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

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Today’s skincare market is flooded with different products, all promising to offer amazing benefits to your skin. However, if your aim is to find a product that lives up to expectations and provides lasting solutions to your skin problems, you must be on the lookout for products that contain the right mix of ingredients to address your specific needs. 

There are two key players in the battle against acne that you must be aware of if you hope to win the fight: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. Simply put, these two ingredients are acne’s biggest enemies; they have been proven by top derms and beauticians to be powerhouses that work wonders on acne-ridden skins. This article will take your guesswork away by explaining the perks of these two hero ingredients, their benefits and side effects, and how safe it is to use both ingredients together.

What is salicylic acid?

Salicylic acid, an ingredient extracted from willow tree bark, is a beta hydroxy acid that works primarily as an exfoliating agent that’s effective for treating acne, white/blackheads, and preventing breakouts. Board-certified dermatologist Ellen Marmur, MD of Marmur Medical, explains that salicylic acid is an oil-soluble ingredient that penetrates deep into the skin pores to remove blockages and dissolve the substance that causes skin cells to stick together. This process can prevent the formation of pimples. Salicylic acid is even more suitable for those with oily skin types as it penetrates the skin more deeply than its AHA counterparts.


Studies have shown that salicylic acid peels reduce mild acne (whiteheads and blackheads). In a study that compared the effectiveness of salicylic acid and a placebo in treating acne, it was discovered that there were more noticeable reductions in acne in those who used 0.5% salicylic acid twice a day compared to those who used a placebo.

Salicylic acid peels are also effective for treating acne scars, age spots, and melasma. It soothes the skin and calms inflammations, and also reduces pore size. Although this ingredient is very effective, it may take a while to start seeing results, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t notice any immediate improvements after use. 

Experts also recommend starting with products with lower concentrations (0.5%) of salicylic acid and observing how your skin reacts to reduce the risk of side effects. I know it might be tempting to apply a generous amount of the product on your face to speed up the results, but unless you want a burnt face, it’s best to adhere to what experts say.

What is benzoyl peroxide?

When it comes to fighting acne, few ingredients are as effective as this all-time powerhouse. Benzoyl peroxide is a powerful over-the-counter drug that works to destroy harmful bacteria in your pores which causes acne and breakouts. It does this by unclogging dead skin cells in the pores and accelerating skin cell turnover. The American Academy of Pediatrics says benzoyl peroxide is the most effective OTC acne-fighting ingredient available. One of the reasons why derms are so much in love with this ingredient is that it doesn’t just slow down bacteria; it kills it! And it also helps to get rid of excess oil in the skin. If you have been battling with inflammatory acne, benzoyl peroxide might be all you need to send those unwanted tenants packing!

What are the differences between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide?

Well, salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide address skin problems in different ways. The major difference is that while salicylic acid targets dead skin cells, which clogs the skin pores and causes bacteria, benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria directly. 

Should I use salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide?

Choosing which one to use will largely depend on your skincare needs. 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. Thus, salicylic acid is more suitable for those with sensitive skin.


Can salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide be used together?

It is perfectly safe to include both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide in your skincare routine; the most important thing is to know how and when to apply each of them. Since both ingredients are exfoliating agents, it’s not advisable to layer benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid at the same time, as this could result in excessive irritation for your skin. You should avoid using both ingredients on the same part of your skin at the same time. 

Can I layer benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?

No. What you can do is use products that contain salicylic acid one night and products with benzoyl peroxide the next night. You could also choose to apply benzoyl peroxide only at night since it has the potential of staining your hair and clothes if used during the day. Remember to always follow with sunscreen and moisturizer as both ingredients increase sun sensitivity.

What about side effects?

Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are generally considered safe, but in some cases, you may notice the following side effects when using salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.

Salicylic acid side effects

  1. Dryness: salicylic acid dries out excess sebum in the pores. In some cases, your face could become unusually dry when too much oil is removed from your skin. This is why you need a hydrating moisturizer while using salicylic acid products.
  2. Peeling Skin: salicylic acid works as an exfoliating agent, peeling the skin to remove dead skin cells which clog your pores. When used in a high concentration, salicylic acid could peel your skin deeper than intended; this is why you must be careful when you apply it, how often, and what products you follow up with. 
  3. Stinging or Tingling: it’s possible to notice a stinging sensation when using salicylic acid. If this happens, it’s advisable to discontinue the product and speak with your doctor for professional advice.

Benzoyl peroxide side effects

  1. Irritations: benzoyl peroxide may not be safe for sensitive skin as it can cause skin dryness and irritations.
  2. Increased sun sensitivity: benzoyl peroxide exposes your skin to the damaging effects of UV rays. This makes sunscreens a necessity when using this ingredient. It can also stain your hair and bleach your clothes, so apply with caution. If you have eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, or psoriasis, speak with your doctor before using BPO.

Final Thoughts

Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are two of the most potent acne-fighting ingredients available today. While salicylic acid exfoliates dead skin cells, which causes bacteria, benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria. Although both ingredients are effective and generally considered safe for most skin types, some side effects like dryness and irritations might be noticed in some cases. If the side effects become severe, please discontinue use and speak with your doctor.

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