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Is Benzoyl Peroxide Bad For You?



Short answer

Benzoyl peroxide is widely used to treat acne due to its antibacterial and skin-peeling properties. While effective, it may cause dryness, irritation, redness, and peeling, with severity depending on the concentration and skin type. Combination treatments can enhance efficacy and lower irritation risks. Mild to severe side effects exist and vary based on individual reactions and use. Regular use necessitates balancing treatment benefits with potential skin changes like dryness or increased sensitivity. Proper application and safety measures can optimize treatment and minimize risks.



Long answer

Benzoyl Peroxide Explained: Uses for Skin Conditions

Benzoyl peroxide is a well-known topical medication used primarily to treat acne. It works by killing bacteria that cause acne and also by causing the skin to dry and peel.

1. Acne Treatment: One of the most common uses of benzoyl peroxide is in the treatment of mild to moderate acne. It is effective against Propionibacterium acnes, the bacteria that play a crucial role in acne development. Benzoyl peroxide reduces the bacteria by introducing oxygen into the pores, an environment where the bacteria cannot survive.

  • Available in various formulations such as creams, gels, and washes.
  • Concentrations range from 2.5% to 10%, with studies suggesting that 2.5% is just as effective and less irritating than higher concentrations.

2. Anti-Inflammatory Properties: Benzoyl peroxide exhibits anti-inflammatory effects which help in reducing the redness and size of lesions, making it beneficial for inflammatory acne, such as pustules and cysts.

3. Keratolytic Action: It acts as a peeling agent, increasing skin turnover and clearing pores, which reduces the formation of comedones, commonly referred to as whiteheads and blackheads.

4. Use in Combination Treatments: Often used in conjunction with other acne treatments such as antibiotics or retinoids. The combination can be synergistic, where benzoyl peroxide can reduce antibiotic resistance when used with topical antibiotics like clindamycin or erythromycin.

  • Combination treatments can lead to better results than using benzoyl peroxide or other acne treatments alone.

Despite its benefits in treating skin conditions, it's important to use benzoyl peroxide correctly and understand that it can cause side effects such as dryness, peeling, redness, and irritation, particularly when you first start using it. A study by Sagransky et al., published in the "Journal of Drugs in Dermatology", highlighted that lower concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are equally effective and less irritating than higher concentrations. Adjusting the formulation or concentration might minimize side effects and improve tolerability and compliance with the treatment regimen.

Users with sensitive skin or conditions like eczema should consult with a healthcare provider before using it, and it's always recommended to conduct a patch test when trying a new skin treatment.

Potential Side Effects of Topical Benzoyl Peroxide

Topical benzoyl peroxide is a common over-the-counter treatment for acne that acts by killing bacteria beneath the skin and drying excess oil. While it's effective for many people, it is not without potential side effects. The impact of benzoyl peroxide on the skin can vary from mild irritation to more severe reactions, depending on the individual's skin type, the concentration of benzoyl peroxide, and the frequency of application.

Mild Side Effects:

  • Dryness: Benzoyl peroxide has a drying effect which can strip the skin of its natural oils, leading to flakiness or peeling.
  • Redness: Some users experience redness or mild inflammation upon application due to the potency of the product.
  • Itching: A common reaction to benzoyl peroxide is itching, which is often a sign of skin irritation or dryness.
  • Stinging or burning: Upon application, there may be a temporary stinging or burning sensation which usually subsides after a few minutes.

Moderate Side Effects:

  • Contact Dermatitis: Some individuals may develop an allergic reaction to benzoyl peroxide, resulting in dermatitis characterized by severe itching, redness, swelling, and skin rash.
  • Sensitivity to sunlight: Benzoyl peroxide may increase the skin's sensitivity to UV rays, necessitating extra sun protection.
  • Tingling sensation: A persistent tingling may occur for some users, suggesting a need to adjust the use of the product.

