- Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most popular and widely-used acne treatments.
- It’s available in over-the-counter and prescription formulations and can be used as an all-over treatment or a spot treatment.
- Benzoyl peroxide is antimicrobial and helps to cleanse and open the pores.
- It can be purchased in cleansers, gels, moisturizers, toners, and creams.
If you experience acne breakouts, you have likely heard of benzoyl peroxide for acne. Benzoyl peroxide clears pores and fights acne-causing bacteria–two important mechanisms in the treatment of acne. It’s one of the most popular acne treatments and is available in multiple formulations.
What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?
Benzoyl peroxide is a topical acne medicine that treats breakouts. It is one of the most common ingredients in over-the-counter medications for mild to moderate acne. Stronger concentrations of benzoyl peroxide are also available in prescription form.
Prescription brand names of medications that contain benzoyl peroxide include Epiduo, Benzamycin, Duac, Onexton, Acanya and BenzaClin.
Benzoyl peroxide is available both in gels, creams, moisturizers, cleansers and toners. It can be used as an all-over skin treatment or as a spot treatment on pimples and pustules.
How Benzoyl Peroxide Works to Treat Acne
Benzoyl peroxide acne medication cleanses the pores, exfoliates, reduces excess oil, treats inflammation and fights Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes), the bacteria that causes acne. When the pores are clear and inflammation and bacteria are under control, fewer breakouts occur.
Unlike the pimples with a head that characterize inflammatory acne, cystic acne’s blemishes are larger, hard bumps. Cystic acne bumps may or may not contain pus, and often don’t have a head. Because benzoyl peroxide kills P. acnes bacteria under the skin, it can effectively treat cystic acne’s deep blemishes.
Benzoyl peroxide for acne scars
Benzoyl peroxide hasn’t been proven to treat acne scars, but it can help to reduce scar tissue and prevent scarring when used to treat acne. Using benzoyl peroxide to treat acne breakouts can help to minimize or prevent papules and pustules, which lowers your risk of developing scar tissue.
Although benzoyl peroxide is an exfoliant that clears away dead skin cells, it hasn’t been shown to treat existing scars.
Best Benzoyl Peroxide Products for Acne
Benzoyl peroxide is available in a number of different products that target adolescent and adult acne in different ways. The products that typically contain benzoyl peroxide include:
- Gels and creams, which are generally spot treatments with a higher benzoyl peroxide concentration. These are applied only to the affected skin.
- Facial cleansers, which treat existing papules and pustules and help to prevent future breakouts.
- Moisturizers and foams, which are used on the whole face to treat and prevent acne.
- Body wash and soap, which address acne breakouts in areas besides the face, like the back and chest.
The best acne treatments with benzoyl peroxide depend on your individual skin condition and your preferences for treatment. You might want a spot treatment for targeted areas rather than an all-over moisturizer. Or you may prefer to use the medication in a soap or cleanser that rinses off rather than a leave-on treatment.
How to Use Benzoyl Peroxide for Acne
Benzoyl peroxide is easy to incorporate into your daily skin care routine. For spot treatments, apply benzoyl peroxide after you cleanse your face and before you moisturize. If you’re using a benzoyl peroxide cleanser, simply replace your usual cleanser with the one that contains medication and use as directed.
All benzoyl peroxide treatments may be used one or two times per day. If you’re using an OTC treatment, follow the directions on the label and discontinue use if you experience irritation. If you have a benzoyl peroxide prescription, follow your doctor’s instructions for frequency of use.
If you have sensitive skin or have never used benzoyl peroxide, your doctor may recommend only using it once a day or beginning with a lower concentration. Over time, you’ll build up to using the full dose.
Benzoyl peroxide for acne is available in a range of concentrations, from 2.5% to 10%. Your condition and skin type will determine the most appropriate concentration of benzoyl peroxide.
Products like spot treatments contain a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide than cleansers and foams. Ten percent benzoyl peroxide treatments may be appropriate for some people, but the risk of side effects increases with higher concentrations.
