All You Need to Know About Benzoyl Peroxide (and Why I Think It's Amazing)

Benzoyl peroxide
by Samantha Rizzo

Benzoyl peroxide (BP) is an ingredient  commonly see in products aimed at people with acne-prone skin. It’s one of the most successful over-the-counter acne treatments out there, targeting several of the acne pathways: it penetrates pores and pimples easily, it exfoliates dead skin, and it’s both anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory. This makes it a powerful weapon against both inflammatory and noninflammatory acne, and it’s why so many people choose to  include it in their routine.


Even though benzoyl peroxide is a wildly common, effective and safe acne treatment, it has gotten a bit of a bad rap within the skincare community. I’m here to set the record straight once and for all. While BP may not be the perfect acne treatment, it can and does help many people so don’t rule it out, at least until you’ve read all the way to the end!


who should use benzoyl peroxide?


You may be thinking,benzoyl peroxide just isn’t for me” – and honestly, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that! There are some negative side effects to BP (discussed below) that are a bit of a turn-off. Even still, BP offers a fast and effective acne treatment that, in the right formula, can be suitable for almost anyone. Products containing BP can be especially useful for those who feel hopeless and out of options, who have stubborn and resistant acne, and those who are currently using topical antibiotics (BP is more effective, and bacteria won’t become resistant). If you’re thinking of using benzoyl peroxide, keep reading to see if it’s right for you.


picking a concentration


Benzoyl peroxide products typically come in concentrations of 2.5%, 5%, and 10%. Let me save you the hassle right away – it doesn’t matter what your skin type is, or how bad your acne is, you should start at 2.5% and only work your way up to 5% or 10% if you need to. Not only will starting at a lower concentration reduce the side effects that make BP so undesirable – irritation (redness, itchiness, dryness and flaking) – but it will also enable you to find the perfect concentration for your skin without over-drying or damaging it. Not to mention, higher concentrations aren’t necessarily more effective.

You may prefer to start with a benzoyl peroxide face wash instead of a leave-on product, which will ultimately spend less time on the skin (reducing the risk of side effects) but will also be less effective. 


how often should i use benzoyl peroxide?


Benzoyl peroxide can cause irritation and redness, which are considered common and normal side effects. Most effective acne treatments – retinoids, AHAs, BHAs, and even antibiotics – have similar side effects. The key is in using the product appropriately to reduce the severity of the side effects to a manageable level.

To combat these side effects, you should build up the frequency of use to a point where you’re satisfied, and then gradually scale back to a comfortable “maintenance” use.

Although it will vary a little from person to person, most people can start out with once daily use, and slowly increase to twice or three times a day, as needed. Some sensitive skin types may benefit from using it only every second day.

After getting the initial breakout under control, some people can even scale back use to just a few times a week and supplement with other great acne-fighting ingredients the other days!


how to use benzoyl peroxide


Using benzoyl peroxide properly really is the key to getting the best results with the least amount of side effects. Too often people simply skim product directions as if they’re mere suggestions, but following the instructions when using products like BP is  integral to the success of the treatment.


STEP ONE: Cleanse with a gentle, pH-balanced cleanser and let your skin dry completely. Like, completely. Damp skin enhances absorption and increases irritation when using products like BP, which already penetrate the skin easily.

Otherwise, you can choose to cleanse your skin with a BP wash, skipping step two. Then, you let your skin dry and continue with the rest of the routine.


STEP TWO: Apply a thin layer of benzoyl peroxide to your entire face, or on problem areas only. You don’t have to apply it all over if you only have a few problem areas. If your skin is sensitive, like mine, you would be better off applying it only on your problem areas.

Once you’ve applied the BP conservatively, give it a while to set into your skin and dry before applying anything else (about 5-15 minutes).


STEP THREE: Don’t skip moisturizing! Contrary to the misconception, you still need to moisturize your skin when you’re using acne treatments. Benzoyl peroxide can make your skin dry but following it up with a moisturizer can offset this negative side effect and keep your skin looking plump and youthful.  


STEP FOUR: Definitely don’t skip the sunscreen, either. A lot of people find out the hard way that BP coupled with unprotected sun exposure causes damage and discoloration to the skin. When using photosensitizing products like benzoyl peroxide, sunscreen is a necessity, not an option.

Chemical sunscreens need to be applied immediately after cleansing to properly bind with the skin, but acne treatments like BP also need to be in contact with the skin to be most effective. Because of this, mineral sunscreens may be the best option for daytime BP use, as they can be applied as the last step in your routine.


hack your benzoyl peroxide


Benzoyl peroxide on its own is great for acne, but there are other things we can do in our routine to make its (side) effects even better.


Antioxidants – Benzoyl peroxide oxidizes when it contacts with the skin, which is one of the mechanisms it works by to clear our acne. Unfortunately, this reaction also depletes antioxidants on the skin’s surface.

Although our skin’s antioxidants are constantly being replenished from the foods we eat (which is why it’s important to eat a plant-iful diet), adding some  topical antioxidants may actually lessen any damage caused by BP.

Choose a high-quality, stable serum formula with a well-studied antioxidant (such as vitamin c) and apply it after your BP has dried completely, but before your moisturizer.

Vitamin E – If your skin can handle the added vitamin E in a product, it  may be beneficial to include when using benzoyl peroxide as an acne treatment. However, supplementing your diet with more vitamin E may be a better option to offset the oxidation on your skin.


Retinoids To supplement your routine, you can also alternate BP use with acne-fighting topical retinoids. BP inactivates certain retinoids, though, so you can’t apply them together. However, when you apply them separately (BP in the morning and a retinoid at night, or on alternating days), they  work quite well together as an acne treatment.


Despite benzoyl peroxide’s  safety profile, some people do have allergies to it. Although true allergies are rare, and side effects of dryness and redness are common and not symptoms of a reaction, it’s something to keep an eye out for.


As always, most of the things we don’t like about benzoyl peroxide are the result of misconceptions and improper use. Following the directions carefully will help minimize most of the negative side effects associated with it.

If you ask me, everyone should have some benzoyl peroxide in their lives – even if it’s just for when you’re in a pinch and need a super effective spot treatment. I love having a product I can rely on to clear up my acne quickly, and often without a fuss. And while BP does, in effect, cause some “damage” to the skin (although much less, when used properly) it could also be argued that acne causes considerably more damage to the skin.

One thing I will say, though … although my skin loves the addition of benzoyl peroxide, my towels don’t. Consider yourself forewarned – it’ll bleach fabrics.


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