Should You Use Hydrogen Peroxide on Your Skin?

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Hydrogen peroxide is used in cleaning products and as an antiseptic. At low concentrations of up to 10%, it is used as a disinfectant and bleach for the skin. It works by releasing oxygen. This causes foaming that helps remove dead skin cells.

Hydrogen peroxide has been used to treat:

  • Wounds
  • Acne
  • Hyperpigmentation, or dark spots on the skin

The use of hydrogen peroxide comes with risks, including skin irritation and compromised wound healing. This is why doctors don’t recommend using it to clean or bleach the skin. When swallowed or inhaled, hydrogen peroxide can also be toxic.

This article looks at some of the past uses of hydrogen peroxide, and why it is no longer recommended for use on the skin. It also looks at some alternatives to hydrogen peroxide.

Young woman in bathroom applying face cream

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What Is Hydrogen Peroxide?

Hydrogen peroxide is water with an extra oxygen molecule. As it loses the extra oxygen molecule, it acts as a disinfectant and bleach. This process also releases free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that attack pathogens or germs.

Different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide have stronger or weaker effects. Medical-grade hydrogen peroxide comes in a 3% concentration. This means the bottle contains 3% hydrogen peroxide and 97% water.

Higher concentrations are available but can be toxic if swallowed or inhaled. For example, hydrogen peroxide with a 35% concentration is extremely toxic. Most household cleaners that contain hydrogen peroxide are a 3% to 9% concentration. 

Low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide are usually safe for cleaning surfaces. Higher concentrations are very irritating to the eyes, skin, and gut. If inhaled or swallowed, they can cause:

  • Burning
  • Blistering
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Bleeding 

Recap

Hydrogen peroxide is available in different concentrations. Higher concentrations can be toxic and may be irritating to the eyes and skin.

Common Uses on Skin

Hydrogen peroxide can quickly kill germs and bleach surfaces. In the past, it was used to treat common skin problems such as:

Today, it is no longer recommended for use on the skin. This is because of its potential side effects and risk of toxicity. 

Acne

Acne forms when dirt and bacteria clogs pores. Hydrogen peroxide can kill acne-causing bacteria, but the risks outweigh the benefits. Hydrogen peroxide is harsh and irritating to the skin. It can cause inflammation and worsen acne symptoms.

Hydrogen peroxide also dissolves in water. This means it doesn't last very long on the skin and won’t continue to work throughout the day. 

Wounds

Because of its ability to fight germs, hydrogen peroxide was once used on cuts and scrapes. It does clean and disinfect the surfaces it touches. While that sounds helpful for keeping a cut clean, it probably does more harm than good.

Studies have shown that hydrogen peroxide can cause:

  • Blistering of the skin
  • Worsening wounds
  • Increased risk of infection

It may also interfere with the body’s natural wound healing. This is because it irritates the skin and also kills the cells that promote healing.

Skin Lightening

Hydrogen peroxide works as a bleach. This means it could help lighten dark areas of the skin, such as those caused by:

  • Sun damage
  • Aging
  • Scars
  • Medications
  • Changes in hormones

It can also, however, cause irritation and skin breakdown. 

Recap

In the past, hydrogen peroxide has been used to treat acne, wounds, and dark spots on the skin. Because it can be irritating and may slow healing, doctors no longer recommend it for these purposes.

Possible Side Effects

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical and may cause serious side effects. The higher the concentration, the more serious the side effects can be. Using a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide on your skin could cause blistering and burning. Even 3% medical grade can cause skin irritation.

When you swallow hydrogen peroxide, oxygen bubbles form in your stomach. Low concentrations probably won't cause serious health risks, but it's possible you may foam at the mouth or vomit foam. Because hydrogen peroxide is irritating, it may also cause mouth soreness and upset stomach.

If you ingest a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide, seek emergency medical care right away. Hydrogen peroxide can cause:

Life-threatening side effects like convulsions, fluid build-up in the lungs, and shock are also possible. 

Inhaling high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide is also dangerous. Symptoms may start as eye and nose irritation and progress to:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest congestion
  • Bleeding in the lungs 

To avoid these risks, never keep highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide in the house. If you keep a bottle of 3% hydrogen peroxide for cleaning purposes, place it on a high shelf away from children. Make sure it is clearly labeled.

When to Call Poison Control

If a hydrogen peroxide splash causes eye irritation, follow these steps:

  • Rinse your eyes with clean water for up to 20 minutes
  • Call poison control at 1-800-222-1222

If you or your child accidentally ingest or inhales hydrogen peroxide of any concentration, seek medical help or call poison control. 

Alternatives to Hydrogen Peroxide

Fortunately, there are safer and more effective alternatives to hydrogen peroxide.

Acne

Talk with your dermatologist about safe options for treating acne. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid have both been proven to improve acne symptoms without significant skin irritation. Unlike hydrogen peroxide, benzoyl peroxide forms a film on the skin and continues to work hours after it’s applied.

Wounds

Wash minor cuts and scrapes with a gentle soap and water. Pat dry with a clean towel, apply an antibacterial gel, and cover with a Band-Aid. For larger or more serious cuts, seek medical care. You may need to have a doctor clean and stitch the wound.

Skin Lightening

Dark spots and age spots are usually related to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Sunscreen can keep your dark spots from getting worse. It can also prevent new ones from forming.

To lighten the dark spots you already have, look for an over-the-counter product that contains one of the following:

These ingredients can reduce the amount of melanin in your skin. Melanin is what causes the darkened appearance. Ask your dermatologist for help addressing any skin pigment issues.

Recap

Hydrogen peroxide isn't as effective or safe as many other treatments for acne, wounds, and dark spots. 

Better Uses for Hydrogen Peroxide

While it shouldn’t be used on the skin, hydrogen peroxide is an excellent disinfectant. It can be used on common surfaces like:

  • Counters
  • Doorknobs
  • Garbage cans
  • Cutting boards

It can also be used to wash produce.

Because it acts as a bleach, hydrogen peroxide can remove stains and whiten tile grout. Be sure to store it in a cool, dry place and out of reach of children. 

Summary

Hydrogen peroxide is a disinfectant, but it should not be used on the skin. This is because it can cause irritation and may make wounds heal more slowly. It can also be harmful if swallowed or inhaled.

Keep hydrogen peroxide in your home for household cleaning and disinfecting surfaces. Avoid using it for wound care or to treat skin conditions.

A Word From Verywell

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical agent. It is an effective disinfectant and bleach, but it should not be used on the skin. Seek alternative treatments for acne, wound cleansing, and hyperpigmentation.

If you are concerned that you may have swallowed or inhaled hydrogen peroxide, call poison control or seek emergency care right away.

8 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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Additional Reading

By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.