How To Not Get Burned By Benzoyl Peroxide

by Maxine Builder

The only thing more frustrating than getting a nasty zit on your face is when the treatment you're using only exacerbates the problem. Benzoyl peroxide spot treatments (acne-treatment creams or gels that can often be found at your local pharmacy) are often a very effective way to treat acne quickly, but can cause irritation and make already blemished skin feel worse. This means they have a bit of a bad reputation among those who have been burned, myself included. According to PopSugar, the good thing is that negative reactions and sensitivity to benzoyl peroxide can be prevented (or at least mitigated) with some simple tips.

Milena Bonilla, a physician assistant at Metro Dermatology in New York City, explains to me some of the symptoms of a benzoyl peroxide burn in an e-mail interview, all of which sound terribly unpleasant. "Some signs can be blistering, peeling, crusting, itching, severe redness, or swelling," she writes. What is more common than a true benzoyl peroxide burn is irritation or excessive skin dryness, which, though not as severe, is still totally unpleasant.

Products include benzoyl peroxide in spot treatments because it's effective, but that doesn't mean the ingredient is without its flaws. If you're prone to negative side effects but are willing to give the ingredient another shot, here are seven tips to help soothe your burns, prevent future reactions, and use the ingredient so it can work for you and your skin. (But please don't force yourself to use benzoyl peroxide if you're allergic, even if it is effective for some people.)

1. Stop Using It

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If you have a negative reaction to benzoyl peroxide, or BPO as it's sometimes referred to in literature, stop using it immediately. You can alleviate some of the symptoms with "gentle cleansers and frequent use of non-comedogenic gentle moisturizers," Bonilla explains. She goes on to add, "Always seek medical attention if symptoms are severe or do not improve."

2. Do A Sensitivity Test

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The best way to treat a benzoyl peroxide burn or irritation is by avoiding a negative reaction in the first place. Bonilla agrees that the easiest way to do so is through a sensitivity test, which is recommended by the U.S. FDA when using a new over-the-counter topical acne product. Take a sparing dose of the product and apply it to a small affected area. If nothing happens for three days, you should be good to go, and you can use the product as directed.

3. Use A Lower Concentration

Acne Control Complex, $30, Arithmetic

Pay attention to the concentration of BPO in your spot treatment, which will be listed on the label. If your skin is getting irritated, it might because the concentration is too high. Andy Bosselman, founder of Arithmetic, a company that produces a benzoyl peroxide-based spot treatment, tells me via email, "For people with sensitive skin, 10 percent benzoyl peroxide is really too much." According to Bonilla, "three percent is all you need to be antibacterial" and see an effect.

4. Less Is More

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In much the same way that a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide might not be necessary, "more is not always more effective" either, explains Bonilla. "The pimple won't go away faster by using more of the product or more frequent application."

Bosselman emphatically reiterates this point. "When you get a new product, and you have a breakout, you want it gone. And you get this product, and you just want to slather it all over, and we just want to say don't do that," he says. "Please don't do that." Use the product as directed, not however you want.

5. Build Up Gradually

Instead of going HAM with the BPO, Bosselman recommends building up usage gradually. Each bottle of Arithmetic comes with a user guide that suggests using the product once every third evening, and then, over a period of one to three weeks, working up to using it every day.

6. Beware Of Mixing

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"If you're combining products, if you're using a Clarisonic, or if you're using a scrub, exfoliating a lot, you're going to make your skin more sensitive," says Bosselman. Beware of using several different acne treatments or over-exfoliating your skin while using a BPO-based spot treatment, as this can increase your chances of causing irritation. Try streamlining your skincare routine while you incorporate benzoyl peroxide into it, and make sure you keep your skin moisturized.

7. Find An Alternative

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If you are allergic to BPO or just keep having a negative reaction to BPO-based products despite your best efforts, sometimes the best thing you can do for your skin and your sanity is find an alternative spot treatment, of which there are plenty. Bonilla recommends salicylic acid and tea tree oil extract as substitutes. But at the end of the day, she suggests seeing a pro if you're constantly reaching for spot treatments. "Establishing a treatment regimen with your dermatologist is always the best choice."

For some people, benzoyl peroxide can really work well and clear up even the most stubborn acne. If you follow these tips, you'll be much more likely to have a positive experience than get burned.

Images: helloturkeytoe, thecampbells/Flickr; Courtesy Brands