Everything you need to know about benzoyl peroxide for acne

Learn about the benefits and side effects of benzoyl peroxide acne treatments.

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We’re here to tell you what we know, but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider about your specific health concerns.

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Benzoyl peroxide is one of the most common over-the-counter ingredients used in skincare products to treat acne. It’s especially common as an active ingredient in spot treatments, cleansers, and body washes. Before committing to a benzoyl peroxide acne treatment, make sure it’s a good match for you—look for benzoyl peroxide products that suit your unique skin type and keep your skincare routine streamlined

What is benzoyl peroxide? 

Benzoyl peroxide is an acne-fighting antiseptic. When applied directly to breakouts, products with benzoyl peroxide help speed up healing by killing acne-causing bacteria and soothing inflammation. While it does help unclog pores, the topical medication doesn’t have the same exfoliating effects as salicylic acid (BHA) and AHAs. 

Skincare Ingredient Infographic Benzoyl Peroxide

How does benzoyl peroxide work to clear acne?

When applied to the skin, benzoyl peroxide targets acne-causing bacteria and soothes inflammation. This makes topical acne treatments with benzoyl peroxide popular as spot treatments, cleansers, and body washes.  

Results from using benzoyl peroxide may be seen in as little as 5 days or as long as 3 months—although results can vary! In clinical trials, researchers have noticed that an improvement to acne typically occurs after 3 weeks of using a benzoyl peroxide treatment. 

What are the potential side effects of benzoyl peroxide?

It’s normal to experience dryness as a side effect of benzoyl peroxide; be sure to follow up with a good moisturizer after allowing your benzoyl peroxide treatment to absorb completely. Some people are allergic to benzoyl peroxide. Stop using it if you develop an itchy rash, and see your doctor if needed.

Even though you can find over-the-counter skincare products with benzoyl peroxide concentrations up to 10%, we generally recommend using treatments with less than 5% benzoyl peroxide. That’s because higher concentrations are more likely to cause irritation and aren’t proven to work better than benzoyl peroxide products with lower strengths. If you’re just starting a prescription topical treatment, like your Curology Custom Formula, our providers generally recommend temporarily stopping benzoyl peroxide. Limiting the number of active ingredients in your routine helps reduce the risk of dryness and irritation while adjusting to a new prescription topical. Once you feel totally comfortable with your Custom Formula, you can slowly reintroduce your favorite products with benzoyl peroxide.

Which is better: salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide?

Though both ingredients are effective, deciding whether to choose salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide as your acne treatment depends on the kind of breakouts you’re having.

  • Salicylic acid is a chemical exfoliant that helps unclog pores and shed dead skin cells—making it a good choice for whiteheads, blackheads, and clogged pores. 

  • Benzoyl peroxide kills bacteria that cause acne and helps soothe skin inflammation, so it’s ideal for any kind of inflammatory breakout.  

While salicylic acid can unclog blocked pores that lead to breakouts, benzoyl peroxide also works on other factors that contribute to breakouts. While you can use both together, using them both daily may be too intense for your skin. 

Things to keep in mind while using benzoyl peroxide

If you’re using benzoyl peroxide, watch out for: 

  1. Bleached sheets. Benzoyl peroxide can bleach fabric, so avoid using your favorite colorful beach towel and other linens you’d like to keep pristine. 

  2. Too much sun. Don’t skip the sun protection—your skin needs it to heal from acne!

  3. Aczone. Benzoyl peroxide doesn’t mix with this specific prescription acne treatment.

Can you combine benzoyl peroxide with other acne products?

Since they come in so many different forms, benzoyl peroxide products make for excellent acne-fighting go-tos in your medicine cabinet. But they don't have to be the only acne treatments you turn to. 

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Contrary to what you might expect, you can use benzoyl peroxide together with prescription acne treatments like tretinoin—just be sure to follow your products’ directions. 

Benzoyl peroxide and retinoids

  • For best results, use leave-on benzoyl peroxide treatments in the morning and tretinoin at night. Decrease use if you experience significant dryness or irritation. Benzoyl peroxide cleansers can be used before applying tretinoin. Just make sure to fully rinse the cleanser off!

Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid

  • You can use salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide together. If you find this combination is too drying, use them less often.

  • Sometimes, dryness or irritation can occur. There are a few ways to reduce this: decrease frequency of use,  use one ingredient or the other, or stop use altogether. 

  • Follow use with a rich moisturizer or heavy occlusive like pure petrolatum (Vaseline). 

Benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin

  • Benzoyl peroxide and clindamycin pair well together.

  • You may experience normal side effects of benzoyl peroxide while using these two ingredients together, but clindamycin does not tend to make irritation worse. 

Benzoyl peroxide and hydroquinone

  • In general, we don't recommend benzoyl peroxide with prescription hydroquinone. This combination of ingredients may cause temporary staining of the skin.

How to get prescription-strength skincare online

If over-the-counter acne treatments aren’t cutting it, it may be time to call in dermatology experts to help clear your skin. Because acne is complex and has multiple causes, it can be tricky to pinpoint the exact right active ingredients to stop your breakouts. If you’ve tried benzoyl peroxide and haven’t seen results, then you may want to ask your medical provider about prescription-strength ingredients like tretinoin and clindamycin. 

Curology Skincare Products

You can start a prescription skincare consultation online for free when you sign up for Curology. Just take a quick skin quiz and send us some selfies—one of our in-house dermatology providers will evaluate your specific skin concerns. If Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a Custom Formula with a mix of active ingredients for your unique skin, plus any of our recommended skincare products, for just $4.95 (plus tax) to cover shipping and handling. 

Start your Curology free trial now and let our experts guide you on your journey to clearer skin with simple products designed by dermatologists to be gentle on skin and effective at treating acne. 

• • •

We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.

*Trial is 30 days. Results may vary. Subject to consultation. Cancel anytime. 

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