Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: Which One Is Better For Treating Acne?

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When hunting for acne-fighting skin-care products, you've probably stumbled upon the ingredients salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide a handful of times. They're two of the better known skin-care ingredients on the market, and it's a guarantee you'll find one listed on the label of any face wash, cream, moisturizer, or treatment that promises to address breakouts.

While salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide both treat acne, they're very different. In an attempt to banish stubborn acne, some people resort to using a combination of the two ingredients, which can lead to more harm than good. Overdrying out the skin can lead to an increase in oil productions and irritation, which can trigger more breakouts. Especially when it comes to skin care, more isn't always better.

If you're curious which is better for you, benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, we tapped two dermatologists to break down the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Illustrations by Becky Jiras

Salicylic Acid For Treating Acne

Salicylic acid helps prevent acne by decongesting pores and gently exfoliating the skin — it's a multifunctional ingredient. "It is a fat-soluble beta hydroxy acid that penetrates pores to break down cellular debris and oil buildup, reducing and preventing blockages," Dennis Gross, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare, told POPSUGAR. Its ability to penetrate deep into pores and dissolve oil buildup is credited to it being oil-soluble.

People who use salicylic acid can also see a boost in radiance because it chemically exfoliates the skin. Ted Lain, MD, board-certified dermatologist and chief medical officer at Sanova Dermatology, added: "Salicylic acid also acts as an anti-inflammatory ingredient, helping to decrease the redness and puffiness of acne blemishes."

Benzoyl Peroxide For Treating Acne

Benzoyl peroxide, on the other hand, attacks acne-causing bacteria to treat and prevent pimples. "Benzoyl peroxide is highly lipophilic, which allows the molecules to penetrate the skin surface and target the hair follicle," said Dr. Lain. While it does help exfoliate the skin and clear pores, that is not its primary activity.

Dr. Gross, who is admittedly not a fan of using benzoyl peroxide for acne, pointed out a couple of negatives about the ingredient. "It doesn't only kill p.acnes bacteria, it also kills good bacteria," he said. "Benzoyl peroxide is a free radical and actually damages skin while it clears acne. That means it injures normal skin cells and creates dryness, redness, and irritation all too often."

Bottom Line, Which Is Better For Treating Acne: Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid?

Bottom Line, Which Is Better For Treating Acne: Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid?

Before we dive into which ingredient is better for treating acne, it's important to note that they both can be irritating to the skin if used improperly. "Because they share many of the same properties and can both be irritating when applied too frequently or at too high of a concentration," said Dr. Lain. Dr. Gross added: "When you strip the skin's moisture barrier, you can actually make breakouts worse." To avoid this, make sure you're not overapplying or using multiple products with these ingredients, and be sure to introduce more calming and hydrating ingredients into your skin-care routine, as well.

To answer the question of which ingredient is better for treating acne, Dr. Lain explained it depends on the type of acne you're experiencing. "I find that salicylic acid is a bit better exfoliating product, therefore I recommend its use for patients with predominantly blackheads and whiteheads," he said. "[Benzoyl peroxide] is the preferred ingredient for those with predominantly pus bumps and pimples."

Conversely, Dr. Gross recommends salicylic acid over benzoyl peroxide to all of his patients, or alternatively, that they seek a different, maybe lesser-known acne-fighting ingredient altogether. "There are so many other great ingredients that work to tackle acne-causing bacteria that don't damage skin."

For salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide product recommendations, keep reading.

Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser: CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser

Benzoyl Peroxide Cleanser: CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser