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid

Think of salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide like distant cousins. They’re both related by the fact that they’re powerful over-the-counter acne treatments, but the first one–benzoyl peroxide–works by killing acne-causing bacteria, and the second (salicylic acid) works by exfoliating away acne-causing dead skin cells.

When it comes down to it, benzoyl peroxide is a great choice for taking care of pimples and whiteheads for oily skin types. It’s known to work quickly, and it comes in higher concentrations than salicylic acid. But, since it can be so harsh, dry skin types and sensitive skin types may want to steer clear of this acne treatment for their breakouts. Finally, it’s also been known to cause hyperpigmentation in acne-prone skin, as well as bleach clothing, so be careful not to get it on any of your LBDs.

Salicylic acid, on the other hand, is a popular choice for hormonal acne and occasional breakouts. It’s not as fast-acting as benzoyl peroxide, sometimes taking days or weeks to show results, but there are fewer (if any) side effects.

How to Use Them

According to Manal El Hage, aesthetician at the Dr. Kayle Clinic in Dubai, “benzoyl peroxide is particularly effective on whiteheads and is a great treatment for mild acne, or in conjunction with a topical retinoid for moderate to severe acne.”

Salicylic acid can be applied on all types of acne and can even be applied on the skin once the blemish clears, as part of your typical skincare routine, if you’re acne-prone. “In addition, because it acts like a chemical exfoliant, salicylic acid can help address visible signs of aging, working to exfoliate dead skin cells on the skin’s surface,” says El Hage. “I would recommend however that if someone suffers from severe acne, that it is better they have an in-clinic treatment and rely on products with anti-acne ingredients to maintain the results from treatments.” Over-the-counter products may not be strong enough to clear out larger breakouts or hormonal acne.

Possible Side Effects

“Both ingredients can be extremely drying to the skin, so I would always recommend seeking advice from a skincare expert on how to incorporate them into your skincare routine for maximum effectiveness, without compromising the skin’s health,” says Syed. For example, your dermatologist or aesthetician will likely start you off on a lower percentage of a benzoyl peroxide product, which typically comes in formulations between 2 and 10%, to minimize any potential side effects. The most common are dryness and irritation.

As mentioned above, benzoyl peroxide can also stain fabric, so keep it away from clothing. “Most importantly, benzoyl peroxide increases the skin’s sensitivity to the sun, so always wear an SPF of 30 or higher to protect the skin from sun damage,” says Syed.

Best Salicylic Acid Products

ZO® SKIN HEALTH Exfoliating Cleanser

ZO® SKIN HEALTH Exfoliating Cleanser
Courtesy of ZO® SKIN HEALTH

This cleanser is gentle enough to use both in the morning and night, and works to help maintain clear pores so you can avoid breakouts. It includes biodegradable jojoba esters, which are round gentle beads that help slough off dead skin cells that cause buildup in pores. From there, salicylic acid penetrates the cleared-our pores to remove any lingering sebum. 

SUNDAY RILEY U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Acne Treatment Face Oil

SUNDAY RILEY U.F.O. Ultra-Clarifying Acne Treatment Face Oil
Courtesy of SUNDAY RILEY

This daily treatment oil contains 1.5% of salicylic acid to clear out breakouts fast. But you can also use it on your scalp and on your back, making it the perfect all-in-one acne-fighting product. Because salicylic acid can have a drying effect on the skin, this oil combines milk thistle and cucumber seed oil to replenish moisture back into the skin and smooth the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

Best Benzoyl Peroxide Products

PAULA’S CHOICE Extra Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide

PAULA’S CHOICE Extra Strength Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide
Courtesy of PAULA’S CHOICE

With a powerful formulation of 5% benzoyl peroxide, this product will help control excess oil, while also calming irritated skin with the inclusion of plant extracts. It has a light lotion texture that dries matte, so you can use it in the morning underneath makeup and up to twice a day to maintain acne.

LA ROCHE-POSAY Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment

LA ROCHE-POSAY Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment
Courtesy of LA ROCHE-POSAY

If you just get a few zits a few times a month or year, keep a spot treatment on-hand to target any unexpected breakouts right at the source. This spot treatment gel has 5.5% micronized benzoyl peroxide that combines with micro-exfoliating lipo-hydroxy acid to resurface the skin quickly.

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About the author
Brittany Leitner
Brittany is an award winning beauty, health, and lifestyle writer and author of the poetry book "23 Emotions." She has eight years of experience writing for brands like Elite Daily, The. Dr. Oz Show, Shape, Stylecaster, Bustle, and more.
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Article Last Updated May 17, 2022 12:00 AM