How to Know If Your Breakout Needs Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid

Nykia Spradley
How to Know If Your Breakout Needs Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid
Photo: ImaxTree.

No matter which way you slice it, breakouts are straight up annoying. On the treatment front, there are pretty much two main players —salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Depending on the type and cause of your pimple, either of these ingredients are gonna be your best bet for getting rid of it fast. While the goal is to shorten the amount of time spent living with a blemish, it’s equally as important to keep it from leaving any marks behind from not being treated properly. Here’s how to know which fix works best and when to use it.

Determine the Difference

Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are anti-bacterial and anti-fungal ingredients. They also both stimulate exfoliation of dead skin cells, which when placed on a pimple, helps unclog the blocked pores. The difference between the two is that benzoyl peroxide can actually kill the bacteria that causes blemishes, instead of just removing it — but it can also be more drying. Since these essentially both treat acne and breakouts at the pore level, it comes down to personal preference and how well your skin responds to either treatment.

The type of acne doesn’t matter when choosing either of these ingredients, the decision should be based on your specific skin. If it’s on the drier side or more sensitive, it may handle salicylic acid better than benzoyl peroxide — but if you can handle something a little stronger, B.A. may be the better options for treating fast. It’s takes a bit of trial-and- error to figure out which works better for your skin type.

model jawline How to Know If Your Breakout Needs Benzoyl Peroxide or Salicylic Acid


For Best Results, Tag Team

Dermatologist Dr. Harold Lancer says that the most effective solve is to use both ingredients in tandem  — but not at the same time. “We usually start on a low percentage of benzoyl peroxide at night and a low percentage of salicylic acid in the morning,” says Lancer. The reason you might combo these two is to use lower percentages of each, which can give you a better cumulative effect overall. 

Rework Your Lineup

Benzoyl peroxide is usually more irritating and sensitizing that salicylic acid, but Lancer says that both can cause an irritant allergic contact dermatitis. If you are using one or both ingredients, you probably want to use it solo or swap out some of your other products. Mixing either with other highly active ingredients, like say retinol or vitamin C, can cause heightened sensitivity and even some major irritation — even if you don’t typically have sensitive skin.

If you do experience a reaction, stop using the product immediately and give your skin some time to calm down and return to its normal state. If you start back up, you may want to do it under the care of a dermatologist who can better instruct you on which combo work best for your skin type, while still treating your breakouts.

No matter what time of day you use them, you’ll get the same effect, but since benzoyl peroxide has a potential for greater irritation, Lancer recommends using it at night.  “The skin is more oily at night during hours of sleep, so irritation is less likely to be a problem,” he says. Also keep in mind that B.A. has a tendency to cause a bleaching effect on clothing and bedding, so if possible, stick with white sheets when using.

Stay Out of The Sun

Sun exposure is always something to be avoided because it defeats the entire purpose of looking better. It could also heighten the chance of irritation, particularly with using B.A. or S.A. Lancer says to cut back on sun exposure while using these ingredients — or at the very least, wear sunscreen.