Severe Side Effects:

  • Swelling of the face or tongue: Though rare, some individuals may experience swelling in parts of the face or tongue, a symptom of a severe allergic reaction.
  • Difficulty breathing: In some extreme cases, benzoyl peroxide can induce an anaphylactic reaction, compromising breathing and requiring immediate medical attention.
  • Severe burning, itching, crusting, or swelling of treated areas: This could represent a serious reaction necessitating discontinuation and professional medical advice.

It is important to note that while the aforementioned side effects can occur, they are not experienced by everyone. Factors such as the concentration of benzoyl peroxide (typically ranging from 2.5% to 10%), skin type (sensitive, oily, dry), and the presence of other skin conditions can influence the risk and severity of adverse effects. A study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology highlights that lower concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are equally effective in treating acne with fewer side effects, suggesting that starting with a lower strength may mitigate some risks (Sagransky et al., 2009).

Prior to starting any new topical treatment, it's advisable to conduct a patch test and consult with a healthcare professional, particularly for individuals with sensitive skin or a history of allergic reactions. Care should be taken to follow the application guidance, as overuse can exacerbate side effects.

Long-Term Skin Impact and Risks of Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl Peroxide (BPO) is widely recognized as a cornerstone of acne treatment. Its bactericidal properties against Propionibacterium acnes, coupled with its ability to peel and renew the skin, make it an effective option for many. When considering its long-term impact on skin, it’s essential to distill anecdotal concerns from evidence-based findings.

Extended use of benzoyl peroxide can lead to some persistent skin changes. For instance, prolonged application of BPO can cause a reduction in sebum production, theoretically leading to a less oily complexion. However, this can also predispose individuals to dryness and irritation, potentially disrupting the skin’s barrier function.1

Another consideration is BPO’s potential to induce skin sensitization. Although not common, repeated exposure could result in contact sensitization, where the skin develops an allergic response to the treatment, leading to dermatitis. Studies indicate that this is relatively rare with BPO compared to other topical treatments.2

While BPO effectively suppresses acne-causing bacteria, some dermatologists express concern over its potential impact on skin microbial flora over time. The inappropriate or excessive use of antibacterials can lead to antibiotic resistance, although BPO’s action mechanism makes such resistance less likely compared to antibiotic drugs.3

The risk of premature aging with long-term BPO use is sometimes mentioned, primarily because of its pro-oxidant action. Still, direct evidence linking BPO to accelerated skin aging is scant. The oxidative stress attributed to BPO is more acute and localized, and the skin typically repairs such damage effectively, especially with appropriate use of moisturizers and sunscreens.

There is interest in the role that long-term BPO use might play in skin cancer risk, due to its pro-oxidant effects. However, no substantive clinical evidence currently supports a causal relationship between BPO use and increased skin cancer risk in humans. Animal studies have not demonstrated this risk either.4

It's also valuable to note that some of the side effects of BPO, such as redness, scaling, or burning, often subside as the skin acclimatizes to the treatment. Patients are advised to start with lower concentrations and gradually increase as tolerated, which can mitigate some of the long-term skin risks.5

In conclusion, while BPO is a powerful therapeutic agent for acne, patients should be aware and monitor for potential skin changes with long-term use. Below is a summary of the potential risks:

  • Dryness and irritation
  • Sensitivity and contact dermatitis
  • Impact on microbial flora and antibiotic resistance
  • Debatable connection to premature aging
  • Unsubstantiated links to skin cancer

Patients are encouraged to discuss their concerns and observations with their dermatologist to ensure a healthy balance between acne management and skin integrity.

  1. Journal of Clinical Aesthetics and Dermatology. (2010). "The Role of Benzoyl Peroxide in the New Treatment Paradigm for Acne".
  2. American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.). "Acne: Diagnosis and Treatment".
  3. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. (2011). "Lack of Development of New Bacterial Strains Resistant to Benzoyl Peroxide after Continuous Application".
  4. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. (1981). "An Evaluation of the Potential Carcinogenicity of Benzoyl Peroxide in Mice".
  5. American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.). "Acne treatment: Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid".

