Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: The Benefits, Differences, and Uses

A complete guide to the acne-fighting hero ingredients.

girl with gorgeous clear skin
(Image credit: Getty)

If you suffer from acne, you're probably no stranger to benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Both acne-fighting ingredients promise to do away with pesky breakouts, dry up pore-clogging sebum, and prevent future pimples from making an appearance. But how much do you really know about their key differences and what each one does to your skin? For a clear and concise breakdown of both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, including the pros and cons of each hero ingredient, Marie Claire spoke with Los Angeles board-certified dermatologist Dr. Christine Choi Kim.

What is benzoyl peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide is an acne-clearing ingredient notable for diminishing bacteria and absorbing excess sebum. "It's a topical compound used to treat acne since 1934," explains Dr. Kim. "It's antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, keratolytic—it breaks up the top layer of dead skin cells—and comedolytic, which means it dissolves blackheads and whiteheads."

What does benzoyl peroxide do to your skin?

"After application, benzoyl peroxide degrades and releases oxygen which is lethal to cutibacterium acnesa bacteria that plays a role in acne formation," Dr. Kim says. "Because it kills the bacteria and does not just slow down its growth (like antibiotics do), benzoyl peroxide does not contribute to bacterial resistance." 

And while it can improve acne when used by itself, says Dr. Kim, its efficacy is enhanced when combined with topical antibiotics and retinoids.

What are the pros and cons of benzoyl peroxide?

"The benefits of benzoyl peroxide are a reduction in inflammatory acne lesions as well as some breakdown of comedones. However, benzoyl peroxide can bleach dark clothing, bedding, and even your hair, and irritation is the biggest potential side effect," explains Dr. Kim. "In studies, benzoyl peroxide is equally effective at concentrations of 2.5 percent, five percent, and ten percent, but its irritation profile increases with higher concentrations." Therefore, start with a lower concentration to maximize effectiveness and minimize irritation.

The Best Benzoyl Peroxide Products

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is a slightly more gentle ingredient than benzoyl peroxide and targets the cause of acne. "Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid derived from willow bark," explains Dr. Kim. "It works well alone and in combination with alpha-hydroxy acids like glycolic acid and lactic acid."

What does salicylic acid do to your skin?

"It's oil-soluble and can dissolve the debris of dead skin cells and sebum that clogs pores," says Dr. Kim. That's what makes it a hero ingredient in over-the-counter blemish-fighting products. A bonus: salicylic acid has anti-inflammatory properties and belongs to the same chemical family as aspirin.

What are the pros and cons of salicylic acid?

"The benefits of salicylic acid are a reduction in blackheads and whiteheads; it also has some anti-inflammatory properties. Irritation is, again, a possible side effect," says Dr. Kim. "It's usually used in concentrations ranging from 0.5 to two percent in acne products. If you have sensitive skin, start with lower concentrations and use it every other day. And avoid salicylic acid if you are allergic to aspirin or other NSAIDs."

The Best Salicylic Acid Products

What's the difference between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?

"The biggest difference between the two ingredients is that benzoyl peroxide has antibacterial properties and is more helpful for inflammatory acne lesions like tender red papules and pustules," explains Dr. Kim. "However, salicylic acid has stronger comedolytic effects, so it's more effective at treating and preventing blackheads and whiteheads. Because of their different advantages, they work well together."

How should I use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?

Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid come in various forms, which makes them both very versatile. "Benzoyl peroxide is an active ingredient in cleansers, gels, creams, lotions, and foams. Salicylic acid can be found in cleansers, toners, moisturizers, and even concealers," says Dr. Kim.

It's essential not to use too many products that have active ingredients all at the same time. That's a recipe for disaster—it may cause irritation and a case of dermatitis. "I usually recommend choosing just one product that has benzoyl peroxide and one that has salicylic acid," says Dr. Kim. "Start slowly in the beginning, alternating days until your skin gets used to [both products] with no signs of peeling, redness, or irritation."

You can incorporate either product in your morning or nighttime skincare routine. Then, once you build a tolerance, you can try applying both daily. "If your dermatologist adds prescription products [to your skincare routine], you may need to [decrease] your use of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid," says Dr. Kim. "Be careful not to apply these active ingredients near the delicate skin around the eyes. Acne treatments are best used in a thin layer on the affected areas of your face and body–not just on your existing acne spots." The idea is to get ahead of your acne and prevent the development of future breakouts.

Final Thoughts

With both ingredients, it's essential to follow up with a moisturizer to minimize dryness and irritation. "Don't use on skin that's compromised by sunburn, windburn, open sores, or eczema-type rashes," advises Dr. Kim. And it's even more important to apply SPF daily, as both ingredients sensitize your skin to UVA and UVB rays.

Laura Lajiness Kaupke
Freelance Fashion and Beauty Writer

Laura Lajiness Kaupke is a freelance writer and editor covering fashion, accessories, fine jewelry, and lifestyle topics, including beauty, home, fitness, and travel. You can see her work across various outlets, including VOGUE, Harper’s BAZAAR, ELLE, Glamour, Town&Country, InStyle, Esquire, Women’s Health, Brides, Refinery 29, Coveteur, The Zoe Report, Popsugar, Byrdie, WWD, Footwear News, Well+Good, The Editorialist, among other titles and brands. Laura has worked in the fashion industry for over 11 years and held senior fashion editor positions at Popsugar and The Zoe Report, with additional experience as a copywriter and fashion publicist.