Salicylic Acid vs. Benzoyl Peroxide for Acne-Prone Skin
Salicylic acid (SA) and benzoyl peroxide (BPO) are two of the most popular non-prescription active ingredients in acne treatments. They can be found in many of the same types of anti-acne products, such as cleansers, treatment gels, moisturizers, and serums. But although these ingredients share some similarities, they also have a number of key differences. Here, discover some important facts about using salicylic acid vs. benzoyl peroxide.
Two non-prescription active ingredients that your dermatologist may recommend for treating acne are salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. These active ingredients can help visibly clear acne blemishes, lessen the appearance of blackheads, and help prevent new breakouts from forming. However, there’s often some confusion around who should use each ingredient, when, and why. To help set the record straight, we’ve compiled key information about salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide below. We’ll be covering their benefits, how they work, and common misconceptions. Plus, we’ll also introduce you to some CeraVe products that can help keep your breakouts under control.
Facts About Benzoyl Peroxide & Salicylic Acid
- Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are two common active ingredients used to help treat various types of acne.
- These topical active ingredients for acne both have benefits for acne-prone skin, but they differ in the way that they deliver these benefits.
- Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that works primarily as a chemical exfoliant, promoting the elimination of dead skin cells from the skin’s surface.
- Benzoyl peroxide is an acne-fighting ingredient that works by reducing a type of acne-causing bacteria known as P. acnes.
- Both ingredients can be found in a variety of at-home acne treatments, such as acne face washes, spot treatments, and exfoliators.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that occurs naturally in plant species like willow bark. It’s been used for over 2,000 years to help treat a variety of skin concerns.1 Today, salicylic acid is usually created in a lab and added to skincare formulations for acne, as well as enlarged pores, rough and bumpy skin (keratosis pilaris), and skin conditions like psoriasis.
You can find salicylic acid in our Acne Control range. Developed with dermatologists, CeraVe Acne Control products help to clear acne blemishes, reduce the look of blackheads, and help prevent new breakouts from forming.
Why Is Salicylic Acid Beneficial for Acne-Prone Skin?
In skincare, salicylic acid is known as a desmolytic agent—which means that it helps promote the skin’s natural exfoliation process. This chemical exfoliant works by loosening the bonds (or “glue”) that holds your skin cells together. This, in turn, helps eliminate dead skin cell buildup that can clog your pores and result in acne. Using skincare products with salicylic acid can help your complexion appear smoother, fresher, and healthier-looking.
Plus, salicylic acid is also “lipid-soluble.” This means that, unlike other chemical exfoliants, salicylic acid can dissolve in oil. This unique property allows salicylic acid to penetrate your pores—making it an effective option for managing blackheads, excessive oiliness, and clogged pores.1
What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?
Benzoyl peroxide is an organic acid that’s widely-used in acne products, such as spot treatments, cleansing bars, lotions, and gels. This topical treatment has been used for over six decades to treat acne and help prevent new acne blemishes.2 Applying benzoyl peroxide products consistently can reduce acne-causing bacteria (known as P. acnes), and therefore, help minimize the frequency of acne breakouts.
In over-the-counter skincare products, you can find benzoyl peroxide in concentrations ranging from 2.5% to 10%. CeraVe features benzoyl peroxide as the active ingredient in our Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser (4%). You can also find it in our Acne Foaming Cream Wash with maximum OTC strength 10% benzoyl peroxide—the highest concentration of the ingredient available without a prescription.
How Does Benzoyl Peroxide Work for Acne-Prone Skin?
Because of its ability to combat P. acnes bacteria, benzoyl peroxide has long been considered an effective option for treating acne. Essentially, when you apply benzoyl peroxide to your skin, it decomposes and releases oxygen. The pure oxygen that’s released is lethal to certain cells, including the acne-causing bacteria P. acnes.
It’s important to note, however, that benzoyl peroxide may cause skin irritation in some people—such as those with sensitive skin. The chances for side effects may increase with higher concentrations or when too much product is applied. Possible signs of irritation to look out for include skin redness, itching, or increased sensitivity.
To help avoid possible skin irritation, always read the product label closely and apply per the instructions (or as directed by a dermatologist). We also recommend keeping your skin hydrated and using barrier-restoring products that help keep the skin comfortable during treatment. For the best guidance, seek the help of a board-certified dermatologist. They can assess your skin and provide recommendations on how to best utilize benzoyl peroxide for your skin’s unique needs.
