Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Treatment

How It Works, Side Effects, and How to Use It

Benzoyl peroxide is a topical acne treatment. It works as an antiseptic to kill bacteria that cause acne breakouts. It also fights acne by removing excess oil and dead skin cells.

You can find it in many over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription products marketed for clearer skin. Benzoyl peroxide formulas include skin cleansers, toners, gels, and creams.

While benzoyl peroxide is very effective on acne, it can also irritate skin and cause dryness and flaking. In rare cases, an allergic reaction can occur.

This article provides step-by-step instructions for how to use benzoyl peroxide for acne. It also explains how benzoyl peroxide works, its side effects, and when to see a dermatologist.

What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Woman Applying Hand Cream
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Benzoyl peroxide is a topical medication used to treat acne breakouts. It's found in many different forms, from cleansers, lotions, creams, gels, and toner-like solutions.

In fact, if you've tried blemish-fighting skin care products at some point, you've likely already used this ingredient. It's a very common ingredient in OTC acne products. It's also found in combination prescription acne treatments, like:

Benzoyl peroxide is an antimicrobial, which means it helps reduce the amount of acne-causing bacteria on the skin. Fewer bacteria lead to fewer breakouts.

Benzoyl peroxide also helps keep pores clear from blockages. It is sold in 2.5%, 5%, and 10% strengths and is the most effective over-the-counter acne treatment available.

How to Use Benzoyl Peroxide

How you use benzoyl peroxide depends on the product. Always follow the directions on the product label and do not use it more frequently than recommended in the package instructions. Do not use benzoyl peroxide near your eyes or inside your mouth or nose.

To avoid side effects, stick to using only one type of benzoyl peroxide product at a time. Common products include:

Face Wash

Soaps, foaming face washes, and cleansers are often used one to three times a day. If your skin is more sensitive, try using a benzoyl peroxide face wash every other day.

  1. Start by wetting your face with warm water.
  2. Work the soap into a lather on your face.
  3. Rinse well with warm water.
  4. Pat your face dry with a cloth.


Toners and astringents are applied after washing and drying your skin. These products are sold in medicated pads or liquid.

  1. Apply the liquid to a cotton ball or use a moistened pad.
  2. Press the medication into the treatment areas.
  3. You can also gently wipe the pad over your skin, but avoid rubbing.
  4. Allow the area to air dry before using any additional products or make-up.

One benefit of astringents over face wash is that you can apply it just to trouble zones or use it all over.

Leave-on Treatments

Topical benzoyl peroxide gels and creams are typically more potent. They can be applied directly to individual pimples or used all over.

  1. After washing and drying your skin, apply a thin layer of cream or gel to the desired treatment area.
  2. Allow the treatment to soak in for several minutes.
  3. If the medication is still visible after 30 minutes, you can gently wipe off the excess with a damp cloth (if desired).
  4. Apply sunscreen before going out in the sun.

Leave-on spot treatments can be used one to three times a day.

Benzoyl Peroxide Masks

Acne masks containing benzoyl peroxide should not be used more than once a week unless otherwise instructed by a dermatologist.

  1. Start by washing your face with a non-medicated cleanser, then pat dry.
  2. Apply the mask evenly over the area you want to treat.
  3. Leave the treatment on for 15 to 20 minutes (or according to package directions).
  4. Wash off using warm water.

Benzoyl Peroxide Side Effects

Benzoyl peroxide, like many acne medications, can cause dryness and peeling. Dry skin is the most common side effect.

The best way to combat this is to start off slowly, allowing your skin a chance to get used to the medication. Try using it every other day for a week or two. Using a good moisturizer will help too.

Benzoyl peroxide can also make your skin more sensitive to the sun, so it's important that you wear sunscreen every day.

How to Address Peeling and Flaking

Even if you start off carefully and slowly, you can expect your skin to get dry. Very dry. And possibly rough, peely, and flaky too. These are all normal side effects.

You can manage this dryness, though. First, try using a moisturizer as often as you need, but at least twice a day. If your skin is super dry and peeling, try applying the moisturizer first, under your benzoyl peroxide lotion or gel. This will act as a sort of buffer between the medication and your skin.

