Tired of breakouts? Get to know this acne-fighting ingredient
Move over, salicylic acid.
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
Looking for a way to banish acne from your skin? Several remedies exist and you may have tried popular ones like creams or gels containing salicylic acid or pimple patches. But, there’s another ingredient that’s beloved for its bacteria-fighting abilities worth considering: benzoyl peroxide.
To find out whether this ingredient could help your skin, we spoke with Dr. Suzanne Friedler, a board-certified dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology PC in New York City, about the pros and cons of benzoyl peroxide and how to use it effectively.
The benefits of benzoyl peroxide
Benzoyl peroxide prevents and fights against acne, including comedones, i.e., clogged pores that present as whiteheads and blackheads. It’s able to do so because it’s antimicrobial, meaning it kills microorganisms, such as bacteria or fungi, that can lead to acne. The ingredient also reduces oil production and can prevent folliculitis (or inflamed hair follicles) by limiting bacteria in the areas you may typically see inflammation, like where you shave.
A major benefit of using using an antimicrobial like benzoyl peroxide is that you won’t stop seeing results after a long period of use like you may with an antibiotic, such as erythromycin or clindamycin, two topical prescription acne treatments. “That’s really the great thing about it is that you can use it forever and ever and you’ll never really develop a resistance to it,” Friedler says.
The drawbacks of benzoyl peroxide
Considering its oil-reducing abilities, it’s unsurprising that benzoyl peroxide is drying on the skin. “The higher the percentage of benzoyl peroxide you use, the more drying it is,” says Friedler. The good news: You don’t need a high concentration to see a reduction in acne, though people with an oily skin type may prefer a higher percentage to curb excess oil production. If you have very sensitive skin, try using a low concentration only in the warmer months when your skin may be less dry or red or skip benzoyl peroxide altogether and choose a milder ingredient, such as salicylic or glycolic acid.
Another downside: Benzoyl peroxide may bleach your clothes or towels. Lower concentrations, like those you’ll find in OTC formulas, will not bleach dark skin tones, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, but will discolor fabric. Use white towels to dry your face if you’re using a face wash including the ingredient or white pillow cases if you plan to use an overnight treatment. As a safety measure, avoid getting the wash or treatment on your eyebrows or hair, as some people report a lightening of their eyebrows from using the ingredient.
How to use benzoyl peroxide
How you use this ingredient will depend on the concentration and formula type you decide to buy. Benzoyl peroxide comes in strengths ranging from 2.5% to 10% over the counter. “Someone with more sensitive skin might use a 2.5% concentration, somebody with kind of normal skin might use 5%, and for body areas that tend to be really oily like chests or backs in the summer months, I might even go to a 10% concentration,” Friedler says. You can also choose 10% if you deal with excess oil on the face, though you may want to start with a lower concentration of 5% and see how well your skin tolerates it first.
You’ll mostly find benzoyl peroxide in either a wash-off and leave-on treatment. While both may be adequate for reducing oil and acne, consider trying the latter: “Using a leave-on will be more effective because you’re using it to fight bacteria, [...] so [the leave-on] is going to be better able to fight the bacteria long-term,” Friedler says. “Not that washes with benzoyl peroxide are ineffective, but you may have an added benefit from leaving it on.”
Once you decide on your pick, add it into your routine gradually to avoid irritating your skin. “In general, whenever you’re introducing a new skin product, it’s always better to start it gently,” Friedler says. “Start off once a day and then gradually increase it as your skin tolerates it well.” As your skin becomes accustomed to the ingredient, you can use it up to twice a day—and Friedler says those with very oily skin may find twice daily use helpful. Regardless of how often you decide to apply benzoyl peroxide—or the time of year—keep on top of wearing sunscreen daily, as the ingredient can make your skin more sensitive to the sun, Friedler says.
When you first begin using benzoyl peroxide, mild sensitivity and dryness are normal, but stop using it if you experience itching, burning, swelling, crusting, or redness—all of which Friedler says could be signs of an allergic reaction.
1. For a mild moisturizer: Paula’s Choice Daily Skin Clearing Treatment
Those with sensitive or dry skin should try a low concentration of benzoyl peroxide first. This leave-on option from Paula’s Choice contains a 2.5% concentration to tackle breakouts as well as bisabolol and allantoin extracts—both plant extracts—to soothe the skin. The lotion-like formula claims to have a lightweight, matte finish that’ll wear well under makeup. Apply the treatment to acne-prone areas after cleansing.
2. For a gentle cleanser: Cerave Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser
If you want to test benzoyl peroxide in a wash formula before leaving it on your skin overnight, go with this cleanser from Cerave. In addition to its 4% concentration of benzoyl peroxide, it contains hyaluronic acid to hydrate, ceramides to protect the skin barrier, and niacinamide to calm the skin. Use a dime-sized amount to wash your face, avoiding your eye area. Get the Cerave Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser from Amazon for $11.97
3. For a spot treatment: La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treatment
Normal to oily skin types may find a 5% concentration sufficient for clearing acne and keeping oil at bay. This spot treatment from La Roche-Posay offers that as well as lipo-hydroxy acid (a derivative of salicylic acid) to chemically exfoliate the skin and glycerin, a humectant that will prevent loss of hydration. Apply a thin layer of the lotion on acne-prone areas of the skin.
4. For a strong face and body wash: PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash
Ease into using the maximum-strength OTC concentration with a wash-off treatment. PanOxyl contains 10% benzoyl peroxide to treat face and body acne, along with glycerin to help keep the skin hydrated. Massage a small amount of the foam wash into wet skin anywhere you have acne, including on the body.
5. For a potent targeted treatment: Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10 Acne Medication
If your skin tolerates lower concentrations of leave-on treatments well, you may consider trying this gel from 10% concentrated formula Clean & Clear. Apply the gel treatment in a thin layer onto cleansed skin anywhere you’re seeing acne.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.