is benzoyl peroxide the best treatment for acne

Is Benzoyl Peroxide good for acne? Depending on whom you ask, you’ll get a different answer:

“Got acne? You need to try benzoyl peroxide. It’s just the thing to make it disappear fast. It did wonders for me.”

“Are you crazy?! Don’t listen to her. Everyone knows benzoyl peroxide is dangerous. It’s irritating as hell and gives you wrinkles, too.”

Who’s right? Well… both. Huh?

Benzoyl peroxide is a powerful weapon against acne. And like all powerful weapons, it can leave behind a trail of damage when not used correctly. No wonder some people are totally put off by it. Should you be too?

I can’t decide for you if the trade-off is worth it. But I can tell you what the science says about Benzoyl Peroxide, how to use it properly, and what the potential side effects are, so you can make an informed choice for your skin that helps you treat your acne without causing unnecessary problems.

So, is Benzoyl Peroxide good for acne… or not?

What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide is a peroxide. Duh! (in case you’re wondering, a peroxide is an unstable bond of two oxygen atoms that can generate free radicals). To be exact, its molecular structure is made up of two benzoyl groups connected to a peroxide. If that’s too scientific for you, here’s the laywoman version: it’s a granular wide solid that faintly smells of benzaldehyde. It doesn’t dissolve well in water. Instead, it’s soluble in acetone, ethanol, and alcohol.

Can Benzoyl Peroxide Treat Acne?

Yes, Benzoyl Peroxide is one of the most effective treatments for acne because it tackles it on several fronts. In the words of New York City board-certified dermatologist Jessica Krant, M.D:

“Benzoyl peroxide is so effective and reliable for acne because it works via several different mechanisms at once. It is both antimicrobial, killing bacteria and other organisms, and an exfoliant, helping to unclog pores and gently debride the surface layer of skin.” 

Let’s look at each of them, shall we?

Let’s start with its antimicrobial properties. Benzoyl peroxide kills P.Acnes (the bacteria that causes acne) by releasing more oxygen into your pores. It’s really difficult for bacteria to survive in an oxygen-rich environment. So, the more oxygen your skin has, the lesser the chance of a breakout.

Benzoyl peroxide has an exfoliating action, too. Acne happens when dead cells get stuck into your pores, where they mix with excess oil. P. Acnes then feeds on this gunk, inflaming your skin and giving you breakouts. By removing dead cells from the surface of your skin before they can fall into your pores and clog them up, Benzoyl Peroxide helps to prevent breakouts – and treat acne faster.

The best part? While bacteria grow resistant to other antibiotics and acne-treatments, the same doesn’t happen here. P.Acnes doesn’t grow resistant to benzoyl peroxide so you don’t have to worry about it not working anymore after a few months.

Related: How To Treat Adult Acne

Looking for an effective acne routine that doesn’t break the bank? Download your FREE “The Ordinary Anti-Acne Skincare Routine” cheat sheet to get started:

What Types Of Acne Does Benzoyl Peroxide Treat?

Acne comes in many forms. Blackheads and whiteheads are the less severe, non-inflammatory ones. Then, you have pustular acne, the small red bumps with acne tips everyone gets every now then. In severe cases, acne becomes cystic. That’s when you have deep and painful, angry red bumps.

Benzoyl Peroxide can work for all types of acne, but it’s most effective to treat blackheads, whiteheads, and pustular acne. Cystic acne usually needs something stronger, although Benzoyl Peroxide can certainly be part of the arsenal used to fight it once and for all.

Does Benzoyl Peroxide Make Your Skin Age Faster?

Benzoyl Peroxide does generate a small amount of free radicals, the nasty little molecules that wreak havoc on proteins like collagen and elastin and even destroy your cell’s DNA. The result? Wrinkles and saggy skin.

That’s enough to make you want to stay away from Benzoyl Peroxide acne treatments, right? Not so fast. There’s more to take into account before making any decision. Here’s what else you need to know.

Not all free radicals are created equal. The type you want to avoid like the plague are hydroxyl radicals. They’re the most damaging for your skin. Luckily, benzoyl peroxide doesn’t generate hydroxyl radicals. It generates phenyl radicals.

