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For anyone with acne, the terms salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide have probably been on your radar since breakout number one. Both of these ingredients have been used in products designed to eliminate existing acne symptoms and, ideally, prevent more from popping up on your skin. But there's a bit more to it than just slathering on the first benzoyl peroxide formula you can find. Depending on your skin and the severity of your acne, benzoyl peroxide may be an ingredient option to look for when choosing a product to use on your complexion. Whether you opt for over-the-counter or prescription-grade items to treat your acne, benzoyl peroxide will work to deep-clean your clogged pores and eliminate symptoms like pimples.
So, what exactly is benzoyl peroxide, and why do so many people use it for their acne? We reached out to two dermatologists to find out what is is, why it works, and how to tell if it may be the right solution for your skincare concerns.
TYPE OF INGREDIENT: Anti-bacterial
MAIN BENEFITS: Reduces acne-causing bacteria
WHO SHOULD USE IT: In general, benzoyl peroxide is suitable for those looking to treat mild to moderate acne at home.
HOW OFTEN CAN YOU USE IT: Benzoyl peroxide shouldn't be used more than twice per day, at most.
WORKS WELL WITH: Benzoyl peroxide works well in combination with salicyclic acid to treat acne.
DON'T USE WITH: Don't use multiple benzoyl peroxide products at once. Benzoyl peroxide may also reduce the efficacy of vitamin C products when used as part of the same routine.
What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?
“Benzoyl peroxide is an organic acid in the peroxide family that has been used to treat acne for more than sixty years,” explains AcneFree consulting dermatologist, Dr. Hadley King. “It is an effective treatment for acne because of its keratolytic, moderate comedolytic, and antibacterial properties, which include the reduction of P. acnes and Staph. aureus on the skin.” While the effects of benzoyl peroxide can be seen on just about any type of acne, these three types are commonly receptive to the bacteria-fighting ingredient:
Benefits of Benzoyl Peroxide For Skin
- Kills acne-causing bacteria: Benzoyl peroxide stops breakouts before they happen by killing the bacteria that causes breakouts.
- Removes excess oil: If excess shine is a concern for you, you may benefit from a benzoyl peroxide cleanser, which tends to have a mattifying effect on the skin.
- Removes dead skin cells: Benzoyl peroxide can help improve the efficacy of other products by reducing the buildup of dead skin cells, allowing for your serums and moisturizers to more easily penetrate.
Side Effects of Benzoyl Peroxide
Users might find that benzoyl peroxide can be drying and/or irritating, leaving patches of extreme dryness and redness. For most people, it's recommended to only use benzoyl peroxide in one form, up to twice a day. So, if you use a benzoyl peroxide cleanser in the morning, you shouldn't also use a BP spot treatment. (As always, you should consult your dermatologist about how to best integrate this ingredient into your routine.) Benzoyl peroxide can also decrease the efficacy of your vitamin C serum when used in the same routine—so if you use a vitamin C product in the morning, use your benzoyl peroxide product at night.
How to Use It
Whether you can pinpoint exactly what causes your acne or not, the bottom line is this: breakouts occur on our skin when bacteria forms within a clogged pore. This is what makes benzoyl peroxide the prefered pimple preventative or treatment for many people — it makes a beeline for bacteria and works hard to get rid of it. “The general over-the-counter skin care market is flooded with products for acne, most of which have one or the other if not both — benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid,” Dr. Shamban says, of the ingredients commonly found in acne-fighting products. “General gold star ingredients, either or both can work wonders on your skin but there are some main differences — benzoyl peroxide is the bacteria killer, while salicylic acid does more of the heavy lifting to remove oil or cell build-up within the pores that causes blockage which ultimately lead to acne development.” So, while salicylic acid exfoliates certain components that can lead to the formation of bacteria, benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria which has already begun to form, and there are several ways to use this ingredient on your skin.
As a Face Wash
“After years of testing products on clients, I created a great wash with both benzoyl peroxide and aloe vera — Benzaderm Wash 10% which, I often recommend for both face and body,” says Dr. Shamban. Because acne doesn’t only exist on the face, this wash is safe for use all over the body, where it works just as effectively. “Even for any arm, back, or bottom acne, this gets the job done,” she adds.
As a Spot Treatment
Benzoyl peroxide works by banishing bacteria from clogged pores. These affected pores are where acne symptoms like pimples and cysts show up, so what better way to treat existing pimples than hitting the exact spot they reside with a benzoyl peroxide spot treatment. “AcneFree's Terminator 10 Acne Spot Treatment contains 10% micro-benzoyl peroxide for its acne-fighting properties, combined with calming ingredients like chamomile, ginger and sea whip,” Dr. King says. “Anti-inflammatory ingredients are helpful to decrease the inflammation in the active pimple. They can also be helpful to soothe the skin because the other active acne-fighting ingredients can be irritating.”
As a Lotion
Want an all-over product that will help prevent pimples from forming? A mild lotion may be a good choice for you. “Since bacteria on the skin surface is a universal contributor to acne formation this is why there is such popularity of benzoyl peroxide products in the market,” Dr. Shamban explains. “Most acne fighting products have either benzoyl peroxide or salicylic as its active ingredient, and some have both combined.” When using a lotion that contains benzoyl peroxide it’s often suggested to do so after washing your face before bed, where it will work while you sleep. If you do choose to use a thin layer during the day time, be sure to apply an SPF on top as certain chemicals can make the skin more sensitive to sunburn.
As a Toner
“There are many benzoyl peroxide products available in the market. Some are higher strength through a prescription and need to be monitored by your dermatologist, but most are over the counter,” explains Dr. Shamban. One such type of product often found on drugstore shelves is a toner, which is applied to the skin and works as a topical treatment. One nice thing about using benzoyl peroxide in toner form is that you have a little more control over where you apply it, which can be ideal for anyone who experiences dryness when using this ingredient. To apply toner safely, simply add a small amount to a cotton ball or square and gently press it onto the affected area and allow it to dry.
The Best Products With Benzoyl Peroxide
Due to the high concentration of benzoyl peroxide in this product, dermatologists recommend using Effaclar as a localized spot treatment, rather than slathering it on all over. Use it to treat existing breakouts or apply regularly where breakouts tend to occur.
If you've had an adverse reaction to benzoyl peroxide before or you're concerned about picking it up for the first time, try this cleanser before you give up on the ingredient altogether. It contains five percent benzoyl peroxide (an ideal concentration for over-the-counter use), but is also formulated with a gentle moisturizing agent to off-set some of the drying effects of BP.
This extra-strength spot treatment contains the highest percent of benzoyl peroxide that you can get without a dermatologist's prescription: 10 percent. Proceed with caution and be sure to use this for its intended use (as a spot treatment) rather than slathering it on all over. Ease in slowly and pay attention to how your skin responds to this intense treatment.