Benzoyl peroxide

What does it do?
Kills bacteria
Unclogs pores
Reduces inflammation

What’s it used for?
Acne, including blackheads and whiteheads

How do I use it?
As a wash or leave-on preparation, once or twice daily

Potential drawbacks
Can be irritating
Can bleach fabric

Evidence rating

If you’ve struggled with acne, chances are, you’ve come across benzoyl peroxide. It’s been used for decades to treat acne, and with good reason – it’s inexpensive, readily available, and it works! 

How does it work?

Benzoyl peroxide is antiseptic, meaning it reduces the amount of bacteria on the skin without causing resistance. It’s keratolytic and comedolytic, meaning it gently exfoliates the top layer of skin and removes dead skin cells, and unblocks pores. It also reduces inflammation in the skin. 

Why should I use it?

Benzoyl peroxide is a great place to start for mild to moderate acne, and can be easily sourced from pharmacies without a prescription. 

What should I look for in a product?

Benzoyl peroxide is available as a cleanser, gel or cream, in concentrations between 2.5 – 10%. Some studies suggest that the 2.5% concentration is as effective as higher concentrations, with less irritation. If you have sensitive skin, start with 2.5% and slowly increase the strength if you’re tolerating it. For chest and back acne, a cleanser containing 5 – 10% benzoyl peroxide is a good choice. 

How do I use it? 

For creams or gels, start with a low concentration, used once daily, usually at night. If you have sensitive skin, start just twice weekly and slowly increase use. A cleanser with 5 – 10% benzoyl peroxide is a good choice for back and chest acne, left on for 90 seconds before rinsing. 

Potential drawbacks

Benzoyl peroxide can cause dryness, irritation, bleaching of fabric and hair, and rarely allergy. If you’re developing irritation, make sure you’re using a low concentration, use it less often, and moisturise regularly.

Mills OH Jr, Kligman AM, Pochi P, Comite H. Comparing 2.5%, 5%, and 10% benzoyl peroxide on inflammatory acne vulgaris. Int J Dermatol. 1986 Dec;25(10):664-7.


Sagransky M, Yentzer BA, Feldman SR. Benzoyl peroxide: a review of its current use in the treatment of acne vulgaris. Expert Opin Pharmacother. 2009 Oct;10(15):2555-62. 


Tanghetti EA, Popp KF. A current review of topical benzoyl peroxide: new perspectives on formulation and utilization. Dermatol Clin. 2009 Jan;27(1):17-24. 


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Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…