What is Benzoyl Peroxide and how does it work?

Hannah Wilson

If you suffer from acne, you may have come across the ingredient benzoyl peroxide and wondered whether or not it could work for you. This strong, effective ingredient has long been used in skincare products to clear troublesome acne, and though it may sound like a scary chemical, it could in fact be the ingredient you’ve been looking for. We’re breaking down all things benzoyl peroxide; the benefits, side effects, products you’ll find it in, and more.

Here at Face Dr, we like to make sure you fully understand the ingredients in your skincare before applying them to your face, so if you have been considering using benzoyl peroxide for acne, keep reading.

Want to skip straight to the part where one of our Skin Experts prescribes you a game changing product to clear up your acne? Book a free consultation to discuss:

Here’s what we’ll cover:

  • What is benzoyl peroxide?
  • What types of acne does it treat?
  • Do I need a prescription to get benzoyl peroxide?
  • How does benzoyl peroxide work?
  • What will it do to my skin?
  • Who is benzoyl peroxide best for?
  • Who would not benefit from benzoyl peroxide?
  • What is the difference between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?
  • Are there any benzoyl peroxide side effects to be aware of?
  • What should you not use alongside benzoyl peroxide?
  • What products contain benzoyl peroxide?
  • Is there benzoyl peroxide in the Obagi CLENZIderm system?
  • Are there any ZO Skin Health benzoyl peroxide products?
  • What percentage should I be using?
  • How long before I see results?
  • Summary: Is benzoyl peroxide for me?


What is benzoyl peroxide?


Over the years, benzoyl peroxide has become somewhat of a famous ingredient for tackling the different types of acne. It was first used as a healing agent in 1929 for burns and other wounds, and became an approved ingredient for acne treatment in 1960.

In the beginning it developed a negative reputation as it tended to cause skin irritation and reactions, but since then the amount found in over-the-counter medications has been limited to a maximum of 5%. Any other products containing more benzoyl peroxide are only available on prescription in order to better manage side effects.

Benzoyl peroxide comes in various forms and strengths to cater to all types of acne - from cystic to blackheads and more. It works by ridding the skin of acne-causing bacteria and the dead skin cells that tend to clog up pores.


What types of acne does it treat?


Benzoyl peroxide has several uses which make it a hero ingredient for those suffering from acne:



skincare consultations

Spots are usually categorised as inflammatory acne, which looks like little red bumps that, when squeezed, produce pus - but don’t squeeze them as this can cause acne scarring! These spots are sometimes called pustules or papules, and benzoyl peroxide works well to eliminate them and stop them from spreading bacteria to other areas of the face.

Cystic acne

If your acne is more intense than just surface level spots, you may have cystic acne. This is usually the most difficult to treat as it often lies beneath the skin. If you get hard lumps under the skin which hurt to touch, these are typically the result of cystic acne. There is usually no head to the cyst, meaning it sits under the skin for a long time before rising to the surface, and can make skin tender, red and look swollen. Cystic acne is often caused by P. acnes bacteria, which can be reduced with the use of a benzoyl peroxide product.

Blackheads and whiteheads

The most annoying of the acne cousins! Blackheads and whiteheads are classed as non-inflammatory acne because they don’t often lead to spots, but they are usually something people want to get rid of if possible. These are small white or black dots on the skin that look like pores filled with pus. Benzoyl peroxide isn’t the most effective treatment for this kind of acne, but it can still help.

Acne scars


Woman holding face

If you have suffered from inflammatory acne for a long time, or you had it in the past, you may also have acne scarring that you would like to reduce. This can happen whether you pick at spots or not, but avoid picking them if you can! The jury is out on whether or not benzoyl peroxide can help with acne scars, but some believe it can reduce dead skin cells and make scars less noticeable over time.


Do I need a prescription to get benzoyl peroxide?


5% benzoyl peroxide is available in pharmacies as a face wash, and it is included in smaller quantities in the formulations of some well-known skincare brands. However, some benzoyl peroxide products are only available on prescription as they contain other active ingredients that mean a professional must oversee their use, like antibiotics or retinoids.

At Face Dr, some of our products (more on these below) contain a higher concentration of benzoyl peroxide, and our Skin Experts can discuss their use with you and prescribe you the appropriate product if necessary.

How does benzoyl peroxide work?


Let’s get scientific for a second. Benzoyl peroxide can be applied as a topical medication in different forms and is absorbed into skin. There, it is converted to benzoic acid which interacts with an amino acid called cystine to release oxygen and kill harmful bacteria. This process increases skin cell production, which causes skin peeling and, eventually, healing.


What will it do to my skin?



Skincare product bottles


If the word ‘peeling’ has you wondering about the effects on your skin, don’t panic. This is supposed to happen, but let’s break down what this could look like for you.

When using benzoyl peroxide, you should expect your skin to become very dry for a while, and depending on your skin type, this could look like rough skin, peeling or flaking. Although it can be annoying, these are normal side effects so nothing to worry about.

You can speak to your Skin Expert about managing this peeling or flaking in the beginning, as in many cases applying moisturiser a couple of times a day will help, or applying it before your benzoyl peroxide product can also help. After several weeks of using your benzoyl peroxide product, your skin will start to get used to it and any side effects should subside.


