The benefits of hydrogen peroxide for acne are mixed, because while hydrogen peroxide is extremely effective in removing excess oil from the skin and cleaning out the pores, it can cause adverse reactions such as rashes, burns, and redness on many people’s skin.
What is Hydrogen Peroxide?
Hydrogen Peroxide is the molecule H2O2 which when it comes in contact with the skin it produces free radicals of oxygen which can then interact with the skin surface. This interaction can have a range of benefits to skin health such as killing bad bacteria which promote the spread of acne, by increasing inflammation and reducing the potential for healing. Hydrogen peroxide can also be fantastic at stimulating fibroblast activity by oxygenating the skin which maintains this. Fibroblasts are closely associated with wound healing, hence this shows the promotion of healthier skin from the use of hydrogen peroxide.
However the above benefits are controversial, due to more recent scientific studies showing the hydrogen peroxide naturally produced by the body is linked to inflammation, as inhibiting this natural form of hydrogen peroxide decreased the inflammatory activity of individuals with acne within the study. The mode of action for hydrogen peroxide may not be as simple as it once seemed.
Is Hydrogen Peroxide Safe for your Skin?
In theory, hydrogen peroxide is safe for your skin. There are claims that it will benefit skin, by reducing bacteria and inflammation, but when we look at the ingredient simply it is a bleaching agent. If you have ever used a bleach to clean your house without wearing gloves I’m sure you are familiar with the dryness, irritation and redness the skin on your hands feel! The skin on your face is often more sensitive (especially so when we are experiencing acne!) so it’s likely this irritation and dryness will be felt greatly if hydrogen peroxide is applied to the facial skin!
If you have sensitive skin I wouldn’t recommend applying hydrogen peroxide at all, as you almost certainly will experience irritation.
Side Effects of using Hydrogen Peroxide
- Irritation : As previously mentioned, hydrogen peroxide really can irritate skin due it to it being a bleaching agent. This means it dries out skin, and at higher concentrations you may burn the skin also! As skin with acne is already inflamed, inflaming it further is likely to make it more painful and worsen redness and the potential for scarring.
- Bleaching risk : As hydrogen peroxide is a bleaching agent, there will be the risk for bleaching the skin. The oxygen free radical works by oxidizing the bacteria (killing it) but if applied to the skin around the spot this can damage healthy skin. Should the hydrogen peroxide solution be left on the healthy skin cells, such as melanocytes which produce skin pigment, it will bleach the color from the skin. This becomes more problematic for darker skin tones, as it would be more noticeable and hence many dermatologists would advise against even trying hydrogen peroxide treatment.
- Increased scarring : Despite previous thoughts that hydrogen peroxide may help wound healing and minimize scar formation, it has since been shown during clinical studies that this may be the opposite. Hydrogen peroxide was shown to affect the formation of fibroblasts which allow the processing of collagen, and without collagen the skin cannot repair itself. This lack of collagen increases the risk for scarring.
Does Hydrogen Peroxide help to clear acne breakouts?
Hydrogen peroxide can help to clear up the odd spot which is not associated with inflamed, chronic acne. This extends to spots which have been popped, and dermatologists do recommend it for this occasional use provided the hydrogen peroxide is properly diluted (as using it straight from the bottle, undiluted, will cause burns. This means hydrogen peroxide cannot clear up entire breakouts
A very important piece of information is our knowledge of hydrogen peroxide working on acne is anecdotal, as there haven’t been clinical studies done. This creates an issue as we don’t know if it truly was the hydrogen peroxide working – or did the individual change their diet, experience a hormonal surge or change their skincare regime? The lack of medical knowledge also means we don’t know the full extent of the potential side effects.
How to apply hydrogen peroxide on acne?
First of all you need to dilute the hydrogen peroxide to a safer concentration before applying to the skin, with the most commonly sold concentration being 3%. It’s best to dilute this to 1%, and to achieve this use 3 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide mixed together in a bowl.
Now the mixture is ready, apply it to your face by using a q-tip for individual spots and allow it to sit for a small amount of time (only for a few minutes.) It will probably tingle a little bit, but if it feels very painful wash your face immediately.
After the 3 minutes wash your face with water, ensuring all of the hydrogen peroxide solution is removed – this is important as leaving it on overnight will damage your skin.
Will hydrogen peroxide help fade acne scarring?
As we’ve previously discussed, hydrogen peroxide can impact fibroblast activity leading to the decreased production of collagen. Collagen is one of the key proteins within our body, and within our facial skin it reduces fine lines, ensures plumpness and makes sure correct wound healing. By impacting collagen production, wounds will not heal correctly and scars will take longer to form – often resulting in larger and more dramatic scars.
Alternatives to hydrogen peroxide for acne breakouts
A much more researched (and stable!) compound compared to hydrogen peroxide, but one which works in a similar way. It is safe to apply to the skin over a longer time, and is often prescribed as creams which are to be applied and left overnight. Due to its stability it allows no at home dilution to be required, making it overall a lot safer to choose as your acne treatment. It’s worth noting however, as benzoyl peroxide is also a bleaching agent it can be drying and irritating, and might bleach your clothes or towels/bedding. Benzoyl peroxide usually works pretty quickly. If you’d like to use a benzoyl peroxide product, this wash is a great place to start.
One of my favorite ingredients, probably the one I would keep if I was only allowed one! Retinoids is an umbrella term for molecules like retinol, adapalene, retinoic acid, retinal and tretinoin. Retinoids all work in the same way, by increasing cell turnover (aka increasing the speed that new healthy skin cells grow at) as well as breaking down dead skin cells within pores. They also help to regulate the amount of oil produced from the skin’s oil glands. Together these three factors reduce the amount of congestion within the pore, reducing acne. Retinoids are a long-term solution, and often it gets worse before it gets better so bear this in mind. Some fantastic retinoid recommendations are listed here.
Probably the most well known acne friendly ingredient, I’d hedge my bets that most ‘spot-busting’ products contain salicylic acid! It is oil-soluble, meaning it dives deep into the pores, and helps to dissolve the bonds between dead skin cells and debris. This allows effective removal, and unclogging of pores – and hence the reduction of spots. A small percentage of people cannot tolerate salicylic acid, but for most people this ingredient works well and quickly. One of the most well known (and loved) products with salicylic acid is this one from The Ordinary.
Short term – yes, as it will help to kill any bacteria present within the wound. Repeated use on the wound however is not advised due to the impact hydrogen peroxide has on the fibroblast activity (and hence wound healing.)
Yes, but it also kills healthy cells within the surrounding area so it may do more damage than good to the skin.