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Skincare Woes: Salicylic Acid Vs. Benzoyl Peroxide

Teenage acne? Read on to learn how to properly treat it, with the help of science.

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Image from Adobe Stock

For most teenagers, acne is the end of the world and rightfully so. We live our entire lives with smooth, soft skin with even tone and take it for granted. Before we know it, we lose all of that when we get our first pimple. From that point, there is no return and the wrath of puberty begins.

For many of us teenagers, the first pimple also means our first trip to the drugstore face wash section. Since we don’t really know what to use and are unaware of all the different companies that are available to our disposal, we simply just grab the cheapest option: salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. It can be hard to figure out which one is the better choice, but it is for sure  that these medicated face washes are our first step into becoming a full-fledged teenager.

Before understanding how to treat acne, one must first understand what acne is. Acne is the clogging of hair follicles (pores) by greasy secretions from the sebaceous glands (oil glands) (3). These clogs usually form into blackhead and whitehead. In the most severe cases, these common acne types can progress to cystic acne which is inflammation under the skin that is swollen, tender, and sometimes infected. Around 80% of acne cases occurs during puberty, when children develop oily skin and other foreign objects that can clog up pores. The other 20% occur during adulthood. Acne usually lasts anywhere from five to ten years.

Image from Spectrum Dermatology

Salicylic acid works by packing a two part punch to pimple on the skin. It is due to salicylic acid’s unique structure that allows it to be so good at pimple busting; the structure of salicylic acid allows it to be more oil soluble, thus allowing it to penetrate the pores in your skin (1). Once salicylic acid penetrates the skin, it also acts a super exfoliant. Since salicylic acid is also a keratolytic medication, it helps remove the top layers of skin and breaks desmosomes, connections between skin cells in the layers of the skin (4) . This allows for a deep exfoliation and removal of oil, dead skin, and other foreign bodies that may clog pores on the skin’s surface. Although salicylic acid can work magic for blackheads and whiteheads, it is somewhat ineffective against cystic acne.

On the other hand, benzoyl peroxide is perfect for fighting off cystic acne. This over-the-counter medicated face wash works to remove acne-causing bacteria from the skin (2). This is especially beneficial against whiteheads and cystic acne, where there is a tendency for pus to build up under the skin. Even though it sounds great, benzoyl peroxide is also known for causing redness, irritation, and dry skin in users.

It’s truly impossible to definitively say which one is the better pick for you. Both medication treat acne in different ways and have different effects on everyone. For some individuals, they may have a sensitivity to salicylic acid and not to benzoyl peroxide. Some people might be sensitive to both. Both medications come in a wide rage of application methods, whether they be face washes, toners, ointments, lotions, etc. and require some trial and error as well to find the best one for your skin. Whichever one you end up choosing, remember that the best way to manage your acne is to consistently wash your face and avoid touching your skin too much. This will assure you that you keep the amount of dirt, bacteria, and other pathogens away from your pores. Also remember that everyone gets acne at one point and that it’s a waiting game that requires patience. Most people will grow out of it, but it’s up to you to take care of your skin and there is no shame in visiting a dermatologist at one point just to check your skin professionally.


[1] Jacques, Renee. “Here’s Exactly What Salicylic Acid Does to Your Skin.” Allure, Allure Magazine, 23 Oct. 2017, www.allure.com/story/what-does-salicylic-acid-do.

[2] Racho, Janeca. “Benzoyl Peroxide: What It Is and How to Use It for Your Acne Woes.” Dermstore Blog, 14 Aug. 2017, www.dermstore.com/blog/top_ten/what-is-benzoyl-peroxide/.

[3] “Understanding Acne Basics.” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/acne/understanding-acne-basics.

[4] Xavier, Krista. “What Is Keratolytic Therapy and What Are Keratolyics?” The Pretty Pimple, 2 Apr. 2018, theprettypimple.com/what-is-keratolytic-therapy/.

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