If you have acne, you may have heard about benzoyl peroxide as a possible treatment. The chemical, a relative of the hydrogen peroxide you may have in your medicine cabinet to clean wounds, is a common ingredient in face washes, soaps, and acne creams and gels. But before you begin to benzoyl peroxide on your face or anywhere else on your body, there are a few things you should know.
Benzoyl peroxide is one of the two most popular ingredients in both over-the-counter and prescription acne-fighting products. It is usually more potent and powerful than its main competitor, salicylic acid; this means it is generally more effective against pimples, but that it can also cause more irritation, redness, and peeling when used too frequently or in too high of a dose. (It can also bleach dark hair fabrics if you're not careful to keep it away!)
According to dermatologist Whitney Bowe, MD, benzoyl peroxide is effective against all kinds of acne, including blackheads, whiteheads and plain old irritated, red pimples. "It is bactericidal, meaning it kills bacteria, rather than simply slowing down their growth," she told Teen Vogue in 2012. "It also works very quickly, improving acne as early as five days after starting treatment." [source: Univer] In fact, a 2004 British study found that over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide worked as well as prescription antibiotics in clearing up acne, for a significantly lower price [source: Barclay].
You can find benzoyl peroxide in facial cleansers, which can be used once or twice a day as an ongoing treatment for acne-prone skin. It's also available as creams and gels, which work well as spot treatments on individual blemishes. For severe cases of acne, benzoyl peroxide is sometimes combined with antibiotics, and can actually help prevent antibiotic resistance, Bowe says. [source: Univer].
While using a benzoyl peroxide product, it is normal to feel a slight tingling and warmth, and you may experience a bit of dryness and peeling. To reduce your risk of these side effects, try to avoid other products and situations that may irritate your skin, including soaps and makeup that contain alcohol, medicated cosmetics and contact with direct sunlight or sunlamps. After four to six weeks of using the product regularly, you should notice improvement in your overall skin tone and clarity.