What Are the Differences Between Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid?
Both of these skincare ingredients can be useful options for managing acne breakouts, but they differ in the way they function. As mentioned above, salicylic acid works mainly by promoting your skin’s exfoliation process. This helps keep your pores free of excess oil and dead skin cells that can contribute to breakouts.
On the other hand, benzoyl peroxide works primarily by combating acne-causing bacteria. Both of these ingredients are effective for treating acne. If you’re not sure which one is right for you, consult a board-certified dermatologist. They can help you pinpoint the right anti-acne ingredients based on your skin type, age, environment, gender, and other individual factors.
Can Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid Be Used Together?
In general, these two acne actives are best used on their own. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid aren’t included in the same formulas and using them together may increase the risk for skin irritation. In some cases, your dermatologist may recommend combining them in a strategic way for acne that is particularly stubborn or severe.
Which CeraVe Products Feature Salicylic Acid?
Whether you struggle with stubborn breakouts or the occasional pimple, CeraVe’s salicylic acid formulas can help. Here are two CeraVe skincare products with salicylic acid that are designed to help keep acne-prone skin looking and feeling its best.
Acne Control Cleanser
CeraVe is the #1 dermatologist-recommended cleanser brand for acne.* And when it comes to our salicylic acid cleansers for acne, we recommend CeraVe Acne Control Cleanser. This gel-to-foam acne face wash is formulated with 2% salicylic acid, along with other beneficial ingredients like niacinamide, hectorite clay, and our three essential ceramides. It also helps prevent skin barrier disruption while cleansing.
Acne Control Gel
CeraVe Acne Control Gel is a hydrating acne treatment with 2% salicylic acid. It’s applied onto clean, dry skin after cleansing to clear acne and help prevent new acne breakouts. Additionally, it can also help minimize the look of pores and improve skin texture. This mild formula is non-drying and can help your skin appear smoother and more radiant—without compromising your skin’s protective barrier.
Which CeraVe Products Feature Benzoyl Peroxide?
CeraVe offers two benzoyl peroxide cleanser formulas in both 4% and 10% concentrations. This way, you can choose the ideal strength for your acne-prone skin. Here are the details on each of these options.
Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser With 4% Benzoyl Peroxide
CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser is a foaming acne face wash that features 4% benzoyl peroxide. This cleanser has a gentle, cream-based formula that helps reduce acne and allows the skin to heal while minimizing side effects like flaking or dryness. It also includes additional ingredients such as hyaluronic acid, niacinamide, and ceramides.
Acne Foaming Cream Wash With 10% Benzoyl Peroxide
This 10% benzoyl peroxide formula is the first of its kind for CeraVe. Our Acne Foaming Cream Wash is clinically-tested to clear, treat, and help prevent new acne pimples and blackheads on the face and body. Because it contains the maximum OTC strength 10% benzoyl peroxide available without a prescription, it may be beneficial for acne that’s particularly stubborn. When in doubt, your dermatologist can help you decide on the right benzoyl peroxide cleanser for you.
When To See a Dermatologist
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), acne can usually be managed at home using over-the-counter products (including formulas with salicylic acid and formulas with benzoyl peroxide).3 However, some types of acne may require the help of a board-certified dermatologist.
Schedule a visit with a dermatologist if your acne is painful, interferes with your daily activities, or doesn’t improve on its own with a consistent skincare routine after four to six weeks. Your dermatologist will be able to help assess the root cause of your acne, answer any questions you have, and recommend the best daily regimen for your skin’s needs.
For help choosing the right products for your specific skin type and skin concerns, use our Find My Skincare Solution tool.
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Arif T. “Salicylic acid as a peeling agent: a comprehensive review.” Clin Cosmet Investig Dermatol. 2015 Aug 26;8:455-61. doi: 10.2147/CCID.S84765. PMID: 26347269; PMCID: PMC4554394.
Decker A, Graber EM. “Over-the-counter Acne Treatments: A Review.” J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2012 May;5(5):32-40. PMID: 22808307; PMCID: PMC3366450.
“Acne: Diagnosis and Treatment.” American Academy of Dermatology Association, 2022.
*Source: IQVIA, ProVoice Survey, rolling 12 months ending March 31, 2023
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