Comparing Benzoyl Peroxide with Other Acne Treatments

When evaluating the efficacy and safety of benzoyl peroxide as an acne treatment, it is constructive to compare it with other common acne therapies. Understanding the advantages and potential downsides of each treatment can guide individuals towards making well-informed choices for their skin care regimen. Here, we delve into several widely-used acne treatments in comparison to benzoyl peroxide.

1. Salicylic Acid:

  • Mechanism of Action: Unlike benzoyl peroxide's antibacterial properties, salicylic acid is a beta hydroxy acid (BHA) that exfoliates the skin and helps to unclog pores.
  • Effectiveness: Salicylic acid is generally milder than benzoyl peroxide and may be less effective on severe acne. However, it is preferable for sensitive skin or for those who cannot tolerate benzoyl peroxide.
  • Side Effects: It may cause less skin irritation and dryness compared to benzoyl peroxide, making it a favorable option for some users.
  • Usage Considerations: Since salicylic acid is less potent, it may be used more frequently in daily skincare routines.

2. Antibiotics (Topical and Oral):

  • Mechanism of Action: Antibiotics fight the bacteria that contribute to acne and reduce inflammation.
  • Effectiveness: They can be very effective, particularly for inflammatory acne. However, benzoyl peroxide can be combined with antibiotics to reduce the chance of developing antibiotic resistance.
  • Side Effects: Potential adverse effects include skin irritation, sun sensitivity, and in the case of oral antibiotics, gastrointestinal discomfort.
  • Usage Considerations: Long-term use of antibiotics is generally discouraged due to the risk of antibiotic resistance.

3. Retinoids:

  • Mechanism of Action: Retinoids such as tretinoin and adapalene work by promoting cell turnover and preventing the plugging of hair follicles.
  • Effectiveness: They are considered highly effective for many types of acne and are often prescribed as a long-term treatment strategy.
  • Side Effects: Similar to benzoyl peroxide, retinoids can cause dryness, redness, and peeling, especially during the initial period of use.
  • Usage Considerations: Retinoids can increase skin sensitivity to sunlight, requiring the use of sunscreen.

Each of these treatments interacts with the skin's biology distinctively. Benzoyl peroxide holds its unique standing for its bacteria-killing capability, an aspect vital for treating acne caused by bacterial proliferation. More research supports its use in combination therapies, capitalizing on its strengths while mitigating its limitations through adjunct treatments.

A study published in the British Journal of Dermatology suggests that combination treatments, such as benzoyl peroxide with retinoids or antibiotics, often yield superior results without significantly increasing adverse effects (Source: Sagransky M, Yentzer BA, Feldman SR; "Benzoyl peroxide: a review of its current use in the treatment of acne vulgaris"; British Journal of Dermatology; 2009). The concept of multimodal therapy is well-supported in dermatological literature and may be pertinent for those who do not respond to single-agent treatments or who have moderate to severe acne.

In conclusion, while benzoyl peroxide is a cornerstone of acne therapy, its comparison with other treatments reflects the multifaceted approach required to manage acne effectively. Individuals should consult with healthcare providers to determine the most appropriate and personalized acne treatment plan, which may include benzoyl peroxide alone or in combination with other therapies.

Sensible Application and Safety Measures for Benzoyl Peroxide Use

The use of benzoyl peroxide as a treatment for acne is widespread and considered effective, but as with any active ingredient, it is important to employ sensible application techniques and adhere to safety measures to minimize potential risks. Understanding the correct usage can significantly reduce the chances of adverse effects and lead to better outcomes.

1. Patch Testing:

Before incorporating benzoyl peroxide into your skincare routine, it's advisable to conduct a patch test. Apply a small amount to a discreet area of skin, such as the inside of your forearm, and wait 24 hours to observe any adverse reactions such as severe itching, redness, or swelling. This can help predict how your skin might react to more extensive application.

2. Concentration Consideration:

Benzoyl peroxide products are available in various concentrations — from 2.5% to 10%. Studies suggest that lower concentrations can be as effective as higher ones, with a reduced risk of irritation. Start with a lower concentration and only consider a higher concentration if necessary and under guidance from a healthcare professional.

