Benzoyl Peroxide V/S Salicylic Acid: What Works Best To Treat Acne?

Reviewed by Dr. Chytra V Anand

MBBS, MSc - Clinical Dermatology

Written by Tashika TyagiNov 30, 2023
Benzoyl Peroxide V/S Salicylic Acid: What Works Best To Treat Acne?

We firmly believe in the concept of skinvestment — and it’s not just about spending a great deal of money on the most expensive or talked about skincare products. We feel that when you take time to research, know and understand your skin and what you put upon it, it all reflects and shows as your skin starts looking glowy and healthy. Basically, investing in your skin is more about understanding what your skin needs first, and then picking up a way to achieve that. So, today we’ll talk and discuss the two most widely popular, over-the-counter (OTC) acne treatments - benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid and which of them is better at treating acne!

These two acne-fighting ingredients have been our go-to medications to treat and clear out acne; so we thought we’d talk to internationally renowned celebrity cosmetic dermatologist and beauty guru, Dr. Chytra V Anand and understand these ingredients a little better. She explained to us everything from how they help to any possible side effects it might have on us. So, without any further ado, read on and know everything you must know about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid and how they help treat acne.


Difference between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

Before we get into the grueling details and talk about how these two OTC medications work to treat acne, let’s begin by understanding these ingredients first. First off, let’s start with benzoyl peroxide AKA BPO. Dr. Anand explains, “BPO is a topical medicated agent - a bactericidal agent - commonly used for the treatment of acne. Benzoyl peroxide works on the bacteria that cause acne, Propionibacterium Acnes, or P.acnes by killing it. BPO reduces inflammation and works well on mild to moderate acne, including acne with pus. It causes unclogging of pores in acne-prone skin and dries out acne effectively.” Coming to salicylic acid. It is a beta hydroxy acid and a natural extract from the wintergreen tree. Salicylic acid is actually lipophilic in nature, which means it dissolves in fats, oils, etc, which helps it work well for oily skin and is also absorbed well into oily skin.

As far as acne is concerned, salicylic acid is a great ingredient to treat blackheads and whiteheads. This is all thanks to the fact that salicylic acid is exfoliant in nature. This causes superficial exfoliation of the surface skin cells hence unclogging the pores and also preventing them from forming in the future when used regularly.


Benefits of these ingredients for your skin

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

Dr. Anand explains that while salicylic acid is great for comedonal acne like blackheads and whiteheads, unclogging and great for oily skin in general; benzoyl peroxide is more inclined to treat inflammatory acne. So, if you have annoying yet common, red, pus-filled pimples, then you should go for BPO medication. This is because benzoyl peroxide straight away works to kill the acne-causing bacteria on your skin and also helps shed dead skin cells and oil from your skin.

As for salicylic acid, it works more on the principle of exfoliating and keeping your pores clean. This is also the reason that it is a commonly found ingredient in many face washes, creams and skincare products for oily, acne-prone skin. It works on mild acne like blackheads and whiteheads.


How does one choose between these two

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

Now, coming to the big question - how does one actually choose between these two ingredients. According to Dr. Anand, “BPO is used for mild to moderate acne with inflammation in acne of pustular or papular types. Benzoyl peroxide actually works best on bacterial acne. You can use it on acne alone or combine it with other anti-acne medications like Adapalene or Clindamycin.”

Furthermore, she explains, “While BPO is suitable for the inflammatory and bacterial types of acne, salicylic acid is ideal for comedonal acne and long term skin maintenance against whiteheads and blackheads.”

So, basically, depending on your kind of acne, you need to choose either of these two ingredients to treat your acne.


How can one use these ingredients to treat acne?

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

So, now that we have established what kind of acne these ingredients work on, it’s time to understand how you can use them. You can find benzoyl peroxide in many over-the-counter cleansers and topical acne creams. It is applied to clean the face daily and can even be left overnight.

As for salicylic acid, you can find it in face serums, acne gels and in over-the-counter cleansers. According to Dr. Anand, dermatologists and experts use salicylic acid in higher concentrations as a skin chemical peel treatment for acne-prone skin. You can also use salicylic acid in DIY face packs and facials too, just make sure you use a solution under 5% concentration and use it once a week to keep your skin safe and healthy.


What are the possible side effects of these ingredients

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

We understand that not everything is for everyone, so we asked Dr. Anand about any possible side effects of these two acne-treating ingredients, and she listed out the following.

  • BPO is drying in nature and can irritate sensitive, dry skin. So, you should be a little cautious while using it if you have a sensitive skin type. The absorption of BPO is increased if the skin is wet, therefore, one must always apply it after drying the face.
  • BPO can cause photosensitivity in the skin. So, you must use sunscreen, without fail, in the daytime while on BPO therapy. Even if you are using salicylic acid, make sure you use sunscreen regularly.
  • BPO and salicylic acid, both can cause skin irritation, sun sensitivity and allergic reactions. So, do a patch test or consult a dermatologist if you feel any kind of irritation.
  • Salicylic acid should be avoided in people with aspirin allergy.
  • BPO should not be applied on wet skin as this increases absorption and leads to skin erythema and irritation.


Is it safe to use both of them at the same time?

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

We have spoken about how great these ingredients are individually, but what if you have both blackheads (or whiteheads) and red, pus pimples? Can you actually use both of these acne-treating ingredients together? Well, according to Dr. Anand, you can - it is safe to use them both together, but in moderation or you can over dry your skin.

She explains, “You can use them together as long as both agents are not combined in the same product. Like you can use one of these ingredients as an active ingredient in a cleanser and then turn to the second ingredient in the form of a gel or cream. This is due to the fact that both are drying in nature and can increase the irritability factor of your skin.” So, you can use a BPO cleanser and follow it by applying a salicylic acid serum or vice versa.


FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

FAQs about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

Q. How long should I use benzoyl peroxide for acne?

A. Usually, it takes upto four weeks for the benzoyl peroxide to start its magic and another two to four months for the treatment to actually show results.

Q. Does salicylic acid remove acne scars?

A. Salicylic acid doesn’t remove acne scars, but it does cleanse your pores, exfoliate your skin and even reduce redness which may seem to lighten your acne scars to a certain level over time.

Tashika Tyagi

Written by

A writer who loves to read, travel, eat and explore new places and things. With a bachelor's degree in journalism, she has over two years of experience in writing about food, lifestyle, and travel. She also doubles up as a rom-com expert and home baker when she isn’t writing!


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