How to Treat Acne With Benzoyl Peroxide

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / Honayst

While benzoyl peroxide can effectively get rid of bacteria and dead skin cells that clog your pores, it has limitations. Let’s cover the pros and cons and when to talk to a dermatologist (skin care specialist) if OTC products aren’t doing the job.

Is benzoyl peroxide good for acne?

Benzoyl peroxide works to treat and prevent acne by killing bacteria underneath the skin, as well as helping the pores shed dead skin cells and excess sebum (oil).

Benzoyl peroxide for pimples

Benzoyl peroxide works particularly well for inflammatory acne, which is characterized by red bumps that contain pus — pustules, papules, cysts, and nodules — instead of whiteheads and blackheads.

Benzoyl peroxide for cystic acne

Cystic acne is considered the most serious form of acne, which also makes it the most difficult to treat. It’s characterized by hard bumps below the surface of your skin. While these pimples may have pus deep inside them, it’s difficult to identify any prominent “heads.” P. acnes bacteria is one contributor to cystic acne, which benzoyl peroxide may help treat in combination with prescription medications. If you have this type of acne, consult a dermatologist for your best treatment options.

Benzoyl peroxide for blackheads and whiteheads

Blackheads and whiteheads are still considered acne. However, they are classified as noninflammatory because they don’t cause the red bumps that are associated with other types of acne pimples. You may be dealing with both of these types of acne and might be wondering if you can use benzoyl peroxide for noninflammatory spots too. While benzoyl peroxide can help treat oil and dead skill cells that clog your pores, this may not be the best treatment option available for blackheads and whiteheads. While benzoyl peroxide does help treat certain types of acne, topical retinoids are considered the first line of treatment. This includes adapalene and tretinoin. Some adapalene products, such as Differin Gel, are available OTC. Tretinoin products require a prescription.

Benzoyl peroxide for acne scars

Acne scars are sometimes a result of an acne outbreak. This is especially the case with inflammatory acne, even if you successfully resist the urge to pick at the lesions.

Acne scars can worsen with sun exposure, so it’s important to wear sunscreen every day. In theory, benzoyl peroxide could also help shed dead skin cells and make the scars less prominent. However, research doesn’t support this use.

How to use benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide comes in the form of many acne treatment products. It’s important to select the right one for your skin care concern as well as preference. For example, you may prefer to use a wash formulated specifically for your body rather than your face. Or you might decide to choose a gel. Another key is to choose the appropriate concentration. The concentration that you choose to use may depend on your skin. Some people can tolerate products with a high percentage of benzoyl peroxide (up to 10 percent) on their skin. Others may prefer a lower percentage. What concentration to use also depends on where you apply the benzoyl peroxide. The face is rather sensitive, so many choose to use a lower concentration (around 4 percent) in that area, while the chest and back are more resilient and can tolerate a higher concentration. Benzoyl peroxide may be found in the following acne treatment products:

  • acne creams and lotions: typically applied once or twice a day on the entire area of skin as both a treatment and preventive measure
  • face washes and foams: used once or twice a day to help prevent acne and treat existing lesions
  • acne body washes and soaps: ideal if you have frequent breakouts on the chest, back, and other areas of the body
  • gels: tend to come in the form of spot treatments with higher concentrations and are typically applied only to the affected area

Side effects of using benzoyl peroxide on the skin

While considered safe for most people, benzoyl peroxide can cause side effects. This is especially the case when you first start using the product. It may be helpful to use it once a day, and then build up the frequency in application over time if your skin can tolerate it. You can also minimize side effects by starting with a lower concentration. Talk to a dermatologist about the following side effects and precautions of using benzoyl peroxide for acne.

Skin side effects

Benzoyl peroxide works by peeling away the skin to get rid of dead skin cells, excessive oil, and bacteria that may be trapped underneath. Such effects can lead to dryness, as well as redness and excessive peeling. You might notice itching and general irritation at the site of application too. Don’t use benzoyl peroxide if you have a sunburn.

Stained clothing and hair

Benzoyl peroxide is known for staining clothing and hair. Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly after each use. You might also consider skipping an application right before a workout so you don’t transfer the product to your hair and clothing via sweat.

Allergic reactions

While allergic reactions from benzoyl peroxide are considered rare, they are still possible. Stop using the product immediately if the treated areas have redness and irritation. You should go to an emergency room right away if you have severe swelling and breathing difficulties, as these may be signs of an allergic reaction.

Benzoyl peroxide and skin conditions

A dermatologist may not recommend benzoyl peroxide if you have sensitive skin, as this skin type is more prone to side effects such as rashes and irritation. Benzoyl peroxide also might not be the best choice if you have eczema or seborrheic dermatitis.

Benzoyl peroxide vs. salicylic acid for acne

While benzoyl peroxide is a staple for treating inflammatory acne, it’s worth considering salicylic acid if you also have noninflammatory acne (blackheads and whiteheads). Both help clean pores, but salicylic acid’s primary role is to get rid of dead skin cells. Such exfoliating effects may help treat noninflammatory lesions. It also won’t stain your hair or clothing like benzoyl peroxide can. But it can still lead to dry, red, and peeling skin, especially when you first start using a product containing salicylic acid. As a rule of thumb, if you have inflammatory acne along with oily, less sensitive skin, benzoyl peroxide may be the better choice.

Other OTC acne treatments

Benzoyl peroxide isn’t your only treatment option for acne and acne scars. Other OTC products can help treat bacteria, excessive oil, and dead skin cells too. Consider the following treatments:

  • salicylic acid
  • sulfur
  • tea tree oil
  • adapalene

When to see a doctor

No acne product will clear up your blemishes and scars overnight. Such is the case with benzoyl peroxide. It can take up to six weeks for new products to take full effect.

If you don’t see any improvements after six weeks, consider seeing a dermatologist. They might recommend a prescription-strength formula, especially if your acne is severe. They may also recommend an entirely different treatment option.

Be prepared to answer questions about your acne and its severity so your dermatologist can determine the best treatment option possible. They will also conduct a skin exam to see the type of acne you have.

The takeaway

Benzoyl peroxide is one of the many options available for treating acne. Its enduring popularity goes beyond its availability and affordability — benzoyl peroxide can help treat inflammatory acne lesions and related scarring. It’s most helpful when used together with other treatments, such as topical retinoids.

Still, everyone’s skin is different, and benzoyl peroxide may not work for all. Give any new acne product several weeks to take full effect before moving on to the next one. See a dermatologist if OTC products aren’t working or if you develop a negative reaction to benzoyl peroxide.

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