Acne is a common skin condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It can be frustrating to deal with, and finding the right treatment can be challenging. Two ingredients are often confused with each other due to their similar sounding names – but what’s the difference between hydrogen peroxide vs benzoyl peroxide?
Are they both safe to use on your skin?
In this article, I’ll explain what each ingredient is, how they can help your skin, and a few key things you need to bear in mind to prevent destroying your skin.
What Is Hydrogen Peroxide?
Hydrogen peroxide is a colorless liquid that is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.
It’s a type of antiseptic and disinfectant that has been used for many years in the medical field to treat wounds and other infections.
Hydrogen peroxide works by killing bacteria and other germs that can cause infections. There are also claims that it reduces oil production – however, there’s no research to back this up.
In theory, the antibacterial effects of hydrogen peroxide should make it an effective acne treatment. This is particularly the case as hydrogen peroxide causes the release of oxygen into your skin.
The bacteria that cause acne (c.acnes) thrive in an oxygen-free and oily environment and exposing them to oxygen kills them.
What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?
Benzoyl peroxide is another common ingredient found in many acne treatments. Unlike hydrogen peroxide, benzoyl peroxide is specifically formulated for the treatment of acne.
When you apply it to your skin, it breaks down into benzoyl radicals and benzoic acid.
Benzoyl radicals are a type of free radical that create oxygen in your skin.
As mentioned above:
No oxygen = Increased c.acnes growth
By releasing free oxygen radicals in this way, benzoyl peroxide is able to kill the acne-causing bacteria in your skin.
Benzoic acid is thought to work in a similar way to salicylic acid and helps to exfoliate and unclog your pores.
Benzoyl peroxide may also target the inflammatory immune cells in your skin which prevents them from releasing the inflammatory molecules that can make acne look red and angry and sometimes feel painful.
Overall, benzoyl peroxide is:
- Oil controlling
However, it’s generally considered to be less effective at treating acne than retinoids and salicylic acid unless it’s combined with other ingredients.
Hydrogen Peroxide vs Benzoyl Peroxide
Although both ingredients work in a similar way (by creating oxygen) there are a few key differences between hydrogen peroxide vs benzoyl peroxide when it comes to using them on your skin.
Hydrogen peroxide has long been used as first aid for wounds in an attempt to reduce the risk of infection. However, there is little evidence that it actually helps kill bacteria inside a wound.
Furthermore, some evidence suggests that it can damage healthy skin cells and slow down the wound healing process.
During wound healing, cells called ‘fibroblasts’ help create new tissue in order to repair your skin. Hydrogen peroxide has been shown to slow down their activity which affects how your wounds heal.
It also increases the risk of scarring as fibroblasts are the cells that produce new collagen in your skin.
During the would healing process:
Too much collagen = hypertrophic (raised) scarring
Too little collagen = atrophic (pitted) scarring
When it comes to acne, this is particularly concerning as reduced collagen production during the acne healing process is linked to the development of pitted acne scars.
There’s also evidence to suggest that hydrogen peroxide can increase acne inflammation which means redder, angrier-looking spots!
In contrast, benzoyl peroxide has plenty of research to suggest that it is an effective acne treatment and when used alongside adapalene, can also help improve the appearance of acne scarring.
Another difference between hydrogen peroxide vs benzoyl peroxide is how they treat acne. Benzoyl peroxide targets all four of the main causes of acne which are dead skin cell build-up, overproduction of oil, bacteria, and inflammation.
In contrast, hydrogen peroxide is only proven to target bacteria and may actually increase acne inflammation.
Research suggests that, by producing free radicals, benzoyl peroxide can deplete your skin levels of vitamin E – a side-effect that may also be an issue with hydrogen peroxide.
However, using benzoyl peroxide alongside an antioxidant serum, or moisturizer can help keep your antioxidant levels where they need to be in order to protect your skin.
(Note that there is no evidence to suggest that the free radicals produced by benzoyl peroxide contribute to skin aging – there is also no evidence that they don’t but the anti-inflammatory effect of benzoyl peroxide may have anti-aging benefits).
How To Use Hydrogen Peroxide vs Benzoyl Peroxide
While I personally don’t recommend using hydrogen peroxide to treat acne, if this is something you intend to do, make sure that you’re using a diluted version. For example, a lot of household hydrogen peroxide products contain around 3% hydrogen peroxide which is way too high a concentration to use directly on your skin.
A 1% concentration is the maximum you should even consider using on your skin. That would mean diluting 1 part hydrogen peroxide to 3 parts water. You could then dab this solution onto your spots with a cotton wool pad.
However, the risk of skin irritation negates any benefit in my opinion. You would be much better off using benzoyl peroxide which has years of research behind it for treating acne.
Benzoyl peroxide can be used 1-2x a day, although the risk of skin irritation is higher with more frequent use depending on the product.
To reduce the risk of irritation, you could use benzoyl peroxide in a facial wash or try short contact therapy where you apply a benzoyl peroxide product that’s designed to be left on your skin and rinse it off after a set amount of time.
Benzoyl peroxide can be used in the AM or the PM depending on what other active ingredients you’re using. For example, vitamin C (as ascorbic acid) and some forms of retinoid are degraded by oxygen and will be less effective if used alongside benzoyl peroxide.
If using either of these ingredients then you may wish to use them at different times of the day.
- Vitamin C in the AM, Benzoyl Peroxide in the PM
- Benzoyl Peroxide in the AM, Retinol in the PM
Adapalene and encapsulated retinol are fine to layer with benzoyl peroxide. Vitamin C derivatives should also be okay to layer.
Both hydrogen peroxide vs benzoyl peroxide have the potential to cause skin irritation and dryness, although there should be less of a risk with benzoyl peroxide. They also both run the risk of bleaching hair, clothing, and/or bedding. So make sure you cover your pillowcase if using it at night.
Benzoyl peroxide is available in different strengths which means you can reduce the risk of skin irritation by starting at the lowest strength available (usually 2.5%) and gradually building up to 5% or even 10% as your skin builds tolerance.
As always, sunscreen is an essential part of any skincare routine – especially when using irritating ingredients like hydrogen peroxide vs benzoyl peroxide.
Summary – Hydrogen Peroxide vs Benzoyl Peroxide
Without a doubt, the better option for treating acne out of hydrogen peroxide vs benzoyl peroxide is benzoyl peroxide.
Hands down. Every time.
It has far more research backing its ability to treat acne, target acne from multiple angles, and cause fewer side effects.
Benzoyl peroxide also reduces acne inflammation and helps treat acne scarring while hydrogen peroxide increases acne inflammation and the risk of acne scarring.