Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical agent used in cleaning products. Due to its antibacterial and bleaching properties, some people use it on their skin. However, many health authorities do not consider this safe.
Some people use hydrogen peroxide, or products that contain it, to address skin issues such as acne or hyperpigmentation.
Concentrations of hydrogen peroxide in commercial products vary, depending on their intended use. According to The National Capital Poison Center, some common concentrations include:
- 3% — typically the concentration in household cleansers used to kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses
- 6–10% — the concentration in some hair dyes and teeth whitening products
- up to 90% — the concentration in industrial products not intended for home use
Below, learn about the risks and applications of hydrogen peroxide in skin care.
People use hydrogen peroxide on the skin in many ways, such as to prevent infections in minor wounds, such as scrapes or small cuts.
However, experts no longer recommend using hydrogen peroxide in wound care, as it can irritate or damage the cells responsible for wound healing.
The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR), for example, note that low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide can cause skin irritation and blistering.
They recommend that if the chemical touches the skin, a person should wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.
In rare cases, using hydrogen peroxide on wounds can cause an oxygen embolism. This involves a blood vessel being blocked by an air bubble, and it can be life threatening.
Hydrogen peroxide has disinfecting and bleaching properties, and as a result, some people believe that it can combat infections, reduce blemishes, lighten the skin, and ease symptoms of certain conditions.
As the authors of one 2016 study report, researchers outside the United States have found that using a 1% hydrogen peroxide solution can treat acne as effectively as, and sometimes better than, benzoyl peroxide — a common ingredient in acne medication. The same research indicates that hydrogen peroxide also causes fewer side effects.
Though this may seem promising, people in the U.S. are unlikely to find any solutions with concentrations under 3% in the country.
Instead of trying products containing hydrogen peroxide, people in the U.S. should consult a doctor about the best acne treatment options.
The ATSDR note that exposure to diluted solutions of hydrogen peroxide can cause temporary skin bleaching.
An older study suggests that a concentration of 20–30% is necessary to lighten the skin — a range far greater than the 3% concentration deemed safe in household products. Overall, the risk of severe burns and blistering is far greater than the likelihood of skin lightening.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved a hydrogen peroxide topical solution as a treatment for a type of noncancerous growth called seborrheic keratoses.
However, to prevent skin damage, researchers warn that doctors should limit treatment to 2–4 applications.
Always speak with a healthcare provider before using hydrogen peroxide on the skin. They can usually suggest a less risky and more effective approach.
Using hydrogen peroxide on the skin can cause adverse reactions, including:
It can also cause eye damage — and if a person swallows or inhales hydrogen peroxide, the effects can be severe.
The risks of contact are higher in preparations with higher concentrations. It is always a good idea to handle hydrogen peroxide carefully.
If a person gets hydrogen peroxide in their eyes, they should flush their eyes for 20 minutes under running water, then contact a poison control center.
A person can receive help from a poison control center online here or by calling 1-800-222-1222.
If a child swallows household hydrogen peroxide, they will likely complain of a burning sensation and may vomit foam.
It may help to give the child milk or water. Contact a poison control center or the child’s doctor for additional instructions.
A range of products can safely treat acne. If a treatment routine is ineffective, a dermatologist or another doctor can recommend changes.
Some approaches to acne treatment or prevention include:
- using over-the-counter products containing active ingredients such as benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid
- washing the face twice a day with mild soap
- washing the skin after sweating
- removing makeup
- ensuring that the diet is healthful
To address hyperpigmentation, people can try topical creams that include azelaic acid, corticosteroids, or hydroquinone.
They might also try cosmetic procedures, such as laser therapy, chemical peels, or microdermabrasion. Some home remedies may also prove helpful.
When it comes to treating seborrheic keratoses, a doctor may not recommend treatment, unless the growths resemble cancer or cause issues such as catching on clothing or jewelry.
To remove these growths, a doctor may recommend cryotherapy, which freezes them off. Or, they may recommend curettage. This involves numbing the area and scooping out the growths. Another option is laser removal, in a procedure called ablation.
Hydrogen peroxide products can be useful disinfectants. However, applying the chemical to the skin may cause irritation, burns, or other adverse reactions.
It is a good idea to speak with a doctor, such as a dermatologist, about safe and effective ways to treat any skin issues and to handle any hydrogen peroxide products with care.