What is Benzoyl Peroxide

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

The benefits of benzoyl peroxide aren’t known to many, but it has some unusual benefits that make it a useful compound to keep around the house.

Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a topical medication and industrial chemical that is commonly used as an antiseptic, an antibiotic, and a bleaching agent. Although it is considered slightly toxic to ingest, benzoyl peroxide breaks down when it contacts the skin as per a research conducted by Dr. Hyun-Mi Kim from the National Institute of Environmental Research, Korea. The reaction results in the production of oxygen and benzoic acid, which is found in many plants and is not considered toxic. [1]

Benzoyl Peroxide Benefits

Benzoyl peroxide is most commonly seen as an ingredient in acne treatments. Acne is a hormone-triggered inflammation and infection of the oil glands and hair follicles. Hormone changes can cause an increase in the skin’s keratin levels, causing sebum glands to become clogged and putting them at risk for infection from Propionibacterium acnes, or P. acnes, a bacteria that is naturally present in everyday skin flora. This substance is effective in treating acne in three ways. Let us take a look. [2]

A face shot of a woman with acne on her face holding a tube

Benzoyl peroxide helps in acne treatment. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Topical Antibiotic

Benzoyl peroxide has powerful antibiotic and antiseptic properties. When applied to the skin, it releases oxygen in a volatile reaction that forces oxygen into the clogged pores, killing any bacteria living there. Benzoyl peroxide is the most effective way to kill P. acnes, even more so than salicylic acid. This, in turn, helps to decrease inflammation in the pores and reduce redness.

Reduces Oil Production

Your skin’s natural oils are produced by sebum glands, which keep your skin moisturized and help it heal. The hormone changes that trigger acne often starts with overactive sebum glands. The excess oil clogs up pores, and the P. acnes bacteria that live naturally on your skin move in, using lytic enzymes to break down the proteins and fats that constitute your sebum. This powerful compound helps to dry out your skin and reduce oil levels, giving your skin a chance to regain its healthy oil balance. According to a study published in the Expert Opinion on Pharmacotherapy by Dr. Matt Sagransky and Brad A. Yentzer, this substance is an excellent replacement for complementary treatment with more traditional acne therapies and medications. Excessive oil production also stops the skin from sloughing off dead skin cells, which can also clog up pores, causing blackheads and whiteheads that without treatment can deepen into cysts. Combining this substance with other treatments is recommended to help dry pimples before the inflammation has a chance to grow inward. [4]

Keratin Reduction

One of the reasons your sebum glands clog is the overproduction of keratin in your skin, which is triggered by hormones. The reaction of benzoyl peroxide, which releases cleansing oxygen and free radicals, breaks down the keratin. This helps stop pores from becoming re-clogged. [5]

How to Use?

Benzoyl peroxide is available both in over-the-counter medications [6] and in higher strengths through a prescription. It is available as gels, washes, and lotions. Before using a benzoyl product for the first time, it is important to check for any allergic reactions. Try the product first on a small spot several days in a row. Dryness is common, but any extreme red inflammation means that benzoyl peroxide should be avoided. Benzoyl peroxide will also bleach any clothing, hair, or furniture, so be careful when applying it.

When using a benzoyl peroxide gel, apply it sparingly and directly to acne spots. Do not get this compound in your mouth, eyes, or the inside of your nose. Leave it on as long as instructed. If using a liquid cleanser, rub the solution on all affected areas and leave on the skin for 10-20 seconds before washing off.

Before all applications of benzoyl peroxide, wash the area gently with a mild cleanser. Do not scrub or exfoliate after using, as the skin might be sensitive, and thereby result in inflammation.

Other Uses of Benzoyl Peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is a bleaching agent as well. It is commonly used for bleaching hair and is an active ingredient in many tooth whitening systems. Industrially, it is used as an oxidizing agent in organic chemistry, and as a catalyst  [7]and hardener in polymer science. The oxidizing power of this compound also makes it a good cleaner for non-porous, non-organic surfaces, like vinyl and stone.

Side Effects

Benzoyl peroxide should not be ingested, and you should avoid contact with open skin or wounds, mouth, eyes and nose. Skin reactions like mild redness, dryness, and peeling may occur when you first start treatment, but this should subside.

Some people show hypersensitivity to benzoyl peroxide, in which case it can cause extreme redness and inflammation. Photosensitivity has also been reported on rare occasion. A serious allergic reaction can occur, which can include rash, swelling of the mouth and tongue, trouble breathing, and dizziness.

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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