Benzoyl Peroxide for Acne: Get To Know This Age-Old Treatment

By | August 31, 2022

Benzoyl peroxide is the not-so-secret ingredient in acne treatments like Proactiv. But did you know this bad boy has been a beauty mainstay since the 1930s?

For nearly a century, it’s been used to

  • treat active breakouts
  • prevent future zits
  • whiten teeth
  • bleach hair

But does benzoyl peroxide deserve a spot in your daily routine? Let’s take a hot sex to learn about the benefits and risks of using benzoyl peroxide for acne.

What exactly is benzoyl peroxide? 

Benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic commonly used to treat acne.

Research shows that benzoyl peroxide is:

  • antimicrobial
  • anti-inflammatory
  • moderately comedolytic (aka inhibits the growth of pimples) 

Over-the-counter (OTC) benzoyl peroxide products range from 2.5 to 10 percent concentrations. It’s also FDA-approved as a prescription med for acne vulgaris. Basically, benzoyl peroxide can tackle everything from “innocent spot” to “cystic acne of your teenaged nightmares.”

What does benzoyl peroxide even do for your skin?

All the breakout-banishing things!

It kills bacteria

Benzoyl peroxide is antimicrobial. That means it’s hella good at decimating bacteria that could sink into your pores and cause zits.

Fewer bacteria = fewer breakouts. #winning

It eases inflammation

Y’know the swelling and redness of a particularly bad breakout? The inflamed, pus-filled zits that your doc urges you not to pop? Well, benzoyl peroxide is like putting a cool, wet cloth on the flames.

It clears out gunky pores

If you struggle with blackheads and whiteheads, benzoyl peroxide can help.

As an antiseptic, benzoyl peroxide sweeps away dead skin cells, excess oil, and trapped bacteria. It Marie Kondo’s the eff out of your pores.

It helps treats cystic acne

But BP is the MVP against this tricky pimple prob.

Science says benzoyl peroxide wards off both C. acnes and P. acnes — bacteria strains that play a key role in the development of cystic acne.

2021 review also found that applying benzoyl peroxide daily for 2 weeks led to a *98 percent reduction* in P. acnes. 🤯

So who should use benzoyl peroxide?

Dermatologist Elaine Kung, MD, FAAD, recommends benzoyl peroxide if you have:

Kung says these groups should skip benzoyl peroxide in favor of gentler acne treatment:

  • anyone with eczema
  • people with rosacea
  • folks with very sensitive or rash-prone skin

Bottom line: Benzoyl peroxide is great for peeps with inflammatory acne (red, swollen bumps) or noninflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads). It’s not recommended if you have ultra-sensitive skin.

How to use it 

Adding benzoyl peroxide to your arsenal is easy. The key is to start small and follow the instructions on your product’s label.

How to apply

  1. Wash up. Whether using a gel, cleanser, or spot treatment, start by washing your hands before applying.
  2. Dab, slather, or lather. Kung says to apply a smaller-than-pea-sized amount to your skin regardless of the product type. “Ninety-five percent of the time, people are squeezing out too much,” she says. “They should be used sparingly so that they don’t break down the skin barrier too much.”
  3. Be careful around your eyes. If you accidentally get benzoyl peroxide in your peepers, flush ASAP with lukewarm water.
  4. Wash your hands again. Always clean up immediately after using benzoyl peroxide. This ish can bleach your clothes, towels, and even hair!
  5. Let the product sink in. If you’re using a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment, wait 5-15 mins before slathering on other products. If you’re using a cleanser or simple moisturizer with benzoyl peroxide, there’s no need to wait.
  6. Apply sunscreen. Benzoyl peroxide can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so always wear SPF.

When to apply

There’s no right or wrong time of day to apply benzoyl peroxide. Just be sure to use sunscreen if you apply this ingredient during the day.

If you’re not sure whether to incorporate benzoyl peroxide into your morning or night routine, consult the product label.

How often to apply

Though you can apply benzoyl peroxide up to 2 times per day, Kung recommends starting with just a 2-3 times per week.

“Our skin builds a tolerance to skin care products,” Kung says, adding that it’s best to use the product for a couple of months before you increase the frequency. “Don’t jump into using something every day, twice a day from the get-go.”

If your skin becomes dry or irritated (more on that below), take a break from the product.

Side effects and precautions

Benzoyl peroxide is considered safe for most people. Here’s what you need to know about potential risks and side effects.

Common skin side effects

Side effects of topical benzoyl peroxide include

  • dryness
  • redness
  • peeling or scaling
  • minor burning, stinging, or itching

Though these symptoms rarely signify a serious problem, you can contact a dermatologist if they persist for days.

Kung says benzoyl peroxide has “gotten a bad rap” because of common side effects like dryness and peeling. But she says most reactions can be traced to using a product that is too strong or using too much too often.

Allergic reactions to benzoyl peroxide

About 1 in 500 people who use benzoyl peroxide for acne experience an allergic reaction.

Though mild irritation is a common side effect, a red, angry rash is rarer. If you think you might be experiencing an allergic reaction to benzoyl peroxide, don’t hesitate to call a doctor.

Call 911 if you experience these signs of a life-threatening reaction:

  • severe skin swelling or blistering
  • chest or throat tightness
  • swelling of the mouth, lips, tongue, throat, or face

Preggo or breastfeeding?

Here’s the safety info you should know.

  • Pregnancy. Avoid using benzoyl peroxide products while pregnant. The FDA classifies benzoyl peroxide as pregnancy risk category C. Its effects on fetal health remain unknown, so it’s better to play it safe.
  • Breastfeeding. There’s little known about using benzoyl peroxide while breastfeeding. It’s considered low-risk as long as you don’t apply it near your ta-tas or anywhere your babe might have skin-to-skin contact.

