How to Choose Between Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid

They’re the two most-talked-about acne fighting ingredients on the market. They are both affordable, readily available, and effective – in fact, they both appear on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines.

You know they’re great, but is one better than the other? And how can you tell which one is right for you?

At first glance, they may seem similar. But there are some key differences which will determine whether you should use benzoyl or salicylic acid to treat your acne. Luckily I’ve got the answers – let’s get to comparing.

Salicylic acid

What is it?

Salicylic acid is a naturally occurring oil-soluble plant extract and acid called a Beta Hydroxy acid (or BHA) that’s related to aspirin.

Mechanism of action

ts oil-solubility makes it able to penetrate through sebum on the surface of the skin and into the pore, and through a comedolytic process loosen and free clogs that may have otherwise turned into larger acne spots. Thanks to its additional anti-inflammatory properties, it reduces the size and swelling of existing acne.


Salicylic acid is cheap and easy to find in hundreds of skin care products.

Not only is salicylic acid gentle and well-tolerated by most skin types, but it can also be used as a remedy for many other conditions such as Keratosis Pilaris and dandruff.

It also exfoliates old skin cells revealing fresher looking skin and reduces the appearance of large pores.


Salicylic acid needs to be made at a specific pH level so as to properly exfoliate and clear out the pores. This means being a little more picky and doing your research about the salicylic acid product you buy.

Benzoyl peroxide

What is it?

Benzoyl peroxide is a manmade medication and cousin of hydrogen peroxide.

How it works

While also cheap and readily available, benzoyl peroxide works in distinctly different ways to salicylic acid. While it can also break down blockages in the pore, its secret weapon is its antibacterial capabilities. Benzoyl peroxide kills the P. Acnes bacteria which feed off our sebum and are the root cause of many kinds of acne. It also reduces oil production, drying out the skin and starving the bacteria. Excess sebum is often the cause of congestion in the first place.


Benzoyl peroxide is often considered the most effective first-line treatment for mild to moderate acne.


While benzoyl peroxide can offer drastic results, it often leads to excess dryness, which can develop into dehydration, irritation, redness and sensitivity, and even burning and stinging with prolonged use. For this reason, many people aren’t able to keep using full strength benzoyl peroxide for long periods of time.

By nature benzoyl peroxide is a potent bleach – if it gets onto fabrics (like your towels and sheet) and even your hair, it will cause significant lightening.

Salicylic acid vs Benzoyl peroxide: My recommendation

Choosing whether salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide is right for you comes down to your unique skin type and the acne that you have. If you still aren’t sure and want a clear cut answer, here’s the bottom line.

Choose salicylic acid to treat blackheads and whiteheads, oily skin, sensitive skin, or textured skin with large pores. It excels at exfoliating loose all the existing acne and keeping oily skin clog-free.

For inflammatory, cystic, and severe acne, go for benzoyl peroxide. It is able to kill the root of the problem – the acne bacteria.

The Skin Careless