According to Paula Begoun: “Phenyl radicals are not as damaging as hydroxyl radicals, and since the reaction leading to damage occurs quickly [BP can deplete 50% of vitamin E naturally found in your skin within 30 minutes], the damage is brief and fleeting. This is no more harmful than the free radical damage that occurs to your skin from simply being surrounded by oxygen, and such a reaction is easily countered by products containing antioxidants.”

Pay attention to that last part: you can neutralise those free radicals with antioxidants. Benzoyl peroxide isn’t a sure sentence to deep wrinkles. Phew!

Related: What Are The Best Antioxidant Serums?

Benzoyl Peroxide Side Effects: Does It Have Any?

Yep. In high concentrations, benzoyl peroxide can irritate skin, dry it out or give you an allergy. Luckily, studies show that low (2.5%) concentrations of Benzoyl Peroxide have the same benefits as higher doses, but with fewer side effects. Higher isn’t always better in skincare, ladies!

How To Use Benzoyl Peroxide For Acne

Benzoyl peroxide isn’t as bad as it’s made out to be. But, it still has a few side effects, so I don’t recommend it as your first treatment against acne. Try something gentler like salicylic acid first and, if that doesn’t work, move onto benzoyl peroxide.

One more thing: phenyl radicals may not be as dangerous as hydroxyl radicals but still, you do want to limit their production. In other words, use benzoyl peroxide only on your pimples, not your whole face, and follow up with a good antioxidant serum. Here are my fave antioxidant serums for acne-prone skin:

  • Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum (£28.00/$33.00): It contains Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, the only form of Vitamin C that’s proven to fight acne. Plus, plenty of other antioxidants. Available at iHerb and Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Ultra-Light Super Antioxidant Concentrate Serum ($38.00/£35.00): This lightweight formula contains every possible antioxidant you can think of. Available at DermstoreFeel UniqueNordstrom and Paula’s Choice
  • The Ordinary EUK 134 0.1% (£6.90): It contains a version of Superoxide Dismutase, one of the most powerful types of antioxidants out there. It’s hard to find products with it, so this is a great supplement to your skincare routine. Available at Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty and Feel Unique

Related: Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Should You Choose?

How Long Does Benzoyl Peroxide Take To Work?

This depends on how severe your acne is. If you’re just dealing with the odd pimple, you’ll see it disappear within days. If you’re dealing with severe acne, it’ll take at least 4 weeks before you start to see significant results. Hang in there!

Benzoyl Peroxide VS Salicylic Acid: Which One Should You Use?

Salicylic Acid, a.k.a. Beta Hydroxy Acid (BHA), is the best exfoliant for acne-prone skin. Here’s why:

  • It exfoliates the surface of your skin, so dead cells can’t fall into your pores and clog them up.
  • It’s oil-soluble, so it can penetrate inside your pores and remove all the gunk that’s giving you blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, and any other form of acne, really.
  • It has anti-inflammatory properties that reduce the redness and inflammation that always come along with acne.
  • It’s gentler than Benzoyl Peroxide and well-tolerated by most skin types.

Salicylic Acid is a non-negotiable for acne-prone skin – even if you don’t currently have active acne. This exfoliant does a great job at keeping your pores clean, so you don’t have to deal with acne in the first place.

But what about active acne? Benzoyl Peroxide is stronger and can treat acne faster than Salicylic Acid does. If you want faster results, go with Benzoyl Peroxide. If you’re willing to play a slightly longer game to avoid the potential irritation from Benzoyl Peroxide, Salicylic Acid is your best option.

I personally use the latter and turn to Benzoyl Peroxide only when I absolutely have to (and because I exfoliate regularly with Glycolic and Salicylic acids, I rarely have to – I just don’t get acne). Here are my fave exfoliants with Salicylic Acid:

  • Drunk Elephant T.L.C. Framboos Glycolic Night Serum ($90.00): It contains both Salicylic Acid to unclog pores and Glycolic Acid to fade away the dark marks pimples sometimes leave behind. Available at Cult BeautySephora and SpaceNK.
  • Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid ($29.00): One of my absolutely fave exfoliants with Salicylic Acid, it treats acne, unclogs pores, and prevents breakouts. The texture’s a little sticky, though. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice.
  • The Inkey List Beta Hydroxy Acid (£9.99): A no-fuss, simple, and gentle Salicylic Acid exfoliant for anyone on a strict budget. Available at Cult Beauty and Feel Unique.