Most people find their skin gets used to the benzoyl peroxide over time and the dry, peeling skin fades away. It can take several weeks, though, as your skin adjusts to the medication.

Can You Be Allergic to Benzoyl Peroxide?

Some people just can't handle benzoyl peroxide, especially if your skin is super sensitive. And, yes, some people are truly allergic to this medication. But there are differences between a benzoyl peroxide allergy and normal side effects. 

Benzoyl peroxide can cause some fairly intense dryness, peeling, and flaking. You also may notice redness, burning, and itching right after applying the medication. These are normal reactions.

If you're getting swelling, severe redness, blisters, or incredibly irritated skin, you may actually have an allergy. In any case, stop using it and call your healthcare provider right away.

How Long Will It Take to See Results?

Patience is a virtue, and this adage definitely applies to treating acne. Benzoyl peroxide, like all treatments, takes time to work. You may need to wait eight to 10 weeks, sometimes a bit more, before seeing a noticeable improvement in your skin.

As tempting as it may be, don't slather on more medication or apply more often than directed. You'll increase your chances of annoying side effects, and it won't clear up acne any faster.

You'll still get new breakouts during this time, so don't fret. Over the course of several weeks, breakouts will slowly become fewer and farther between.

If you've used an OTC benzoyl peroxide product for more than 12 weeks and you haven't had any improvement, it's time to see a healthcare provider for prescription medication (or to change your current prescription treatment).

Tips for Using Benzoyl Peroxide

Once you get started with benzoyl peroxide, the biggest tip to remember: be consistent. Consistency is your best friend when treating acne. Skipping days will set your treatment back. You'll see the fastest improvement with regular, consistent use.

Another biggie—keep benzoyl peroxide away from your towels and pillowcases. Benzoyl peroxide will stain anything it comes in contact with. White linens and wearing old shirts to bed will help prevent or minimize benzoyl peroxide stains (or at least keep you from being too distressed when staining does happen).

A Word From Verywell

Benzoyl peroxide is an effective treatment for acne. OTC benzoyl peroxide is appropriate for mild acne. Prescription benzoyl peroxide medications work better for moderate acne.

But benzoyl peroxide isn't the only acne treatment option available. If you're having trouble with acne, and need help getting it under control, don't wait to see a healthcare provider. Making that call is the first step toward clearer skin.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you use benzoyl peroxide when pregnant?

    Yes, benzoyl peroxide is thought to be safe when used in limited amounts during pregnancy. It might be a good idea to speak to your healthcare provider before using it to make sure it's OK for you.

  • What's the difference between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?

    Acne products often contain benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, or sometimes both. Benzoyl peroxide reduces acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid helps dissolve dead skin cells to clear out your pores. You may have better results with one or the other depending on your skin and type of acne.

  • How does benzoyl peroxide work?

    Benzoyl peroxide works as a topical medication. Once absorbed into the skin, benzoyl peroxide is converted into benzoic acid. This benzoic acid interacts with cystine (an amino acid) to release oxygen, which kills harmful bacteria. This process increases epithelial cell (skin cell) production, which promotes peeling and heals comedones.

  • When should you stop using benzoyl peroxide?

    If your acne is clearing with benzoyl peroxide, you should keep using it. Discontinuing use may cause the acne to come back. If you're not having good results after 12 weeks or have an allergic reaction, check with your healthcare provider.

  • Does Proactiv contain benzoyl peroxide?

    Yes, the active ingredient in Proactiv is benzoyl peroxide. Proactiv is a three-step acne treatment kit. Some Proactiv products also contain glycolic or salicylic acid.

    Proactiv isn't the only acne treatment regimen that contains benzoyl peroxide.

    Other multi-step acne treatments are less expensive than Proactiv but equally effective.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  8. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Is any acne treatment safe to use during pregnancy?

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Additional Reading

By Angela Palmer
Angela Palmer is a licensed esthetician specializing in acne treatment.