Should You Use Hydrogen Peroxide on Your Skin?

Hydrogen peroxide is a bleach and oxidizing agent that is used in not only cleaning products but also as an antiseptic and in skincare products. At low concentrations (up to 10%), it is used as a disinfectant and bleach for the skin. Hydrogen peroxide has been used to treat wounds, acne, and hyperpigmentation. It works by releasing oxygen, which causes foaming that helps remove dead skin cells.

However, using hydrogen peroxide comes with risks, such as skin irritation and compromised wound healing, so doctors don’t recommend using it to clean or bleach the skin. When swallowed or inhaled, hydrogen peroxide can be toxic.

Young woman in bathroom applying face cream

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What Is Hydrogen Peroxide?

Hydrogen peroxide is water (H2O) with an extra oxygen molecule (H2O2). When that extra oxygen molecule oxidizes, the solution is able to disinfect and bleach surfaces. The oxidation produces free radicals, which attack pathogens or germs. Hydrogen peroxide has disinfectant, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. 

Hydrogen peroxide varies in its germ-fighting abilities and side effects based on its concentration. Medical-grade hydrogen peroxide comes in a 3% concentration. This means that the bottle contains 3% hydrogen peroxide and 97% water. Higher concentrations are available, but can be toxic if swallowed or inhaled. For example, food-grade hydrogen peroxide has a 35% concentration. Most household cleaners that contain hydrogen peroxide stick to a 3% to 9% concentration. 

Low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide are usually safe to work with when cleaning surfaces. However, higher concentrations are very irritating to the eyes, skin, and gut. If inhaled or ingested, it can cause burning, blistering, coughing, shortness of breath, vomiting, and bleeding. 

Common Uses on Skin

Hydrogen peroxide can quickly kill germs and bleach surfaces, and in the past, it was used to treat common skin problems like acne, wounds, and dark spots. However, it is no longer recommended for use on the skin because of its potential side effects and risk of toxicity. 

Acne

Acne breakouts are caused by clogged pores as a result of a buildup of dirt and bacteria that live on the skin. While hydrogen peroxide can kill the bacteria that lead to acne, the risks outweigh the benefits. Hydrogen peroxide is harsh and irritating to the skin, leading to inflammation and worsened acne symptoms. Hydrogen peroxide also dissolves in water, so it typically does not last very long on the skin. This means that it won’t continue to work throughout the day as other acne medications can. 

Wounds

Hydrogen peroxide may have been your grandmother’s go-to treatment for cuts and scrapes because of its germ-fighting abilities. Hydrogen peroxide cleans and disinfects surfaces it touches. While that sounds helpful for keeping a cut clean, it most likely causes more harm than good.

Studies have shown that hydrogen peroxide can lead to blistering of the skin, worsening wounds, and increasing the risk for infection. It may also interfere with the body’s natural wound healing because it kills the cells that promote healing and irritate the skin.

Skin Lightening

Hydrogen peroxide has strong bleaching capabilities, which could help lighten dark areas of the skin. Dark spots can be caused by sun damage, aging, scars, medications, or changes in hormones. While it’s true that hydrogen peroxide can lighten skin, it could also cause irritation and skin breakdown. 

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. If you were to use a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide on your skin, burning and blistering could occur. Even low concentrations, like 3% medical-grade options, can cause skin irritation.

Swallowing hydrogen peroxide causes oxygen bubbles to form in the stomach. Low concentrations will probably not have serious health risks, but foaming at the mouth and vomiting foam are possible. Because hydrogen peroxide is irritating, mouth soreness and upset stomach are common. If you ingest a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide, seek emergency medical care right away. Hydrogen peroxide can cause bleeding in the digestive tract, burning to the esophagus, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and dizziness. Life-threatening side effects like convulsions, fluid build-up in the lungs, and shock are also possible. 

Inhaling high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide is dangerous as well. Symptoms can start out as eye and nose irritation and progress to coughing, shortness of breath, chest congestion, and bleeding in the lungs. 

To avoid these serious 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 and make sure that it is clearly labeled.

When to Call Poison Control

If you experience eye irritation from a hydrogen peroxide splash, first rinse your eyes with clean water for up to 20 minutes, then call poison control at 1-800-222-1222. Regardless of the concentration level, if you or your child accidentally ingest or inhale hydrogen peroxide, seek help from your doctor or call poison control. 

Alternatives to Hydrogen Peroxide

Now that we’ve determined that hydrogen peroxide is not safe for use on the skin, where does that leave us? Fortunately, there are safer and more effective treatments for common skin problems like acne and scrapes. 

Acne

Because hydrogen peroxide can be irritating to the skin and make acne worse, talk with your dermatologist about better options. 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 fight acne hours after it’s applied.

Wounds

For minor cuts and scrapes, ditch the hydrogen peroxide bottle and stick with soap and water. Wash the wound with water and gentle soap. Then pat it dry with a clean towel, apply an antibacterial gel, and cover it with a Band-Aid. For larger or more serious cuts, see a doctor for stitches and cleaning.

Skin Lightening

To help treat and prevent dark spots, sunscreen is your new best friend. Dark spots and age spots are usually related to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Wearing sunscreen daily can prevent your dark spots from getting worse and prevent new ones from forming as well.

To lighten the dark spots you already have, look for an over-the-counter product that contains retinol, vitamin C, 2% hydroquinone, azelaic acid, glycolic acid, or kojic acid. These ingredients can help reduce the amount of melanin in your skin, which leads to a darkened appearance. Your dermatologist will also be able to help address any skin pigment issues.

Better Uses for Hydrogen Peroxide

If you have a bottle of hydrogen peroxide sitting in the back of your closet, don’t throw it out just yet. While it shouldn’t be used on the skin, hydrogen peroxide is an excellent disinfectant and can be used on common surfaces like counters, doorknobs, and garbage cans. Use it in the kitchen to disinfect cutting boards and wash produce. Because of its bleaching capabilities, hydrogen peroxide can be used to remove stains and whiten tile grout. Be sure to store it in a cool, dry place and out of reach of children. 

A Word From Verywell

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical agent that is an effective disinfectant and bleach. It should not be used on the skin because of risks like skin irritation and altered wound healing. Seek alternative treatments for acne, wound cleansing, and hyperpigmentation, but keep hydrogen peroxide around for household cleaning and lightening needs. If you are concerned that you may have swallowed or inhaled it, call poison control or seek emergency care right away.

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