It’s one of the most commonly prescribed anti-acne ingredients, available both over the counter and via prescription, but, depending on whom you ask, you may be surprised to learn that regular use of benzoyl peroxide may be doing your skin more harm than good—while others feel differently. We turned to the experts to get both sides of the story: when it’s suitable to use a product with benzoyl peroxide and when you should look to alternative ingredients.
The Debate: Does Benzoyl Peroxide Cause Premature Aging?
No, It Doesn’t: Oakland, CA, dermatologist Katie Rodan, MD feels that regular use of benzoyl peroxide has no effect on advanced skin aging. “I haven’t seen any research that proves that benzoyl peroxide ages the skin, regardless of the formulation and if it’s an over-the-counter or prescription-strength product.” Formulas of high concentrations, like five and 10 percent, may lead to more surface dryness and irritation, but Dr. Katie Rodan says that, unlike other ingredients, no case of bacterial resistance has ever been associated with benzoyl peroxide.
Yes, It Does: “The theory is, although there’s no good long-term studies to validate it, that benzoyl peroxide contributes to the formation of free radicals since it’s partially made up of oxygen, which we know causes free radical damage,” says Dr. Luftman.
Why Doctors Turn To Benzoyl Peroxide
Ever since benzoyl peroxide (a chemical composition of two benzoyls and a peroxide that turns into benzoic acid and oxygen) was discovered in the 1920s for its ability to kill acne-causing bacteria and clear up breakouts, dermatologists and skin-care experts have utilized the ingredient to treat acne of all kinds. Benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic and employs oxygen to kill the bacteria (P. acnes, which we all have to varying degrees) that cause a blemish to surface. “When the bacteria are exposed to the oxygen in benzoyl peroxide, they cannot survive,” says Oakland, CA, dermatologist Katie Rodan, MD. “Even though the bacteria is killed immediately, sometimes the pimple lingers for a few days and slowly reduces in size and redness, which is due to the inflammation. Blemishes that have less inflammation resolve faster.” Besides killing the bacteria inside the pore, benzoyl peroxide’s secondary function is to exfoliate dead skin on the surface of the skin, which can contribute to persistent breakouts.
Can You Become Immune To Benzoyl Peroxide?
While it may seem like the more you use benzoyl peroxide, the more of a tolerance your skin will build to the ingredient, the opposite is true. “Skin does not become immune to benzoyl peroxide,” says Dr. Luftman. In fact, the reason why you may feel that benzoyl peroxide is no longer working for your skin is because other measures may need to be taken to achieve clear skin as a whole, like incorporating other ingredients, such as salicylic acid and retinol, using a daily probiotic and having your dermatologist treat your skin with in-office procedures like blue light.
Common Problems with Benzoyl Peroxide
- Dryness and peeling. Because benzoyl peroxide acts as a drying agent, it’s not uncommon for peeling and irritation to occur. The more sensitive your skin, the more susceptible it is to becoming dry and peeling. “It’s probably better suited for use on oily skin as opposed to someone with naturally dry skin,” says Dr. Luftman.
- Skin that feels tight. Benzoyl peroxide can dehydrate the skin, making it feel tight and uncomfortable.
- Redness. Benzoyl peroxide is irritating and therefore causes redness. “It’s especially irritating to sensitive skin, and it slows down wound healing,” says Dr. Alster.
- Burning and itching. Some skin types can’t tolerate the harsh effects of benzoyl peroxide, and the littlest bit of the ingredient can cause the skin to burn and itch. Others are more tolerant but may still experience burning and itching if the concentration is too high or if too much of it is used.
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