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Benzoyl Peroxide vs Salicylic Acid – Which is the Better Acne Fighter?

by Christine GlasgowMay 11, 2017

There are, it seems, as many ways to try to treat acne as there are people who suffer from it! While that’s of course not really the case – millions suffer from one form of acne or another – there are certainly a lot.

Two of the most commonly used ‘tools’ used to treat acne across the world are benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. You’ll see these two medications (because that’s what they really are) listed as the active ingredient in any number of acne treatments. But what are they really, how do they work and which one of them is the better choice for you? Let’s take a closer look..

Acne Medications 101

In general any acne medications, including benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, are used to try to achieve one or more of the following effects:

  • Reduce excess sebum (oil) production from the skin’s oil glands
  • Reduce acne inflammation
  • Reduce the amount of acne bacteria on the skin and within the pores
  • Help prevent scarring by reducing the rate of keratinization

As they both can potentially achieve many of this aims both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are very widely used. The fact that they can be used in general terms rather than prescribed is, of course, also another significant reason for their popularity.

So, What is Salicylic Acid Anyway?

Salicylic acid is a member of a ‘family group’ of acids known as phenolic acids. It is actually a derivative of a natural substance, willow bark and as such is considered a plant hormone. It is also chemically very similar to aspirin, which is also derived from the willow tree.

In its natural form as willow bark salcylic acid has been used for literally thousands of years . The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, the man considered to be the father of modern medicine, wrote that it could be used to treat both basic aches and pains and fevers and also recommended it for reducing the inflammation and potential infection battlefield wounds, of which there wee a great many in his day.

Willow bark is not the only natural source of salicylic acid though. It is actually present in a number of foods. These include tomatoes, radishes, blueberries, dates, almonds, peanuts, olives and mushrooms.

Salicylic acid boasts both anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties, as Hippocrates correctly surmised. Even these days it is used, especially in sports medicine, to treat joint pains and is an ingredient in some topical preparations that treat external skin disease or  internal tissue pain. In fact, even in the 21st century it is still so useful that some refer to it as Vitamin S.

Salicylic Acid Side Effects

Like almost any medication, salicylic acid does have some potential side effects. These include:

  • Diarrhea if taken internally
  • Stomach ulcers if taken internally
  • Mild chemical burns if applied to liberally to the skin
  • Mild itching if applied too liberally to the skin

So, What is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most popular of the organic peroxides. It is actually listed in WHO list of Essential Medicines as it is considered so useful in healthcare. Thanks to its powerful bleaching power it is also often used in hair dyes and in teeth whitening systems.

It isn’t its bleaching powers that make it useful in fighting acne though. Instead it is its oxidising and antiseptic properties that are most effective.

Salicylic Acid and Acne

Salicylic acid is useful in the fight against acne for several major reasons:

  • It is comedolytic, in that it cleanses pores
  • It fights acne bacteria and provides a ‘shield’ against it
  • It is a keratolytic, in that it helps prevent scarring
  • It shrinks pores
  • It helps increase the ‘skin turnover’, promoting the shedding of dead skin cell
  • It decreases inflammation in pimples
  • It decreases redness in pimples

In the drug store salicylic acid is available in number of different forms including treated pads, gels, cremes and lotions. It ca be found in varying strengths to, from 0.5 to 2%.

Salicylic Acid Side Effects on the Skin

Some common side effects of using salicylic acid as a treatment for the skin do include

  • Skin dryness
  • Skin flakiness
  • Burning sensation
  • Stinging sensation

Usually these symptoms are mild though and they decrease as the skin ‘becomes used’ to the medication.

Benzoyl Peroxide and Acne

The primary reasons that benzoyl peroxide can be used as an effective acne fighter include all of the following:

  • It is a peeling agent, something that increases the turnover of the skin cells
  • It removes dead skin cells from pores
  • Its bleaching action can help lighten dark spots and existing acne scars
  • It helps fight acne bacteria within pores and on the skin’s surface

As a commercial skin treatment benzoyl peroxide can be found in creme and gel forms and in three different strengths; 2.5%, 5% and 10%

Benzoyl Peroxide Side Effects on the Skin

The use of benzoyl peroxide to treat acne can result in any of the following

  • Skin dryness
  • Skin peeling
  • Burning
  • Stinging
  • Itchiness

Because actual chemical burns can also occur in very sensitive skin it is advised that the minimum effective dosage strength is used at all times.

Salicylic acid Vs. Benzoyl Peroxide

Both salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are tried and tested, effective acne medications. Which to use usually depends on the user’s preference and their skin type.

Both of the medications really do their best work by peeling off the top few layers of the skin while fighting acne bacteria. The advantage that salcylic acid offers though is that it also is very efficient at preventing clogged pores. It does so by shrinking the pores so that, in effect, all of the gunk is squeezed out.  This does mean that for those with already enlarged pores, the best effects are often seen with salcylic acid.

In the end though both medications are about as effective as each other. There are some products out there that actually combine both an some people often find these to be the most effective of all. However, as these can be very drying they are not suitable for sensitive or skin that is already prone to be dry.

Should You Use Acne Medications at All?

Some people wonder if they should really use a medication to treat their acne at all, especially given that there are more natural alternatives available, which often have fewer side effects – although they are not side effect free – and are generally less expensive.

The answer to this question is not easy. All acne treatment does tend to be rather trial and error in nature. What works well for your best friend may not help you at all. What worked for ‘top models’ as they say in advertisements, may not work for you either. Often it’s a matter of trial and error and a combination of products that eventually helps.

Is it worth trying salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide to treat your acne? Many people think it is, but what do you think? Have you tried these medications yourself? If so, what kind of result did you get? Let us know, as we love to hear about, and learn from, real life experiences.

Christine Glasgow
Canadian girl addicted to beauty and fashion. I'm a Blogger, Entrepreneur and web influencer 👑 I mostly talk about anything related to skin care and beauty. I created this site to share science-based information on skin conditions, treatments and skin care.

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