3. Gradual Introduction:

When starting out with benzoyl peroxide, it is crucial to allow your skin to adapt. Begin with applications once a day or every other day and gradually increase to the advised frequency, monitoring your skin's response to prevent over-drying or irritation.

4. Application Technique:

Apply benzoyl peroxide to clean, dry skin. Use only a pea-sized amount for the entire face or directed by the product instructions. It should be spread evenly over the affected areas, avoiding the eyes, mouth, and any mucous membranes to prevent irritation or dryness.

5. Sun Exposure Precautions:

Benzoyl peroxide can make the skin more sensitive to the sun, increasing the risk of sunburn. It is advisable to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily and wear protective clothing while using this medication. Limit direct sun exposure, especially during peak hours.

6. Moisturizer Integration:

To counteract the potential drying effects, integrate a non-comedogenic, fragrance-free moisturizer into your regimen. Apply the moisturizer after benzoyl peroxide has fully absorbed into the skin to maintain hydration levels.

7. Interactions with Other Skincare Products:

Be cautious of using benzoyl peroxide in conjunction with other topical acne treatments, especially those containing retinoids, salicylic acid, or alpha hydroxy acids, unless recommended by a dermatologist. The combined use can lead to excessive skin irritation and dryness.

8. Allergic Reaction Awareness:

In rare cases, benzoyl peroxide can cause allergic reactions, which may present as severe itching, blistering, or swelling of treated areas. If you experience signs of an allergic reaction, discontinue use immediately and consult a healthcare professional.

9. Avoiding Ingestion and Inhalation:

It is imperative that benzoyl peroxide is used only as directed and for external use only. Avoid contact with your hair or clothing, as benzoyl peroxide can cause bleaching. In case of accidental ingestion or inhalation, seek medical attention promptly.

10. Compliant Storage:

Store benzoyl peroxide products at room temperature and keep them away from heat and direct sunlight. Inappropriate storage conditions can compromise the effectiveness or safety of the product.

By following these safety measures, the vast majority of users find benzoyl peroxide to be a safe and effective treatment for acne. However, always consult with a dermatologist or healthcare provider prior to starting any new treatment for personalized advice and to ensure the safety and appropriateness of benzoyl peroxide for your individual skin type and concerns.

Frequently asked questions

In some cases, benzoyl peroxide may initially worsen acne as it brings existing pimples to the surface. This is known as 'purging' and is generally temporary. If the acne persists or worsens significantly over time, consult with a dermatologist for advice.

Benzoyl peroxide is generally considered safe to use during pregnancy, but as with any medication, it's best to consult with your healthcare provider before starting treatment to ensure it is appropriate for your specific situation.

Results from benzoyl peroxide can vary, but many individuals begin to see improvement in their acne within 2-3 weeks. Consistent use over several months is often needed for significant results and ongoing maintenance.

Yes, it's generally safe to use makeup over benzoyl peroxide once it has fully dried on the skin. It is advisable to use non-comedogenic makeup that won't clog pores. Always remove makeup thoroughly at the end of the day.

Ask a question about Benzoyl Peroxide and our team will publish the answer as soon as possible.

Possible short-term side effects

  • dryness
  • redness
  • itching
  • stinging or burning
  • contact dermatitis
  • sunlight sensitivity
  • tingling
  • swelling of face or tongue
  • difficulty breathing
  • severe burning, itching, crusting, or swelling

Possible long-term side effects

  • persistent dryness
  • reduced sebum production
  • contact sensitization
  • disruption of skin barrier function
  • impact on skin microbial flora

Ingredients to be aware of


  • kills acne bacteria
  • reduces inflammation
  • promotes skin peeling
  • clears pores
  • less oily complexion

Healthier alternatives

  • salicylic acid
  • topical or oral antibiotics
  • retinoids

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Dr. Becky Maes
Published on: 02-14-2024

Thank you for your feedback!

Written by Dr. Becky Maes
Published on: 02-14-2024

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