Benzoyl peroxide for acne: the benefits and the side effects you should know about

A consultant dermatologist breaks down the benefits of benzoyl peroxide, an over the counter ingredient that can help treat blemishes.

Got acne-prone skin? While there’s a wide range of skincare ingredients that can help, there are two that skin experts recommend over and over again: salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide. We’ve already covered all you need to know about the former, but there’s confusion around the latter and how it helps to treat blemishes

So, we asked Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55, to break down everything you need to know about benzoyl peroxide; from the benefits and side effects to the places where you can get your hands on it.

What is benzoyl peroxide?

“Benzoyl peroxide is a chemical agent that is often used to treat acne. It can be found in both over the counter topical creams as well as on prescription from your GP or dermatologist. Prescription benzoyl peroxide can be combined with antibiotics such as clindamycin (Duac gel) or retinoids such as adapalene (Epiduo). It works by killing the bacteria implicated in acne, reducing inflammation and unblocking pores. It comes in varying strengths of 2.5%, 5% and 10%; the higher percentages are more likely to cause irritation to the skin with limited extra benefit.”

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How often should you use it and how long does it take to work?

“Patience is required with any topical agent used for acne and it may take a minimum of six to 12 weeks to work.”

What are the benefits of benzoyl peroxide?

“Benzoyl peroxide can be an effective agent for mild to moderate acne-prone skin. It is generally regarded as safe to use in pregnancy.”

What are the side effects?

“Redness, peeling, irritation, dry skin and itching can be relatively common side effects associated with benzoyl peroxide. Building up use slowly and cautiously is the best way to avoid this. Applying a light, oil-free moisturiser 20 minutes after application may help. Be aware that the ingredient can cause bleaching of clothes and bedding and make some people more sensitive to sunlight.”

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Can you buy benzoyl peroxide in drugstores/shops?

“Benzoyl peroxide containing preparations can be purchased over the counter from a pharmacy. Stronger, combination preparations with antibiotics or retinoids require a prescription.”

What is the difference between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?

“Whilst both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid can be used for acne-prone skin, their mechanism of action and chemical structure is very different. Salicylic acid is a beta-hydroxy acid or exfoliating acid which can reduce oil production; benzoyl peroxide, on the other hand targets the bacteria which is involved in acne pathogenesis.”

What skin types are best suited to benzoyl peroxide?

“Benzoyl peroxide is for mild to moderate acne. It is not indicated for those who do not have this skin issue.”

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