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Ingredient Spotlight: Benzoyl Peroxide


For many, just hearing the words “benzoyl peroxide” is enough to conjure up images of dry, flaky irritated skin. And although it’s an acne treatment that does come with some side effects, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective and well-researched ingredient on your quest for clear skin. For the past 80 years, it has been consistently praised by top dermatologists for its unique ability to actually penetrate the pore and treat the acne source. And although many have witnessed its incredible results, not many know the actual science behind this bacteria killer.

How It Works:
So what is benzoyl peroxide? Quite simply, benzoyl peroxide is an organic compound that kills bacteria, unclogs blocked pores and reduces inflammation. Once it touches the skin, it breaks down into two parts: benzoic acid and oxygen. Benzoic acid is a deep exfoliant that causes the skin to peel and dry, removing the dead skin and sebum (or oil) that builds up in your pores, and oxygen is an instant acne bacteria killer. Once oxygen floods the pores, all of those P. acnes (the bacteria responsible for acne) immediately die. In turn, by reducing bacteria in the pore, benzoyl peroxide also soothes inflammation within the blemish.

Types of Treatment:
It’s the active ingredient in many well-known acne treatments—such as Clearasil, Oxy, and ProActiv—and benzoyl peroxide is also available in topical prescription medications. Proven to effectively treat all types of acne, like blackheads, whiteheads, pimples, etc., benzoyl peroxide products can improve acne quickly. “Benzoyl Peroxide works quickly because it’s able to unclog the pore, which allows the antibacterial component to penetrate more deeply into the hair follicle where the bacteria lives,” says Dr. Cybele Fishman, a renowned dermatologist in New York City. “It’s also anti-inflammatory, so it will calm down the appearance of the pimple pretty rapidly.” And studies have found that over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide worked as well as prescription antibiotics in clearing acne. It’s more powerful than its main acne-fighting competitor, salicylic acid—making it more effective in treating the excess oil production and bacteria of cystic acne.

Side Effects & Usage:
But what makes it such an effective acne treatment also causes it to be harsh and drying, especially if overused. Though it ranges in strength from 2.5% up to 10%, studies have proven that a 2.5% formula is actually more effective in treating mild acne than a 5% or 10%. This has lead to many new formulations containing lower concentrations, which delivers results with less irritation. “My ideal formula would contain 2.5 to 5 %, since I think the higher percentages give more irritation without more efficacy,” says Dr. Fishman. “And it should contain a moisturizing ingredient, like hyaluronic acid, to decrease the irritating effects.” Ultimately, the formula and usage should be based on skin type, level of sensitivity, types of acne lesions and skintone. “It’s irritation and dryness can lead to hyperpigmentation, especially in those with darker skintones,” says. Dr. Fishman. And watch out when using benzoyl peroxide with fabrics: It’s infamous for staining towels and sheets by oxidizing the color pigments.