Can You Use Benzoyl Peroxide With Salicylic Acid?

I get this question all the time. Both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid are effective ingredients for oily, acne-prone skin. You know all about benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid by now and why the latter is my fave option – at least as the first line of defense against acne.

But what happens when you use Benzoyl Peroxide and Salicylic Acid together? Studies show that  benzoyl peroxide works even better when used with salicylic acid. But, this combo is too harsh for some people. It can irritate your skin and make it flake.

If you want to use both, I recommend you use salicylic acid in the morning and stick to benzoyl peroxide at night. Or you can use them on alternate days.

Related: Why Salicylic Acid Is Key To Keep Oily Skin Spot-Free

Benzoyl Peroxide In Pregnancy: Should You Use It?

If you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, avoid Benzoyl Peroxide. This ingredient has a pregnancy category C safety labeling. In other words, this means that Benzoyl Peroxide cause birth defects when tested on animals. No studies have been done (and can be done, for obvious reasons!!) on humans. Still, it’s better to be on the safe side and avoid Benzoyl Peroxide in pregnancy.

Who Should NOT Use Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl Peroxide is good for acne. It just works. But that doesn’t mean everyone should use it. If you have very dry or sensitive skin that gets irritated easily, Benzoyl Peroxide will only irritate it further. Acne is an inflammatory disease. The more irritated your skin is, the worse your acne will get. If that’s you, use Salicylic acid instead. Or, you could get away with a Benzoyl Peroxide face wash (more on that below).

Benzoyl Peroxide Face Wash: Should You Use One?

I usually don’t recommend you use a Benzoyl Peroxide face wash. Why? This is an ingredient that needs to stay on the surface of your skin to work its anti-acne magic. If it’s in a face wash, you’ll be washing it down the drain when you rinse the cleanser off. A Benzoyl Peroxide spot treatment that stays onto your skin will help you treat your acne better and faster.

The only exception to this rule? If your skin’s on the sensitive side and gets irritated easily, a Benzoyl Peroxide face wash can give your acne its daily dose of medicine without irritating skin. Just be aware it’ll take you longer to see results.

Have sensitive skin and want to try a Benzoyl Peroxide face wash? Here are my top picks:

  • CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser ($15.99): A 4% Benzoyl Peroxide cleanser loaded with ceramide to strengthen the skin’s protective barrier as it cleanses and flights acne. Available at Ulta.
  • Differin Daily Deep Cleanser BPO 5% ($14.99): A powerful face wash with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide loaded with Glycerin that hydrates skin while the former does its anti-acne job. Available at Ulta.
  • Proactiv Renewing Cleanser ($25.00): A gentle cleanser with 2.5% Benzoyl Peroxide suitable for sensitive skin. Available at Ulta.

What Are The Best Benzoyl Peroxide Products To Treat Acne?

  • Dr Zenovia 5% Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Spot Treatment ($25.00): Enriched with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide, Glycolic acid to exfoliate skin, and skin-soothers to reduce redness and inflammation, this spot treatment helps you to get rid of those nasty pimples faster. Available at Dermstore.
  • Paula’s Choice Clear Daily Skin Clearing Treatment With 5% benzoyl peroxide ($18.00): This treatment pairs Benzoyl Peroxide with plenty of anti-inflammatory ingredients to reduce its irritating potential and treat acne faster. Available at Dermstore and Paula’s Choice
  • Proactiv Emergency Blemish Relief ($20.00): A simple, no-free acne treatment with 5% Benzoyl Peroxide to fight pimples and acne. Available at Sephora and Ulta

The Verdict: Is Benzoyl Peroxide Good For Acne?

Yes, Benzoyl peroxide is good for acne. It’s an effective acne treatment that can kill acne-causing bacteria and give you your clean skin back. But it can cause irritants, especially in sensitive skin. Use it carefully!