Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are chemicals used to treat pimples and acne. Even though they are both used on the skin and share some common features, they do not work the same way. In fact, there are some important differences between them that should be taken into consideration before deciding which product to use.

Salicylic Acid

If the name sounds familiar it is because salicylic acid is also the active ingredient in aspirin. The products used on the skin are chemically similar to aspirin but they're not identical. Salicylic acid works as a keratolytic, which means that it causes the cells in the outer layer of the skin to shed more rapidly. This allows new skin growth to come through and prevents pores from clogging.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide has three active properties. It works as an antiseptic, an anti-inflammatory medication and it is an oxidizing agent. In addition to increasing the regrowth of skin, it also reduces the amount of bacteria on the skin surface. Being an oxidizing agent means that it can also be used to bleach, or remove color, from things it comes in contact with.


Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide are both used on the surface of the skin to treat acne and pimples. They also share the same common side effects, sometimes causing dry skin and irritation. Both products need to be used for several weeks before you will begin to see improvement. Also, when using either salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide it's important to not use additional products on your skin that may be irritating. This depends on your skin's sensitivity but be careful with shampoo, soap, cosmetics and products containing alcohol. The final similarities are that they both come in a variety of forms (liquid, gel, lotion, or cream) and treatment should begin with the smallest amount possible.


Each product has unique uses beyond being an acne treatment. Benzoyl peroxide is also used for dying hair and whitening teeth. Salicylic acid is frequently used to treat dandruff, psoriasis, calluses and warts. Beyond the commonly shared side effects, they have different but potentially serious side effects. If you're using benzoyl peroxide watch for burning, blistering, itchiness, redness, a rash or swelling. Salicylic acid's distinct side effects are confusion, dizziness, tiredness, headaches, rapid breathing, hearing loss, nausea and diarrhea. Be sure to call your doctor if you experience any of these side effects.


If you're using benzoyl peroxide be extra careful about exposure to the sun because it will add to potential skin irritation. Be sure to keep your benzoyl peroxide product away from your hair or clothing so that they are not bleached. You may also want to use designated towels and wash cloths. Salicylic acid should never be applied to cuts or skin that is swollen or already irritated. It is toxic in high doses so if it's swallowed it is possible to overdose on salicylic acid. Children and teens who have the chicken pox or flu should not use topical salicylic acid without talking to a physician first because it increases the risk of developing a condition called Reye's syndrome, which affects organs in the body and can be deadly.