Which acne treatment is best?

Finding the correct acne treatment for your skin can be a challenge. Here, a skincare expert breaks down the differences between benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and retinol to help you understand which one will work best for you. 

A quick Google search of ‘best products for acne prone skin’ will give you over 20 million results. Informative, yes. But it’s also extremely confusing.

The thing with acne is that everyone’s skin is different – think oily, dry, sensitive and combination – so it’s difficult to say one product will work wonders on every single person. And then there’s determining how old your skin is, too – are you a teenager with youthful hormonal skin, or someone who has more mature skin and suffers from adult acne?

So, to help eliminate the frustration and save you time from researching into every single product on the internet that claims to rid acne instantly, we spoke to Pharmacist and La Roche-Posay Scientific Communications Manager Rachel McAdam to break down the three most popular acne-treatment ingredients – benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid and retinol. Here, she details the differences between the three, their effectiveness, and which one you should be using depending on your skin type.

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Benzoyl peroxide vs salicylic acid vs retinol: Which acne treatment is best?

Benzoyl peroxide

What is it? Benzoyl peroxide (BPO) is a chemical agent used to manage acne, and is available over the counter in varying strengths.

Benefits: It’s a potent free-radical ‘producer’ and can reduce the bacterial levels as well exfoliate skin cells, meaning it can work quickly to reduce pimples.

Downsides: In high concentrations (eg. greater than 5 per cent) it can cause skin dryness and potential irritation. It also has a bleaching effect on fabrics – such as towels and linen that are exposed to it.

Best for: Inflamed breakouts that need a fast-acting management.

Salicylic acid

What is it? Salicylic acid belongs to a class of chemical agents called hydroxy-acids (specifically it is a beta-hydroxy acid). It’s used in dermatological formulations to chemically exfoliate and lift away unwanted skin-cells.

Benefits: It’s beneficial with treating acne because it can target the pores which are often blocked up with unwanted skin cells and oil prior to a breakout. It can also reduce inflammation.

Downsides: It can cause the skin to dry in higher concentrations (greater than 2 per cent), so it’s better to use it in low concentrations and go slower.

Best for: Blackheads and white heads that eventuate into acne.


What is it? Retinol is a vitamin A derivative or retinoid agent.

Benefits: Retinol itself is an effective agent for skin rejuvenation.

Downsides: May not be potent enough to manage acne, but other retinoids like retinoic acid are very effective – though these require a doctor’s prescription.

Best for: Treating fine lines and perhaps mild scars/marks caused by breakouts rather than active acne.

Which one is best for treating acne?

It would be benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and would also depend on the concentrations used. To chip away at the congested pores, I recommend a low dose salicylic acid. For acne that is in need of an anti-bacterial blast, stick to benzoyl peroxide.

Are there other active ingredients good for treating acne?

Someone with mild to moderate acne should use a gentle, effective formulation, as harsh formulations can cause rebound inflammation and dryness. Because acne has four main factors – blockages, oil build up, bacteria and inflammation – we should ideally target each of these in a skin formula. For example, ingredients that can exfoliate combined with ingredients like niacinamide (Vitamin B3), which is shown to reduce both oiliness and inflammation.

Best tried-and-tested skincare products for acne prone skin in 2020

Here are our top acne prone skincare products we swear by…

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Micro-Peeling Purifying Gel, $29.95

The Ordinary Niacinamide 10% + Zinc 1%, $9.90

O Cosmedics B3 Plus, $121

Subi Perfect Pimple Patch, $15

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo (+) Acne Moisturiser 40ml, $31.95

The Beauty Chef Glow Inner Beauty Powder, $65

Caudalie Vinopure Natural Salicylic Acid Pore Minimising Serum, $49

All products featured in this article are selected by our editors, who don’t play favourites. If you buy something, we may get a cut of the sale.