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

Salicylic Acid vs. Benzoyl Peroxide: Which One Is Better for Acne?
Published : May 14, 2024
Last Updated : May 14, 2024

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide, both agents, help clear acne and prevent acne breakouts on the skin. Both are effective in treating certain types of acne, but you should not use both together at the same time to treat the same area of the skin. 

Salicylic acid and Benzoyl peroxide, as well as acne-fighting ingredients, are widely available as Over-the-counter medicines. Keep on reading to learn more about these acne-treating agents, and learn how to use them.

What are the benefits of Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide?

Both Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide remove dead skin cells from the skin. These dead skin cells can clog the pores and contribute to acne breakouts. 

Salicylic acid

Salicylic acid helps shed dead cells that can clog pores, and it's best for both blackheads and whiteheads. When you use it regularly, Salicylic acid can help prevent future comedones from forming. It is helpful for rough, bumpy breakouts with minimal redness over the skin areas. 

Benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide works against acne-causing bacteria. It effectively works on red, inflamed acne and whiteheads and removes excess oil and dead skin cells. As per the report of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most effective anti-acne treatments available without a prescription. It can also be used for red, pus-filled pimples(pustules). 

What are the side effects associated with Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide?

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are generally considered safe, but like other medicines, they might have side effects. The side effects of both ingredients vary from each other. However, both are safe to use during pregnancy. However, you should not use salicylic acid if you have an allergy to aspirin.

Both Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide may cause dryness and irritation when you start using them at first. Experiencing allergic reactions during their use is rare, but if it appears, seek medical attention. Here is a list of side effects that these anti-acne agents may include:

Side effects of Salicylic acid

The use of Salicylic acid can dry out excess oils(sebum) from your skin pores. It can remove so much oil that you face effects like dryness of the skin. Other possible side effects that may appear are:

  • Itching

  • Peeling of skin

  • Hives

  • Stinging or tingling

Some severe side effects of Salicylic acid are:

  • Skin irritation

  • Chemical burns(mainly when used with harsh skincare products)

Side effects of Benzoyl peroxide

The use of Benzoyl peroxide is not safe for people with sensitive skin. It can cause more dryness than salicylic acid, so it may cause more severe irritation. Common side effects that appear during the use of Benzoyl peroxide are:

  • Itching

  • Flaking or peeling of the skin

  • Dry skin

  • Tingling

  • Feeling of warmth

  • Slight stinging

Sometimes, more severe side effects may appear, such as:

  • Swelling

  • Blistering skin

  • Redness

  • Rash

  • seborrheic dermatitis

  • Burning sensation

  • eczema

  • psoriasis

Call your healthcare provider if you experience any of the above-listed side severe effects of Salicylic acid. Also, the use of Benzoyl peroxide may stain your hair and clothes, so while applying, be cautious and wash your hands after use.

How to choose the best one for you: Salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide

Depending on several factors, you can choose one that works best for you. Some common ways to consider which one will be best for you are:

Depending on your acne type, Salicylic acid is best for blackheads and whiteheads. Benzoyl peroxide works well for mild pimples and acne caused by bacterial infections. 

The severity of the breakouts: Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are used for mild breakouts. Both anti-acne agents may take several weeks to show full effects. Meanwhile, benzoyl peroxide might show some more benefits in emergency spot treatment. 

Your overall skin health and nature: Salicylic acid is milder and may not be aggravating for sensitive skin as compared to benzoyl peroxide.

Your activity level: If you are more active during the day, sweat can transfer benzoyl peroxide to your clothes and leave stains on them. So, you may choose to use it during the night or use salicylic acid instead of it.

Any underlying medical conditions: Although Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are available over the counter. Both are generally considered safe for everyone. But if you already have any underlying skin condition, then you must double-check with your doctor for your condition. Make sure to inform about your medical conditions before initiating the use of any medical product. 

How Are Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide Different?

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide differ in their approaches to treating acne:

  • Salicylic Acid: Clears out debris and dead skin cells from your pores.

  • Benzoyl Peroxide: Kills acne-causing bacteria.

Both can be effective, but choosing the right one depends on your skin type:

  • Salicylic Acid: Best for blackheads and whiteheads.

  • Benzoyl Peroxide: Best for inflamed pimples and cysts.

So, consider using them depending on your skin's needs before trying these antiacne agents.

How to use Anti-acne medicines like Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide

Remember, do not use Salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide-based products at every step of your skincare routine. Like, if you are using a salicylic acid-based cleaner, then you must avoid using a toner or moisturizer with the same ingredient. Using these ingredients in each step of your skin routine may dry out your skin and might result in the worsening of your acne. 

Also, you must wear sunscreen every day. Although, these anti-acne agents do not cause sun sensitivity like alpha-hydroxy acids and retinoids. However, unprotected sun exposure can be unsafe as it may make your acne worsen. Also, sun exposure may increase the risk of skin cancer and scarring.

Salicylic acid

Topical dosage for Salicylic acid-based creams, washes, astringents, and other OTC products contains a concentration between 0.5 to 5%. It would be best to use salicylic acid, especially during morning or nighttime. 

Benzoyl peroxide

While selecting a Benzoyl peroxide product, you can start with a 2.5% concentration as it will cause less dryness and irritation. Once you start getting minimal results after six weeks of use, you can move to 5% concentration for better effects and fewer side effects. Till then, your skin might adjust to this agent, and before you use it, make sure to gently wash your affected area with a gel-based version and apply Benzoyl peroxide on the skin. Use it twice per day and let the product dry after an application. Then, you may use a moisturizer. 

If you are new to using benzoyl peroxide, then start with use it once a day only. Gradually, you can start using it in the morning and at night. If you use a retinoid or retinol product at night, then apply benzoyl peroxide in the morning. It will help prevent irritation and other side effects that may appear due to combined use. 

Is it safe to use Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time?

The treatment plan can vary when you use salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide at the same time. Even if you use both products in the same area of the skin, even at different times of day, you will face an increased risk of effects like excessive dryness, redness, and peeling.

So, a safe approach is to use these anti-acne agents for different types of acne. For example, it would be best to use salicylic acid for treatment and prevention of breakouts. In contrast, benzoyl peroxide will be best as a spot treatment.

Also, before using antiacne agents like benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, OTC treatments work best for mild acne. But If you’re not getting good results after using them for several weeks, then you must discuss with a dermatologist for a stronger prescription. 


Technically, there is no cure for acne. However, using Salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide can offer relief from mild acne and, help you get clear skin and prevent breakouts. 

However, if you do not see any results after using these anti-acne agents for six weeks, you should discuss them with a dermatologist. They may suggest stronger treatments like retinol or prescription retinoids to treat your acne problem effectively.