If you’ve ever dealt with mild to moderate acne, then you’ve definitely come across benzoyl peroxide. It’s an oldie but goodie ingredient that you’ll find in a slew of skin care products designed to address breakouts, and it’s one that derms have been recommending for eons — for good reason. Using benzoyl peroxide for acne is an effective way to treat lesions and other skin concerns, but, like most beauty ingredients, it has its pros and cons.
To help break it down, Bustle called on board-certified dermatologists for the intel. Scroll on to learn how benzoyl peroxide is used to treat acne and how you can incorporate it into your breakout-quashing routine.
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What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?
You’ll typically find benzoyl peroxide in products like face and body washes, leave-on masks, serums, and spot treatments. It’s used as a potent bacteriocidal that targets Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes), the bacteria responsible for acne vulgaris. Once absorbed by the skin, benzoyl peroxide is broken down by an amino acid in the skin, and then it goes to work attacking bacterial proteins, resulting in an improvement of bacteria-fueled breakouts.
The Benefits Of Benzoyl Peroxide
As board-certified dermatologist Dr. Anar Mikailov, M.D. explains, BP can be used to treat acne, folliculitis — aka inflammation of the hair follicles usually caused by a bacterial or fungal infection — and a few other skin conditions, like rosacea. Read more on its benefits below:
It quashes acne-causing bacteria: As touched on above, benzoyl peroxide eliminates the bacteria responsible for acne once it’s metabolized by the skin.
It helps shed dead skin cells: BP increases cell turnover, which sloughs away dead skin — and dead skin buildup can trap breakout-causing dirt and debris and prevent your skin care ingredients from penetrating.
It controls excess oil production: BP also strips oil from your skin, a potentially useful function for those whose skin produces an excess of sebum, even if acne isn’t a concern.
It unclogs pores: Because of its ability to remove dead skin cells and control oil, benzoyl peroxide also helps to keep your pores clear of unwanted gunk — leaving your pores uncongested and less visible.
Another plus, according to Mikailov? Unlike antibiotics, bacteria have not been known to develop a resistance to benzoyl peroxide.
How To Use Benzoyl Peroxide
Because benzoyl peroxide can be known to cause irritation if left on for prolonged periods, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D. tends to recommend the ingredient be used in a wash. Still, she recommends allowing the product to sit on your skin for between one and five minutes. If you’re treating body acne on the back and chest, for example, it can stay a little longer as opposed to your face. Mikailov says to be sure to follow your cleanser up with a non-comedogenic (read: won’t clog your pores) but hydrating moisturizer and an SPF, if using in the morning. If you are using benzoyl peroxide as a spot treatment, Mikailov says it can go on before or after your moisturizer. “For those with sensitive skin, you may want to apply it after moisturizer,” he notes, as it’ll work as a buffer between your complexion and the active ingredient.
When BP May Cause Irritation
Despite its benefits, benzoyl peroxide can be drying and irritating, Mikailov notes. When shopping for benzoyl-peroxide-spiked products, look for calming and hydrating ingredients on the label. “Most formulations with benzoyl peroxide nowadays contain soothing emollients to help counter any potential irritation and dryness so that it’s more tolerable to use,” he tells Bustle.
Be careful using BP with other strong skin care ingredients. For instance, both Mikailov and Zubritsky caution against using it with alpha and beta hydroxy acids, like glycolic acid, as they say that combo can exacerbate irritation. If you have a retinoid in your skin care routine, Zubritsky suggests using them separately, as they can lead to irritation if used together. “Mixing benzoyl peroxide and retinoids can render the product ineffective as benzoyl peroxide is an oxidizing agent and can easily degrade the retinoid,” he explains.
What To Expect From Benzoyl Peroxide
When you first start incorporating benzoyl peroxide into your routine, you may experience some side effects not dissimilar to retinol. During the first few weeks of use, you may notice redness and peeling, or your skin may sting, feel dry, or otherwise experience some irritation. If this persists for four or more weeks, talk to your dermatologist. It’s also worth noting that your acne may appear worse before it gets better.
Something else to keep in mind? “Benzoyl peroxide is notoriously known to bleach towels or clothing,” Zubritsky says, citing this as another reason why she prefers washes over leave-on treatments. She says to rinse your skin thoroughly and use a white (or an old) towel to dry, just in case. Mikailov adds bedding and even hair to the list of things that could be collateral damage, so he says to be extra careful around your hairline when using BP.
Shop Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Products
The All-Over Cleanser
For body acne, Zubritsky recommends this foaming cleanser that contains 10% benzoyl peroxide. “It easily spreads on the skin to tackle even the toughest ‘backne,’ chest acne, and butt acne,” she explains.
The Leave-On Mask
This leave-on treatment — infused with 2.5% benzoyl peroxide — is designed to invisibly melt into skin. Apply after cleansing one to three times daily to treat and control breakouts.
The Cream Cleanser
This creamy cleanser uses a micronized form of BP, which Zubritsky says tends to be less irritating. To help avoid the dreaded drying effect, it also contains N-acetyl glucosamine, “a biocompatible amino sugar, to reduce dryness,” she explains.
The Hydrating Treatment
Mikailov is a fan of this benzoyl peroxide-based spot treatment for treating active acne, blackheads, and whiteheads. It also packs lipo-hydroxy acid (to help exfoliate) plus glycerin, a humectant to help keep the skin hydrated.
The Encapsulated Cleanser
Try a gentle skin-clearing facial cleanser like this one, a pick from Maikailov that uses encapsulated benzoyl peroxide plus sulfur and salicylic acid, two other MVP breakout-fighting ingredients, to treat moderate to severe acne.
The Spot Treatment
Target active breakouts with this super portable spot treatment. It boasts 5% benzoyl peroxide along with tea tree oil and capryloyl salicylic acid, the latter of which is a less irritating derivative of salicylic acid.
Martin, T. & Goodman, M.B. (2021). Benzoyl Peroxide. StatPearls. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537220/
Zeichner, J. (2016). The Use of Lipohydroxy Acid in Skin Care and Acne Treatment. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. PMCID: PMC5300717PMID: 28210389
Dr. Lindsey Zubritsky, M.D., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based board-certified dermatologist