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Difference Between Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide

Here's the Difference Between Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide

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Maybe you've suddenly got a case of adult acne or you've been experiencing one too many breakouts than you're comfortable with. Either way, you're ready to fight it, and you start researching acne products. Two common ingredients come up in your searches: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide.

So is this one of those po-tay-toh, pa-tah-toh situations? Not exactly. While both help treat acne, they're not interchangeable, and before you start smothering acne washes and serums on your face, it's good to know which does what.

"I reserve each to use on specific kinds of acne," said Dr. Nava Greenfield of Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York. There are two types of acne you may be dealing with.


One: inflammatory acne that's triggered by bacterial overgrowth. This isn't your typical set of blackheads and whiteheads. It becomes red and inflamed because bacteria have grown inside.

On the other hand, there's comedonal acne, which Greenfield describes as smaller whiteheads and blackheads. Much less redness, much less inflammation.

So, which ingredient is best for which acne?

Benzoyl peroxide

"Generally, inflammatory acne will respond well to benzoyl peroxide," Greenfield said. However, she does caution that over-the-counter products containing benzoyl peroxide are more prone to drying out your skin. Talk to a dermatologist about what they recommend, and proceed with caution when you're hitting up the drugstore.

As a general rule, Dr. Susan Bard of Manhattan Dermatology Specialists recommends two and a half to five percent for the face and five to 10 percent for the body.

Many derms may also recommend using a retinoid with benzoyl peroxide products.

"Retinoids are comedolytics, meaning they break down and clean out clogged pores," Bard explained. Meanwhile, the benzoyl peroxide goes to work to kill the bacteria contributing to acne and inflammation. "Mixing the two agents together allows someone to address the main culprits of acne formation — clogged pores and acne bacteria — in one step."

But don't get frustrated if you don't see results right away. It can take a few weeks to show improvement because the retinoid works retroactively, if you will.

"Acne may appear worse in the first few weeks of treatment as the retinoid starts to work on pulling out existing pimples that may be hiding just under the skin," said board-certified dermatologist and RealSelf contributor Dr. Joel Schlessinger. As for the benzoyl peroxide part of this combination, make sure to use it daily once you find a product that works for you. "If you stop, your acne will come back," Schlessinger said.

Salicylic acid

So what's the big whoop about salicylic acid? Essentially, it acts as a mild exfoliant, and retinoids will also pair well with salicylic acid products. "[Salicylic acid is] great for very mild acne," Bard said, recommending up to a two percent strength. She cautioned that anything less may not be effective, but of course, talk to your dermatologist to see what's best for your skin. Dr. Schlessinger added that the more oily your complexion, the higher of a percentage you might need, and some peels actually come in five percent.

But remember, it is an acid. Using anything too strong or using it improperly can lead to burns. In other words, this isn't the time to leave your dermatologist out of the loop.

Formula matters, too. As Bard explained, creams and serums stay on the skin longer, giving these products a longer chance to work. However, washes may be better for hard-to-reach areas, and Dr. Schlessinger added that cleansing with a daily wash can help prevent acne from forming in the first place by providing a deeper clean than a normal cleanser or body wash. It helps keep pores clear, which is a major bonus for acne-prone skin.

To sum it up, both ingredients will help fight acne, but they shouldn't be used together, and each is meant for specific types of breakouts. Shop wisely and talk to your derm!

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