Even if you don't have acne-prone skin, we're willing to bet you have a pimple-fighting product or two tucked away in your bathroom cabinet—after all, everyone deals with the occasional breakout. Next time you notice a pimple pop up, take a minute and look at the ingredient list on your go-to spot treatment. If it's an over-the-counter buy, it's likely formulated with either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide.
These two ingredients are among the most common acne treatments available on the market, and for good reason. Both are effective, affordable, and safe for most skin types. With that said, benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid work differently, and each provides unique benefits. As such, it can be challenging to determine which ingredient is best suited for your skin.
We're here to help. Ahead, we'll review everything you should know about benzoyl peroxide vs. salicylic acid. You'll learn how both ingredients work, their benefits and potential side effects, and how to use them to address your skin concerns. We'll also introduce you to a few tried-and-true Kiehl's favorites formulated to help keep blemishes at bay. Keep reading to learn the differences (and similarities) between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid.
What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?
Benzoyl peroxide is a topical ingredient commonly found in over-the-counter acne treatments, including moisturizers and spot treatments. It works primarily by killing Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes, the bacteria responsible for inflammatory acne. When applied to the skin, benzoyl peroxide decomposes, releasing pure oxygen. This pure oxygen is toxic to cells, including those responsible for breakouts.
However, benzoyl peroxide can also be irritating, especially for those with sensitive skin. Though some of its irritating effects, like peeling, can be beneficial in the long run, it can also be uncomfortable and coexist with other effects, like redness. As such, you'll rarely find over-the-counter treatments with more than a 10% concentration of benzoyl peroxide.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a naturally-occurring beta-hydroxy acid derived from willow bark that's been used to help manage skin concerns for more than 2,000 years. It's classified as a desmolytic agent, which means it helps exfoliate the skin. It works by loosening the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, which helps promote smooth, healthy-looking skin.
Unlike other chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid is lipid-soluble, meaning it can dissolve in oil. This makes it particularly useful for managing oily skin concerns, like clogged pores and blackheads. Studies also suggest that topical salicylic acid can help minimize oiliness, which may further help prevent breakouts.I
Because of its notable effects, salicylic acid is often found in products formulated for acne-prone skin, like Blue Herbal Acne Cleanser Treatment. This foaming face wash with salicylic acid and ginger root essential oil deep cleans pores to help reduce blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of acne blemishes. When used consistently, it helps prevent new breakouts from forming. Use it as the first step in your daily routine or as needed to remove excess oil and pore-clogging debris for visibly clearer skin.
Breakout Control Acne Treatment Facial Lotion
Salicylic acid is also a key ingredient in Breakout Control Acne Treatment Facial Lotion. This lightweight, non-comedogenic moisturizer helps diminish active breakouts while preventing new blemishes from forming. With regular use, it also helps improve the appearance of dull- or rough-looking skin.
Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid: What Is The Difference?
Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are both useful for managing breakouts. Determining which to use is largely a matter of personal preference, although other factors, like your skin type and lifestyle, should be taken into consideration as well. With that said, we tend to prefer salicylic acid over benzoyl peroxide because it's gentler and less likely to result in irritation, especially for those with sensitive skin. It can also be used to manage skin concerns unrelated to acne, like dullness and unevenness, and help promote a more radiant appearance.
If acne is your primary skin concern, we recommend reaching for products formulated with at least one percent salicylic acid, like Blue Herbal Spot Treatment. This powerful spot treatment, which contains 1.5% salicylic acid alongside ginger root essential oil and witch hazel, helps target problem areas to reduce the appearance of blackheads, whiteheads, and other types of blemishes. It's dermatologist-tested for safety and can be used in combination with other acne treatments to help promote clearer, more comfortable skin. To use it, smooth a thin layer over problem areas once to three times daily until the breakout clears. If you experience any irritation or discomfort, try applying it once every other day instead.
Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector
To use salicylic acid for skin tone and texture concerns, reach for Clearly Corrective Dark Spot Corrector. This powerful serum with buffered salicylic acid and stabilized vitamin C helps brighten dull, uneven-looking skin on the face, neck, and chest. It's clinically demonstrated to help correct a wide array of dark spots and discolorations, including post-blemish marks and sun spots, and is suitable for all skin types and tones.* Smooth the gentle yet effective formula over your entire face morning and night, or apply it directly to individual areas of concern to help promote clearer, more radiant-looking skin.
*This product was tested on a multi-ethnic panel equally distributed: 25% African American, 25% Asian, 25% Caucasian, 25% Hispanic. Results based on expert grading in a 12-week clinical test on 104 subjects.
Though salicylic acid is typically gentler than benzoyl peroxide, it can still be irritating, particularly for those with reactive skin. To limit any potential discomfort, try adding a calming moisturizer, like Skin Rescuer, to your daily routine. This lightweight face lotion with skin-friendly ceramides and chamomile delivers all-day hydration to comfort stressed skin. With continued use, it helps repair the skin's natural moisture barrier and visibly diminish redness and other signs of irritation for fresher, healthier-looking skin.
Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid Together For Stubborn Breakouts?
While both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are effective on their own, using them together is associated with a greater risk of irritation. As such, pairing these two acne ingredients is only recommended for those with severe, stubborn acne.