How to tackle side effects like peeling

Here’s how to feel better ASAP.

  • Cut back. If you’re inflamed or shedding, you’re prob using too much benzoyl peroxide. Kung recommends starting with a very small amount (less than the size of a pea) only twice per week.
  • Moisturize more. Use an oil-free face cream to keep your skin happy and hydrated.
  • Take shorter, cooler showers. Hot water can scald and irritate the skin, so keep things short, sweet, and lukewarm-ish.
  • Wear sunscreen. Load up on SPF and avoid direct sunlight until your skin feels calm and hydrated again.
  • Talk to a dermatologist. If you’re shedding like a snake, it might be time to call in the pros. A dermatologist can pinpoint the issue and recommend products to help.

Best benzoyl peroxide products

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $15
  • $$ = over $15

1. Face Wash: CeraVe Acne Foaming Cleanser

  • Price: $
  • Best for: acne-prone skin
  • Standout ingredients: 4% benzoyl peroxide, hyaluronic acid, niacinamide

Kung recommends this foaming cleanser, which also packs in the holy trinity of hydrators: hyaluronic acid, ceramides, and niacinamide. These ingredients pamper skin so that it will more easily tolerate benzoyl peroxide’s antiseptic action.

2. Body Wash: Panxoyl 10% Acne Foaming Wash

  • Price: $
  • Best for: oily skin, body acne
  • Standout ingredient: maximum-strength benzoyl peroxide

“Our backs have tougher and thicker skin that can usually handle a higher percentage benzoyl peroxide wash,” Kung explains.

This 10-percent concentration is perfect for tackling back acne or breakouts on other parts of your bod.

3. Spot Treatment: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Spot Treatment

  • Price: $$
  • Best for: active acne breakouts, raised pimples
  • Standout ingredients: benzoyl peroxide, lipo-hydroxyacid

If you wanna zap a zit fast, add this to your arsenal. “It may work as fast as 3 days as a spot treatment for the juicer pimples,” says Kung.

Kung suggests using a Q-tip to dab the tiniest drops on the affected area. Resist the urge to heap it on, as too much benzoyl peroxide could make matter worse.

Note: This product is only approved for folks ages 13 and up.

How to pick a product

Snagging products from trusted brands with great reviews is key. But you also have a few other factors to consider.

Product type

Creams, cleansers, and gels, oh my! It’s probs best to start with just one benzoyl peroxide product. Choose wisely.

  • Creams or lotions. Snag these if you’re looking for a more preventative treatment that can be applied all over your face.
  • Cleansers or foams. These are swell at preventing future breakouts *and* treating existing lesions. Bacteria, be gone!
  • Body wash or soaps. Got regular breakouts on your back and chest? We love these for you.
  • Gels and spot treatments. So maybe you already love your face wash and lotion. A benzoyl peroxide spot treatment = perfection for the occasional big bad zit. 🤌

Got severe acne? Talk to your dermatologist about a prescription treatment or a collection of products that will work well together.

Concentration

It’s best to start with a lower concentration of benzoyl peroxide and work up as needed.

Research suggests that lower doses of benzoyl peroxide (2.5 percent) are just as effective or even more effective than higher percentages — and with fewer adverse reactions.

If your skin is on the oily side, you might tolerate more benz. If it’s on the dry side, opt for the lowest possible concentration.

Still not sure? Ask a derm for advice based on your skin type and goals.

Other ingredients

Consider snagging a benzoyl peroxide product that also contains one of the following beneficial ingredients:

  • Niacinamide. This ingredient is a hydrating, irritation-reducing superstar. And it seems to work well for basically all skin types!
  • Hyaluronic acid. Lock in moisture (and prevent peeling) with this acid, which is perfect for oily skin. *chef’s kiss*
  • Adapalene. This retinoid (found in products like Differin) helps unclog pores and allows potent ingredients like benzoyl peroxide to work better. Adapalene might also help reduce the formation of acne scars.
  • Clindamycin and erythromycin. These antibiotics are used to treat inflammatory acne and hormonal acne. You’ll need a prescription from your doc for these ones.

Other options

Benzoyl peroxide not for you? Try one of these other acne-fighting options.

  • Salicylic acid. If you’re mostly concerned about whiteheads or blackheads, you might be better off with gentler salicylic acid.
  • Tea tree oil. There’s some evidence that tea tree oil can dial down redness and acne-causing bacteria. Be sure to dilute pure tea tree with a carrier oil!
  • Retinoids. OTC retinoids can help combat acne, reduce inflammation, and boost collagen production. Sounds like a #win to us.
  • Isotretinoin (Accutane). If you have severe acne, this prescription vitamin A derivative may help. You’ll have to talk to a doctor if you’re interested in this option.

Frequently asked questions

Is benzoyl peroxide safe to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding?

There’s not enough research to know whether benzoyl peroxide is safe while pregnant or breastfeeding.

To err on the side of caution, avoid this ingredient while pregnant. Dial down any risks by keeping it away from your boobs or chest while breastfeeding.

Is benzoyl peroxide good for mild acne? 

Yes, over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide products can help treat

  • mild inflammatory acne
  • occasional pimples
  • blackheads and whiteheads.

How long does it take to see results? 

Kung says benzoyl peroxide may be able to kick a single zit within 72 hours. But if you’re combatting regular breakouts, expect to see a difference in about 3 months.

What does benzoyl peroxide do to your face?

Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria, reduces inflammation, and clears out pores.

How does benzoyl peroxide treat acne?

Research shows that benzoyl peroxide treats acne by killing acne-causing bacteria and reducing inflammation associated with inflammatory acne (think pus-filled pimples).

It’s also been found to be moderately comedolytic, which means that it can help inhibit the growth of new zits. 

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