In general, benzoyl peroxide works on mild to moderate acne, and effective concentrations vary from person to person. Spot treatments that contain a higher benzoyl peroxide percentage may work best for cystic acne, since the blemish is deep beneath the skin.
Results of benzoyl peroxide vary depending on concentration and skin condition. If you’re using a spot treatment with a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide, you can expect to see results overnight–or within the first day or two, at least. For formulations containing a lower concentration, you may have to wait longer to see results.
Mild acne responds well to OTC benzoyl peroxide. If you have moderate acne, prescription treatments might be more appropriate for you.
How long does it take to work?
Benzoyl peroxide treatments can take weeks to work. It may be eight to ten weeks before you see results. Don’t use more medication than instructed, and don’t use it too often. Overuse will raise your chances of experiencing side effects.
If you’re using benzoyl peroxide for acne, expect to experience future breakouts over the following weeks. As time passes, you’ll experience fewer breakouts.
If you haven’t seen results from an OTC benzoyl peroxide formulation within 12 weeks, talk to your doctor. They may prescribe a stronger concentration or change your medication.
Interactions and Side Effects
Benzoyl peroxide for acne is generally considered safe for most skin types. However, some people experience side effects from using this medication. Most of the time, side effects are mild and temporary when you first begin using the product.
Side effects of benzoyl peroxide include:
- Trouble breathing
If you think you may be having an allergic reaction to benzoyl peroxide, seek emergency medical help immediately.
Benzoyl peroxide is known for staining hair and fabric, like clothes, towels and pillowcases. Always wash your hands after applying benzoyl peroxide to your skin. Additionally, avoid using benzoyl peroxide before you plan to exercise. This will help you prevent your perspiration from transferring the medication to your hair or clothes.
Don’t use benzoyl peroxide on sunburned skin. Benzoyl peroxide is also not the best treatment for conditions like seborrheic dermatitis or eczema.
Some medications should not be used with benzoyl peroxide. The following topical acne medications interact with benzoyl peroxide:
If benzoyl peroxide isn’t right for you, there are other acne medications that can help you address your breakouts. Some of these alternatives include:
- Antibiotics like doxycycline, minocycline or tetracycline, which are more aggressive than benzoyl peroxide and will likely be used for short periods of time
- Retinoids, available in cream or gel, which help to prevent clogged pores and maintain clear skin
- Salicylic acid, which corrects abnormal cell turnover, clears pores and treats whiteheads and blackheads
- Tea tree oil, an antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory treatment which can help reduce swelling and prevent lesions and has been proven to be as effective as benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide vs salicylic acid
Salicylic acid is another common acne treatment that’s available in OTC products. Like benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid helps to clear pores. It regulates skin cell turnover and acts as a natural exfoliant.
Unlike benzoyl peroxide, which works best for inflammatory acne, salicylic acid works best for non-inflammatory acne. It’s a better treatment for blackheads, whiteheads and small pimples.
Salicylic acid also does not kill bacteria or help to reduce excess oil.
Benzoyl peroxide is a popular, effective treatment for acne that is available in both over-the-counter and prescription formulations. It’s best used for inflammatory acne, as it’s antimicrobial and fights inflammation. This medication also clears pores and reduces excess oil.
Cleansers, gels, moisturizers, toners and creams contain benzoyl peroxide and it may be used as an all-over skin treatment or spot treatment. Depending on your skin type and condition, concentrations range from 2.5% to 10%.
Your doctor may recommend a dosage and frequency based on your skin type and the severity of your acne. Generally speaking, OTC benzoyl peroxide products contain a lower concentration, while prescriptions contain more.
If you have severe acne, your doctor could recommend switching medications or combining benzoyl peroxide with an oral antibiotic like tetracycline. For non-inflammatory acne, salicylic acid might be a more appropriate choice.
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