Difference between Salicylic Acid and Benzoyl Peroxide

By: | Updated: Dec-6, 2017

Anyone who’s into taking care of their skin may have come across salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide and these may have formed part of their skin care regimen. But what sets the two apart? This article seeks to demonstrate the differences between the two.

Summary Table

Salicylic AcidBenzoyl Peroxide
Induces exfoliation of dead skin cellsAntibacterial agent that kills bacteria-causing acne and swelling
Used to treat warts, psoriasis, dandruff, ringworm, calluses, acne, etc.Used to reduce the severity of acne lesions that develop into whiteheads, blackheads, etc.
High concentrations can cause burns on skinMay cause stinging, itching, and redness


Salicylic Acid
Salicylic acid can be used to remove warts

Salicylic acid is applied as a medication to remove the skin’s outer layer to get rid of dead skin cells, including those inside the pores. This exfoliant helps treat skin problems such as acne, dandruff, warts, ringworm, ichthyosis, and psoriasis. Salicylic acid is an important ingredient in a lot of skin care products used to treat calluses, mild cases of dermatitis, corns, and acanthosis nigricans. As salicyclic acid is derived from aspirin, it works as an anti-inflammatory that can treat swollen spots and reduce the redness of the affected skin area. In addition, salicylic acid is used as an antiseptic, bactericidal, and as a food preservative.

When applied directly to any part of the body, salicylic acid can penetrate the skin and disolve fats and lipids. High concentrations can cause moderate chemical burns on the skin. Salycylic acid dissolved in alochol, oil, or acetone has also been known to cause damage to the lining of the skin pores. Topical preparations should only have 2% salicylic acid content if it will be left on the face. Medications with 3% salicylic acid are supposed to be washed off. Those used for wart removal (17% and 27%) are not to be applied on the face. The US Food and Drug Administration suggests that sun protectors are essential when using medications containing salicylic acid on skin areas exposed to the heat of the sun.

diagram showing how benzoyl peroxide
A diagram showing how benzoyl peroxide works acne lesions

Benzoyl peroxide is an industrial chemical and medication used in the treatment of mild to moderate acne. For severe cases of acne, benzoyl peroxide is used together with other treatments. Some of the most effective formulations for acne lesion treatment are benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin, and salicylic acid with benzoyl peroxide. It is also effective in reducing cystic bumps. In addition, a number of preparations are available mixed with clindamycin or erythromycin, antibiotics that can help kill and inhibit the growth of bacteria on the skin.

Benzoyl peroxide is alternatively used as a bleaching agent for flour, hair bleach, teeth whitener, and as textile bleach. It is also a common ingredient used in the plastic industry.

Benzoyl peroxide is known to cause side effects such as skin irritation, peeling, and dryness. However, the skin develops a level of tolerance after a week or so of medication. There is a small percentage of people who are more sensitive to benzoyl peroxide and are prone to experience itching, burning, crusting, and chances of swelling. Applying a lower concentration is recommended in cases like these. Once tolerance has built up, the quantity or the concentration can be gradually increased for maximum efficacy.

Salicylic Acid vs Benzoyl Peroxide

So what’s the difference between salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide? While both are effective in acne treatment, these medication have a few differences worth taking note of. Salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) which is an effective ingredient in treating acne and blemishes. It induces skin exfoliation to eliminate dead skin cells in the pores and on the skin’s surface. Benzoyl peroxide, on the other hand, has an antibacterial effect that works inside the pores to eliminate acne and inflammation-causing bacteria. Salicylic acid is derived from aspirin, which gives it anti-inflammatory properties. Benzoyl peroxide is an industrial chemical which is alternatively used as hair bleach, tooth whitener, and bleached flour.

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