They’re two ingredients that are often recommended for acne-prone skin, but is it ok to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together?
Here’s everything you need to know…
Benzoyl peroxide is an acne medication that can be found over-the-counter or by prescription. When you apply it to your skin, it breaks down into benzoyl radicals and benzoic acid.
Benzoyl radicals are a type of free radical that create oxygen in your skin. The bacteria that cause acne (c.acne) prefer an oxygen free environment (which is why they only really become an issue when your pores are clogged).
No oxygen = Increased c.acnes growth
By releasing free oxygen radicals in this way, benzoyl peroxide is able to kill the acne-causing bacteria in your skin.
Benzoic acid is thought to work in a similar way to salicylic acid and helps to exfoliate and unclog your pores.
Benzoyl peroxide may also target the inflammatory immune cells in your skin which prevents them from releasing the inflammatory molecules that can make acne look red and angry and sometimes feel painful.
Overall, benzoyl peroxide is:
- Oil controlling
However, it’s generally considered to be less effective at treating acne than retinoids and salicylic acid unless it’s combined with other ingredients.
Because it produces free radicals, benzoyl peroxide has been shown to deplete your skin levels of vitamin E, so using it alongside an antioxidant serum or moisturizer is recommended.
(Note that there is no evidence to suggest that the free radicals produced by benzoyl peroxide contribute to skin aging – there is also no evidence that they don’t but the anti-inflammatory effect of benzoyl peroxide may have anti-aging benefits)
Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that’s often used to treat acne.
Chemical exfoliants increase the rate that your skin naturally exfoliates itself by breaking down the bonds that hold your dead skin cells together which makes it easier for them to be shed from the surface of your skin.
There are three main types of chemical exfoliant; alpha-hydroxy acids (AHAs), beta-hydroxy acids (BHAs), and polyhydroxy acids (PHAs).
Salicylic acid is the most well-known BHA and is derived from willow bark. It’s oil-soluble which means that it can easily get into your oil glands and help control the amount of oil your skin produces.
The main benefit of using salicylic acid for acne over other chemical exfoliants is its ability to penetrate and exfoliate your pores due to its oil-solubility. This means it’s also able to get into your oil glands and control the production of oil.
Other ways that salicylic acid benefit your skin are by:
- Reducing inflammation and soothing skin.
- Offering some protection from UV radiation.
- Preventing the growth of bacteria (due to its acidic pH).
- Increases collagen production to improve fine lines and wrinkles.
As it is very effective at reducing oil production, it can be quite drying and may not be suitable for dry skin.
Benzoyl Peroxide vs Salicylic Acid
Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid have similar benefits when it comes to treating acne and may even enhance each other’s effects.
They’re both anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and have a mild exfoliating effect. However, salicylic acid is able to treat a wider variety of skin conditions than benzoyl peroxide, including hyperpigmentation and fine lines and wrinkles.
One small clinical study found that a salicylic face wash improved acne better than a benzoyl peroxide face wash. Patients used one of the washes for two-weeks before switching to the other wash. The patients who started off with the benzoyl peroxide wash continued to experience improvement when switching to the salicylic cleanser, however, the second group only experienced improvements with the salicylic wash and their acne worsened when they switched to the benzoyl peroxide wash.
Other research has found that benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid were equally as effective at improving acne. However, in this study, benzoyl peroxide was used in combination with adapalene. Another study found that benzoyl peroxide, alone, also performed similarly well to salicylic acid.
The choice between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid may also be dependent on the type of acne you’re trying to treat. For example, research suggests that benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid were equally as effective at treating inflammatory acne but benzoyl peroxide was more effective at treating non-inflammatory acne.
However, benzoyl peroxide caused more skin dryness than salicylic acid which suggests that salicylic acid may be a better choice if you have dry skin or are prone to dryness.
Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid Together?
If you can’t decide between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, the good news is that you don’t necessarily have to!
In fact, it may be more effective to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together!
One study compared a salicylic acid product, a benzoyl peroxide product, and their combination to see which treatment was the most effective at treating acne.
While all of the treatments helped clear acne, the combination of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together provided the quickest results and the best overall improvement.
Other research has also found that the combination of benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together cleared acne faster than benzoyl peroxide as well as the combination of benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin. However, by the end of the study, the benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin combination was equally as effective as using benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together.
How To Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid Together
Benzoyl peroxide can be used once or twice a day and is available in a range of products like creams, gels, serums, and facial washes.
It’s usually advised to use salicylic acid a maximum of 1-3 times per week, although this does depend on the product you’re using. For example, one of the research studies mentioned in the previous section used a cream formulation twice a day. This cream also contained other ingredients, like niacinamide, that may have made the cream more tolerable.
It’s always best to play it safe by using exfoliants less frequently, especially if you have sensitive skin.
If you’re using benzoyl peroxide in a leave-on product, like a gel or a cream, be aware that it can bleach clothing, pillow cases, and towels. To prevent this, allow it to dry completely before getting dressed or getting into bed at night.
When introducing new skincare ingredients into your routine, it’s best to introduce one ingredient at a time so that if you have a reaction it’s easier to identify which ingredient was the culprit.
Benzoyl peroxide can increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun which increases your risk of sunburn and premature skin aging. Salicylic acid has a protective effect on your skin but it’s still important to wear sunscreen everyday.
Some skincare products or prescription products already contain this combination of ingredients for you which is the easiest way to use benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together. However, you can use them in separate products too.
If using the ingredients in separate products, it’s usually best to apply your products in order of thinnest to thickest, for example, applying a serum before a moisturizer. This is because products with a thinner consistency usually penetrate your skin quicker than those with thicker consistencies.
It’s important to only introduce one new active ingredient into your skincare routine at a time. This will help identify if your skin reacts negatively to one of the ingredients as well as help prevent skin barrier damage.
Be aware that, although research suggests that using benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together is effective at treating acne, it also has the potential to cause skin irritation.
To lower your risk of irritation when using benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together:
- Avoid using other active ingredients until you are sure your skin can handle it
- Stick with a gentle cleanser (your skin should not feel tight and dry after cleansing)
- Use plenty of moisturizer
Summary – Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid Together?
Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are useful skincare ingredients for treating acne. If you’re looking to treat multiple skin conditions or if your skin is prone to dryness, then salicylic acid is probably your best bet. However, benzoyl peroxide may be the better option if you’re trying to treat non-inflammatory acne.
If your skin can tolerate it, you may get even better results using benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid together but you should only introduce one ingredient at a time and keep the rest of your skin routine simple in order to reduce the risk of irritation.
There may be better skincare ingredient combinations available for treating acne as well, especially: