The skin care market is flooded with products to clear acne, all teeming with long lists of ingredients. Two specific ingredients, however, stand above the rest: benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid. Both of these can work wonders on your skin. Board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe takes the guesswork away by explaining the perks of each key ingredient, what adverse side effects they may cause, and which products she most recommends containing each one.
Salicylic Acid vs. Benzoyl Peroxide: The Main Difference
Each of these two wonder ingredients have a key super power: Salicylic acid removes dead skin cells that are clogging pores. Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria. Since each ingredient is attacking a different acne-causing source, one option is to cover all your bases by using both ingredients in conjunction. For example, you can use a product with salicylic acid one night and a product with benzoyl peroxide the next night. It's perfectly safe to use both over-the-counter ingredients to rid your skin of both dead skin cells and bacteria. You can also talk to your dermatologist and find out what they recommend for your skin. For example, if you suffer from hormonal acne, salicylic acid tends to be effective, while benzoyl peroxide might be all you need if you have garden-variety whiteheads.
Read on to learn more about each ingredient and figure out which is right for your unique skin when it comes to benzoyl peroxide vs. salicylic acid.
What is Benzoyl Peroxide?
Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is non-prescription drug that works to destroy acne-causing bacteria in your pores. BPO works primarily as an exfoliating agent by increasing the turnover of the skin and removes the mixture of sebum and dead skin cells from the pores. It comes in 2.5%, 5%, and 10% concentrations that are to be used for those suffering from moderate to severe acne.
"Benzoyl peroxide is a powerful ingredient that is effective against all kinds of acne lesions (blackheads, whiteheads, and big red pimples). It is bactericidal, meaning it kills bacteria, rather than simply slowing down their growth. It also works very quickly, improving acne as early as five days after starting treatment. It's a great first line treatment for acne, but it's also helpful to use in combination with antibiotics. In fact, benzoyl peroxide has the ability to prevent antibiotic resistance!"
"One thing to watch out for with benzoyl peroxide is that it can bleach dark fabrics. Be sure to apply the benzoyl peroxide after you pull that navy sweater over your face! It can also cause drying, peeling, and redness if it's not delivered in the right amount, surrounded by the right mix of ingredients," says Dr. Bowe.
Benzoyl Peroxide Pros
- It kills bacteria.
- Benzoyl peroxide works quickly (as soon as five days!).
- As an added bonus, benzoyl peroxide prevents antibiotic resistance.
Benzoyl Peroxide Cons
- It can cause dryness, peeling and redness.
- It can bleach fabric.
- In some cases, benzoyl peroxide can cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation (a.k.a. dark spots).
Recommended Benzoyl Peroxide Products
Salicylic acid comes in a variety of forms, including creams, lotions, washes, and gels. "My patients swear by Clean and Clean Continuous Control Acne Cleanser. It delivers the benzoyl peroxide deep into the pores where the ingredient is most needed, bypassing the sensitive parts of the skin that are prone to dryness and irritation. For spot treatment, there's nothing better than Persa-Gel 10. As soon as you start to feel a pimple come up, dab a drop right on the lesion and don't pick! As tempting as it is to try to squeeze or pick at the pimple, never touch it and your skin will thank you later. The gel will either prevent the pimple from coming up altogether, or the pimple that comes up will be half the size it would have been otherwise," says Dr. Bowe.
What Is Salicylic Acid?
Salicylic acid is a type of beta-hydroxy acid (BHA) that can help treat acne by exfoliating the skin and helping to dislodge dead skin cells that can clog pores. It's available over the counter in 0.5%-2% concentrations.
"The cells in the lining of the hair follicles of people with acne tend to multiply quickly, and stick to one another. Salicylic acid works by dissolving this cement that holds those sticky cells together in the clogged pores," explains Dr. Bowe.
Not only does salicylic acid fight against acne, it soothes the skin. "Most effective acne treatments can make skin a bit red and inflamed while the skin adjusts to them. This ingredient is unique because it's very effective at fighting acne, but it has a soothing, calming effect on skin. The anti-inflammatory properties of this ingredient are not surprising, given its close chemical relationship to one of the most well-known anti-inflammatory drugs available, acetylsalicylic acid (also known as aspirin!),"explains Dr. Bowe.
"Problems can arise when high concentrations of salicylic acid are applied to a large area of skin for a long period of time. When this occurs, something called salicylate toxicity can occur. That being said, the concentrations of salicylic acid found in over-the-counter products designed to treat blemishes (and the dark marks they leave behind) are too low to cause trouble. Some over-the-counter wart treatments, on the other hand, have much higher concentrations of salicylic acid, so you wouldn't want to spread those all over your body! Levels of salicylic acid found in products designed to clear your complexion are usually very well tolerated. They almost never cause irritation or peeling when used once or twice a day."
Salicylic Acid Pros
- Salicylic acid exfoliates skin and removes dead skin cells.
- Derived from willow bark, it soothes skin and calms inflammation.
- It reduces pore size.
Salicylic Acid Cons
- It may take awhile (up to four weeks!) to see results.
- Too much salicylic acid can cause side effects (however, over-the-counter products don't have enough concentration of salicylic acid to harm you, so you're good).
Recommended Products Salicylic Acid Products
"My favorite salicylic acid products on the market are the Aveeno Clear Complexion Foaming Cleanser ($10.99) and the Aveeno Clear Complexion Daily Cleansing Pads ($6.37). The acid fights existing blemishes and prevents future breakouts, while the soy extracts naturally brighten the skin."
No matter what product you choose, it's important to look for products that also contain antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and hydrators to help protect the skin's barrier function and improve the overall health of your skin.
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Watch: Three Girls Get Real About Living with Acne
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue