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If you’ve ever perused your local drug store for an acne treatment, you’ve probably noticed that most acne products contain salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide. Both salicylic acid (SA) and benzoyl peroxide (BPO) are FDA approved over-the-counter active ingredients for the treatment of acne, but they work in different ways.

Since a few factors come together to form acne, including an increase in sebum production, microcomedone formation (clogged pores), the proliferation of the bacteria, C. acnes, and inflammation, acne treatments typically only address one or a few of these factors. Read one to learn the difference between these two powerhouse ingredients and how to choose the right one for your acne. 

How does salicylic acid work?

Salicylic acid is naturally derived from the bark of willow trees and mainly works as an exfoliant to fight acne. It’s FDA approved for the treatment of acne in topical leave-on and wash-off products between 0.5 and 2%. 

Salicylic acid predominantly works by addressing microcomedone formation. It’s a beta-hydroxy acid that is a keratolytic agent and is lipid-soluble. It can penetrate oil deep down into clogged pores to break apart dead skin cells and exfoliate the skin. Additionally, studies show that, when used consistently, salicylic acid reduces oil secretion. 

Pros of salicylic acid

- Reduces sebum production

- Reduces acne

- Minimal side-effects

- Unclogs pores

- Can minimize acne scars

What type of breakouts does salicylic acid work well on?

Salicylic acid works well for all acne types since it mainly works by unclogging pores, and the formation of clogged pores is one of the initial steps in the creation of acne. It’s especially useful for blackheads and whiteheads, which are clogged pores that have not become infected with bacteria. They appear on the surface of the skin as flesh-colored or dark bumps. 

How does benzoyl peroxide work?

Benzoyl peroxide is the most commonly used over-the-counter active for the treatment of acne. It’s used in both leave-on and wash-off products in concentrations between 2.5 and 10%. Studies, however, suggest there isn’t a significant improvement in the efficacy of BPO with increased concentration.

Benzoyl peroxide is a potent antibacterial agent and mainly fights acne by killing acne-causing bacteria. BPO also unclogs pores and reduces acne-associated inflammation, which makes it an excellent option for treating acne. For many people, though, using BPO comes with harsh side-effects like dryness, itching, redness, and irritation. If you’re starting to use BPO for the first time, it’s essential to ease into the treatment to prevent irritation.

Pros of BPO

- Antibacterial

- Unclogs pores and calms inflammation

- Bacteria do not develop resistance to BPO as they do to conventional antibiotics

What type of breakouts does benzoyl peroxide work well on? 

Due to BPO’s strong antibacterial properties, it works best on inflammatory acne lesions. Inflammatory acne consists of pustules and papules that appear red and swollen on the skin and are sensitive to the touch.

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