Hydrogen peroxide is an antiseptic and bleaching agent. It kills many types of microorganisms, including bacteria. Many people have tried hydrogen peroxide for acne because of its antibacterial and drying properties. However, there is no evidence to prove that it can clear acne.
In some cases, hydrogen peroxide could make acne or scarring worse. There is also a lack of evidence to show that it’s safe to use as an acne treatment. People who have moderate to severe inflammatory acne may need to avoid it.
Keep reading to learn more about using hydrogen peroxide for acne, including acne types, its effect on scarring, and the risks.
There are two main types of acne:
- Non-inflammatory acne: This includes blackheads and whiteheads that are not swollen or inflamed. The lesions are usually small and do not have redness or pain.
- Inflammatory acne: This includes red and sometimes painful acne pimples, pustules, and cysts. Inflammatory acne breakouts are often deeper in the skin than noninflammatory acne.
There is no evidence that hydrogen peroxide can help either type of acne. People who choose to use it, particularly those with moderate to severe inflammatory acne, must take great care when using hydrogen peroxide.
There are several risks to using hydrogen peroxide as a form of acne treatment.
Irritation worsens inflammatory acne
Hydrogen peroxide can irritate the skin, which may be detrimental to skin that is prone to acne.
Research suggests that inflammation is an important factor in acne development, and irritation can cause inflammation. This can worsen the discomfort of inflammatory acne by increasing redness, itching, and pain.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advise people not to use any product that will dry out or irritate the skin, as it can cause irritation and lead to more breakouts.
It could delay healing of current acne
Research suggests that hydrogen peroxide may reduce infection, but it is harsh on the skin, causes irritation, and may delay wound healing in some instances.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, products containing concentrations of 3–5% peroxide, which are readily available in many stores, can cause skin irritation. At even higher concentrations, hydrogen peroxide will cause even more irritation.
Dangerous on wounds
In rare cases, using hydrogen peroxide on wounds can cause an oxygen embolism, which is life-threatening. This happens when a blood vessel becomes blocked by an air bubble.
What about non-inflammatory acne?
People who have mild cases of non-inflammatory acne can try hydrogen peroxide without a high risk of making inflammation worse.
However, they should ensure they dilute all hydrogen peroxide solutions to a 1% concentration by adding distilled water. For example, if the hydrogen peroxide has a concentration of 3% concentration, dilute I part hydrogen peroxide to 3 parts water.
Stop using it if dryness, irritation, or other side effects occur.
People should also avoid getting hydrogen peroxide on clothing or fabrics, as it may bleach or stain them.
Acne — especially inflammatory acne — often causes damage to the deeper layers of skin, which can lead to scarring. Managing acne with the right treatment can help a person prevent these scars.
In most cases, a healthcare provider will prescribe an acne treatment designed to minimize breakouts, inflammation, and scarring.
Unfortunately, hydrogen peroxide could actually make acne scarring worse for some people. An older study in the Journal of Trauma: Injury, Infection, and Critical Care states that hydrogen peroxide may interfere with the formation of fibroblasts.
Fibroblasts are cells that help form collagen, which is an important connective tissue in the skin. Without collagen, skin cannot heal properly and rebuild itself, which could increase the risk of scars.
Benzoyl peroxide is a well-known acne treatment that kills bacteria and causes bleaching in the same way as hydrogen peroxide. However, although they release oxygen to kill bacteria, the two chemicals have a few key differences.
Benzoyl peroxide is stable
Benzoyl peroxide has skin-peeling and anti-inflammatory properties, which can help clear acne. It’s also oil-soluble, which means it can penetrate the skin’s oil to work inside the pores. These properties, combined with its antibacterial ability, can help prevent acne breakouts in multiple ways.
Manufacturers typically stabilize benzoyl peroxide by combining it with other ingredients that stop it from breaking down on the skin.
Hydrogen peroxide is unstable
An article in the Journal of Cosmetic Science states that exposure to light and air makes common hydrogen peroxide unstable, reducing its effectiveness. Once a person applies it to their skin, it starts to lose its ability to kill bacteria.
However, using products that contain stabilized peroxide may have potential as an acne treatment. One study found that using a gel containing a stabilized hydrogen peroxide product at 1% concentration combined with adapalene showed good results when used to treat acne.
It is important to note that this stabilized formulation is very different from the standard 3% hydrogen “brown bottle” peroxide sold in stores. It is milder and keeps its effectiveness when exposed to light and air.
Hydrogen peroxide kills certain types of germs and bacteria. As such, it may be useful in disinfecting surfaces, utensils, and tools.
There is no research advocating the safe use of hydrogen peroxide as an acne treatment. However, people with mild, non-inflammatory acne who want to try it can use a diluted 1% strength. Hydrogen peroxide may not be as helpful as traditional acne treatments.
People with inflammatory acne should avoid hydrogen peroxide since it can cause irritation and may make scarring worse.
People with inflammatory acne should use proven acne treatments that are more gentle on the skin and help with healing.
People with acne should also see a dermatologist if their treatment is not working. A healthcare professional can suggest treatments that can help prevent the scarring and limit the emotional damage that acne can cause.