Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: Can You Use Them Together?

Because the quest to diminish acne is always daunting, this post breaks down all the facts about salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide and how to use them together without bad interactions.
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Whether you’ve been combating acne since your teenage years or only started breaking out as an adult, you most likely come across the two key players in the battle against acne: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Each is great on its own for fighting breakouts, yet using them together can make a positive difference, according to skin experts. Still, applying salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time may increase the chances of dryness and irritation, so learning how to incorporate these two into your routine is key to balanced skin. On we go, salicylic acid vs benzoyl peroxide.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid is an oil-soluble beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that penetrates the skin and dissolves the gunk that congests pores — be it excess sebum, dead cells, or bacteria — helping prevent breakouts. Also, salicylic acid has keratolytic properties, so it exfoliates the dead cell buildup from the skin’s surface, leading to fewer breakouts, and has anti-inflammatory benefits that ease swelling and redness.[1] Salicylic acid can be found in a concentration of up to 2% in over-the-counter products, and it mainly addresses mild acne, like blackheads and whiteheads.

What is benzoyl peroxide?

On the other hand, benzyl peroxide is an organic acid belonging to the peroxide family which carries oxygen into the skin’s pores to destroy acne-causing bacteria and works best for inflamed breakouts like papules and pustules. Benzoyl peroxide is available in both OTC and prescription formulations of 2.5%, 5%, and 10% and can be found in products like creams, gels, cleansers, and solutions.[2] Unlike salicylic acid, which unclogs debris that congests pores, benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic that destroys the environment where acne-causing bacteria thrive.

What are the differences between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide?

Although both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are acne fighters, they address skin problems in different ways. The major difference between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide is that salicylic acid targets the causes that lead to pimples, such as dead cells and excess oil trapped in the pores, while benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria.

Another key difference between the two is that salicylic acid is more effective for treating whiteheads and blackheads, while benzoyl peroxide is a better option for inflammatory acne. Also, salicylic acid is milder and less likely to irritate the skin compared to benzoyl peroxide making the former a better option for those with sensitive skin.

Is one better than the other?

While there’s no clear-cut way to decide which one is better between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, a few studies have compared the two for the treatment of acne.

One clinical trial conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology found that a 2.5% benzoyl peroxide product is twice as effective as 0.5% salicylic acid for non-inflammatory acne, while salicylic acid was considerably less drying and more tolerated than benzoyl peroxide.[3] Aside from that, both were found to have similar effects on inflammatory acne. By the same token, another study showed that a 2% salicylic acid cleanser applied for two weeks had significantly reduced the number of blackheads while 10% benzoyl peroxide had little to no benefits.[4]

So which one should you use?

  • For inflammatory acne (papules and pustules): benzoyl peroxide
  • For non-inflammatory acne (whiteheads and blackheads): salicylic acid
  • For sensitive and dry skin: salicylic acid

Can salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide be used together?

Using salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide together may dry the skin and leave it vulnerable to external damage or increase sebum production leading to more breakouts. As such, the best approach is to identify what type of acne you have and address it accordingly. Salicylic acid is more suitable for mild acne with blackheads and whiteheads, while benzoyl peroxide works better for red, inflamed papules and pustules.

If, however, you want to address your acne with salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, consider using them on alternative days if they are formulated in leave-on products. You can also use a benzoyl peroxide gel or cream after you’ve cleansed with a salicylic acid face wash, as the latter doesn’t have prolonged contact with the skin and it’s unlikely to interfere with benzoyl peroxide. Alternatively, it’s fine to apply a cleanser with benzoyl peroxide and follow with a serum with salicylic acid. In any case, it’s essential to follow up with a lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer after the treatment to help maintain a healthy barrier and avoid dehydration and irritation. These moisturizers after salicylic acid are a great start to counteract possible side effects.

Can I layer benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?

Layering benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid in the same routine may lead to redness, dry skin, or irritation, so avoiding this combination is best. If your routine includes benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid treatment, you want to use them on alternative days to prevent bad interactions. 

Final thoughts

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are, without a doubt, two of the most potent acne-fighting ingredients. While salicylic acid eliminates the triggering factors — including excess oil, dead cell buildup, and debris — that lead to breakouts, benzoyl peroxide kills the acne-causing bacteria. If, however, adding these to your routine doesn’t seem to have any positive effect, you want to consider visiting a dermatologist to prescribe you a treatment according to your specific type of acne and severity.

Read next: 10 Best Acne Treatments for Sensitive Skin


Footnotes

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

References
  1. The National Library of Medicine, Compound Summary, Salicylic Acid
  2. Matin T, Goodman MB. Benzoyl Peroxide. [Updated 2022 Oct 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  3. A double-blind comparison of the efficacy of a salicylic acid based acne treatment regimen versus a benzoyl peroxide based acne treatment regimen for the treatment of acne vulgaris, Jacobson C. Christine, BS, Karina Arambula, Susan Chon, Alexa Kimball, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaad.2003.10.055
  4. Shalita AR. Comparison of a salicylic acid cleanser and a benzoyl peroxide wash in the treatment of acne.
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