What Is Benzoyl Peroxide? The Full 101 On This Acne-Fighting Ingredient

Here's what you need to know before using benzoyl peroxide to treat your acne.
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When it comes to addressing acne, a few options are as effective as benzoyl peroxide. Along with salicylic acidtea tree oil, and retinol, this guy has a big reputation in skincare due to its unmatched ability to fight off acne-causing bacteria, heal pimples and prevent breakouts, which is why most derms recommend it. But as good as it may be, benzyl peroxide has a track record of inducing irritation so it’s deadly important to know all the how-tos before adding it to your skincare routine. Ahead you’ll find everything about benzoyl peroxide, from how it treats acne to who can use it and how to use it.

What is benzoyl peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide is an ingredient derived from hydrogen peroxide that works as an antiseptic, keratolytic, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial agent.[1] In skincare, benzoyl peroxide is used to treat acne, and it can be found in all sorts of over-the-counter products, from face washes to gels, creams, and spot treatments in concentrations ranging anywhere from 2.5 to 10%. There are also products with higher strengths of benzoyl peroxide, which only a dermatologist can prescribe.

Benzoyl peroxide for treating acne

There are a few mechanisms by which benzoyl peroxide tackles acne. First and foremost, benzoyl peroxide releases oxygen into the skin, destroying breakout-causing bacteria.[1] Furthermore, due to its keratolytic (exfoliant) properties, benzoyl peroxide helps unclog pores, speed up pimple healing, and eliminate excess sebum and bacteria from the surface of the skin.

As an anti-inflammatory agent, benzoyl peroxide also eases swelling and decreases the number of inflamed pimples, while thanks to its mild comedolytic effects, it inhibits the formation of comedones and blemishes.[2]

What types of acne can benzoyl peroxide treat?

While benzoyl peroxide works best for inflammatory acne — those red bumps that contain pus and sometimes hurt — it is not the best choice for blackheads and whiteheads. It’s also effective for cystic breakouts, the most severe type of acne characterized by painful and hard bumps below the skin’s surface filled with pus. Since P. acnes bacteria is a major contributor to cystic acne, benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria and speeds up healing. However, at this point, you might need a prescription-strength benzoyl peroxide product. So, for the best, go and see a derm.

The side effects

Benzoyl peroxide is a drying ingredient, so there’s a chance you can experience dry, red, or peeling skin as a side effect. To help counteract any of the above, use benzoyl peroxide along with hydrating ingredients like hyaluronic acidsqualane, and reparatory ceramides and peptides.

How to use benzoyl peroxide

How you use benzoyl peroxide depends on the product at hand. If used in a cleanser, you can use it daily as the concentration shouldn’t be high enough to cause any irritation. But if you’re using a spot treatment, gel, or cream, with a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide, start applying it on alternate days and notice how your skin reacts to it. Use your benzoyl peroxide product at night because it can make skin photosensitive. And never skip sunscreen the following day.

What percentage of benzoyl peroxide is best?

Benzoyl peroxide comes in strengths varying from 2.5 to 10%. But a higher concentration doesn’t necessarily mean better results. During several studies, 2.5 or 5% benzoyl peroxide provided more or less the same benefits as 10% but with fewer irritations.[3] The takeaway? Always start with a low-concentrated product and gradually work your way up to help your skin build tolerance and avoid side effects.


Read next: Benzoyl Peroxide vs. Salicylic Acid: Which One To Use


References

Women’s Concepts uses reliable sources, including dermatologists’ insights, clinical trials, and scientific journals, to find accurate information and support all the facts shared in our articles. All statements and claims have clear and legit references. Read our editorial policy to learn more about our sources of information, our process of researching and fact-checking the content, and how our team strives to keep all articles updated, completed, and trustworthy.

  1. National Center for Biotechnology Information (2022). PubChem Compound Summary for CID 7187, Benzoyl peroxide. Retrieved March 21, 2022. Source
  2. John J. Russell, M.D., Abington Memorial Hospital, Abington, Pennsylvania, Topical Therapy for Acne, Am Fam Physician. 2000 Jan 15;61(2):357-365. Source
  3. Mills OH Jr, Kligman AM, Pochi P, Comite H. Comparing 2.5%, 5%, and 10% benzoyl peroxide on inflammatory acne vulgaris. Int J Dermatol. 1986 Dec;25(10):664-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-4362.1986.tb04534.x. PMID: 2948929. Source
Who wrote this?
Ana Vasilescu
Ana Vasilescu
Ana is a sociologist and feminist with a shared passion for literature, psychology, and skincare, the combo that made her determined to start Women's Concepts. With over five years of experience in dermatological research, she has now become a certified skincare consultant keen to convince others of the importance of a diligent routine. Her close relationships with dermatologists around the globe, along with years of researching, analyzing studies, and hand-testing products on a daily basis, made Ana one of the best persons you can get advice from.
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