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This ingredient is key to treating acne — dermatologists explain why

With multiple benefits, it's useful for more than just blemishes.
Illustration of three different products and someone rubbing cream on their face
TODAY Illustration / TODAY / Kara Birnbaum / Amazon

If you’ve ever set foot in an aisle with acne treatment products, there’s one ingredient you’ve probably seen over and over and over again: benzoyl peroxide. While it’s listed as an active ingredient in varying percentages depending on the product, if you’ve found yourself wondering what it does and why you should use it, you’ve come to the right place.

Shop TODAY spoke to two board-certified dermatologists to demystify the ever-present acne-fighting ingredient and rounded up a few cleansers and spot treatments to try.

What does benzoyl peroxide do?

Benzoyl peroxide is a topical antibiotic that has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and exfoliative properties, dermatologists Dr. Katherine Lee of Stony Brook Medicine and Dr. Angela Guerrero of the University of Pittsburgh told us.

Most frequently used to treat acne, they added that it can also be used to treat rosacea, folliculitis and hidradenitis suppurativa. Guerrero said the ingredient is useful in antibacterial cleansers when trying to treat and manage painful cystic and nodular acne.

Lee added that another benefit of using benzoyl peroxide is that it can be combined with other topical antibiotics at the discretion of your dermatologist.

"It helps prevent resistance to those other antibiotics,” she explained. “To date, they haven’t found that bacterial resistance has been reported to benzoyl peroxide itself.”

The ingredient can be found in different forms, from wash-off cleansers to leave-on spot treatment products. But make no mistake — it’s effective in any form and the one you choose to use it in will be best determined by your needs.

“When it’s formulated in a cleanser, it’s meant to be washed off but that doesn’t necessarily mean it's going to be less effective than a leave-on product like a lotion or a gel,” Lee said.

Tips for using products with benzoyl peroxide

On the packaging of most products that contain benzoyl peroxide, you’ll often see the ingredient preceded or followed by a number. This number is the concentration of benzoyl peroxide the product contains, which will tell you how strong something is. Guerrero and Lee said that most products range between 2.5 percent and 10 percent.

Before you run to grab the first 10 percent product you see, both dermatologists recommend starting with a lower concentration — between 2.5 percent and 5 percent — especially if you’re new to the product.

“For people who are new to it, I always recommend starting low and going slow,” Guerrero said.

She and Lee both said higher concentrations can be a bit more irritating and drying to the skin. Guerrero said that she most commonly recommends benzoyl peroxide in the form of wash-off cleansers because leaving it on the skin for an extended period of time has the potential to cause more irritation.

P.S. Be careful about benzoyl peroxide interacting with fabrics. It can bleach clothes or towels, Lee said, “so it’s important to wash it off thoroughly or be mindful that in terms of using towels that you don’t mind being bleached.”

When to avoid products with benzoyl peroxide

There aren’t many instances in which Guerrero and Lee explicitly recommend avoiding products with benzoyl peroxide, but there are certain circumstances you’ll want to keep in mind before you use it.

  • If you have an inflammatory skin condition on your face. Guerrero said if you’re already dealing with red and inflamed skin on your face, you should avoid benzoyl peroxide because it might worsen existing irritation.
  • If you’re using dapsone. Dapsone is a topical antibiotic that can be prescribed by your dermatologist but, if used in conjunction with benzoyl peroxide, can cause an orange discoloration of the skin, Lee told us.
  • If you’re allergic. While rare, Lee says that patients can be allergic to the ingredient and it can cause allergic contact dermatitis in a small subset of people.

Benzoyl peroxide washes and spot treatments to shop

CeraVe Acne Foaming Cream Cleanser

Made with just 4 percent benzoyl peroxide, this cleanser falls in the concentration range each dermatologist recommended. It's made with other signature ingredients often included in the brand's products like ceramides, hyaluronic acid and niacinamide.

Paula's Choice CLEAR Regular Strength Skin Clearing Treatment

This acne treatment is made with 2.5 percent benzoyl peroxide and is formulated to fight breakouts without drying out your skin, according to the brand. It can be used on both the face and body.

Neutrogena Stubborn Acne AM Face Treatment

Start your day with this stubborn acne face treatment from Neutrogena. It contains 2.5 percent mirconized benzoyl peroxide, making it one of the gentlest in this bunch.

Differin Daily Deep Cleanser

From the brand that created the cult-favorite anti-aging gel comes this daily cleanser made with 5 percent benzoyl peroxide. According to the packaging, it's formulated for sensitive skin and absorbs oil. One Amazon reviewer said they saw a drastic difference after using it every night for a month.

La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Dual Action Acne Treatment

With 3,400+ verified five-star ratings from Amazon shoppers, this spot treatment from La Roche-Posay contains 5.5 percent benzoyl peroxide and lipo-hydroxy acid to reduce acne and blemishes.

PanOxyl Acne Foaming Wash

This foaming cleanser contains a 10 percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide. Since this is the strongest concentration available on the market, it shouldn't be your first resort per the dermatologists' recommendations. If you find that lower concentrations aren't working for you, though, it might be beneficial to give it a try.

Acne Free Terminator 10

This targeted spot treatment is made with the maximum 10 percent concentration of benzoyl peroxide alongside soothing ingredients like ginger and chamomile. Not only is it highly-rated with nearly 8,000 five-star ratings on Amazon, it's also budget-friendly at just under $5.

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