Who is benzoyl peroxide best for?


In short, anyone who suffers from acne. Whether it’s inflammatory acne (spots), cystic acne (under the skin), or whiteheads and blackheads, benzoyl peroxide could provide some relief from this and start your skin on a path to looking clear and calm once again. If you have acne scars, benzoyl peroxide products could reduce the severity of these too.


Who shouldn't use benzoyl peroxide?


Benzoyl peroxide is not recommended for use around the eyes, nose and mouth, so avoid these areas when applying, but otherwise it is safe for most people to use. In some cases, benzoyl peroxide may not be the best option and therefore may not be advised by your Skin Expert. This could include:

  • Anyone with a history of sensitivity to benzoyl peroxide
  • Anyone with a history of sensitivity to benzoic acid derivatives, like cinnamon
  • Anyone with open sores on the skin
  • Young children, as there is little data to suggest the safety of long-term use
  • Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Those using topical sulfone products to treat dermatitis herpetiformis
  • Those using topical anaesthetics
  • Those using other acne treatments like topical hydroquinone, tretinoin or oral isotretinoin

If you have any questions about whether or not you should be using benzoyl peroxide, speak to your Skin Expert.


What is the difference between benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid?



Skincare products


You may have noticed some acne products contain both benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid, and this is because benzoyl peroxide works to reduce the acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid works to dissolve any dead skin cells and clear out pores. Both are effective in their own way and available as individual treatments, but you may be recommended a treatment that contains both, and this is why.

You can read more about salicylic acid here; What is salicylic acid and what can it do for your skin?

Are there any benzoyl peroxide side effects to be aware of?

The biggest side effect of benzoyl peroxide is the skin dryness, peeling and flaking that it can cause, but this is often short-lived and manageable. You can start slowly by using it every second day in the beginning and build up your application to let your skin adjust. You may also notice some redness, itching or burning in the beginning which is all normal, but if you have any concerns speak to your Skin Expert.

Benzoyl peroxide can make skin more susceptible to sun damage, so it is important that you use a full spectrum SPF product every day such as ZO Broad Spectrum SPF 50 or Obagi Sun Shield® Matte Broad Spectrum. Keep in mind that although side effects are rare, some people can be allergic to benzoyl peroxide, so keep an eye out for any of the following indicators that you may have an allergy:

Skin swelling
Severe redness
Very irritated skin
Any other severe reaction

If you experience any of these symptoms, stop using your benzoyl peroxide product and speak to your Skin Expert who can adjust your regime accordingly or offer an alternative product.


Who should you not use alongside benzoyl peroxide?


Some products don’t work well alongside benzoyl peroxide, and vice versa. You should avoid using any of the following products at the same time:

  • Other topical acne products, such as tretinoin or hydroquinone
  • Products containing a skin peeling agent like resorcinol or sulfur
  • Irritating hair products like hair dyes or hair removal creams
  • Any products that cause sensitivity to sun
  • Products containing alcohol, like shaving creams or after-shave
  • Drying or abrasive products like certain soaps or cleansers (your Skin Expert can advise on these)

If you have any questions about using any of the above products alongside a benzoyl peroxide product, speak to your Skin Expert as they are always on hand to help.


What products contain benzoyl peroxide?


Benzoyl peroxide is available in both over-the-counter and prescription products, and these could look like benzoyl peroxide cream, benzoyl peroxide therapeutic lotion, benzoyl peroxide gel, benzoyl peroxide facial wash, and in some cases even benzoyl peroxide pads and face masks.

Depending on the product you choose or are prescribed, you may be recommended a specific skincare routine by your Skin Expert to help with your own skin issues. You may also be advised to use a combination of multiple products containing benzoyl peroxide to have the greatest effects on your skin.

Is there benzoyl peroxide in the Obagi CLENZIderm system?



CLENZIDerm system


Yes, benzoyl peroxide is included in the formulation for Obagi's CLENZIderm M.D.® Acne Therapeutic System, and for good reason. The 3-step treatment was designed for acne-prone skin and works to both treat current acne and prevent acne breakouts in future. The collection is specifically formulated to target the P. acnes bacteria inside the pores, and with continued use, it can clear up existing acne and promote a healthy complexion for the future.

The CLENZIderm M.D.® Acne Therapeutic System is great for treating mild to moderate acne, but if you’re looking for an individual Obagi Medical product that could work for you, the CLENZIderm M.D.® Therapeutic Lotion contains 5% benzoyl peroxide and is also incredibly effective at treating acne.

You can read more about CLENZIderm, or if you’d like to book a free video consultation to discuss a prescription of CLENZIderm and the price, reach out to us here.


 Are there any ZO Skin Health benzoyl peroxide products?


 ZO Acne Control


This popular acne-busting ingredient can also be found in ZO Acne Control which we regularly recommend. It contains 10% micronised benzoyl peroxide, making it a maximum strength acne-fighting formula. It works to control sebum on the surface of the skin, and neutralise bacteria to prevent breakouts. ZO Acne Control could be particularly effective for those concerned about the potential side effects that result from this ingredient, as it also contains antioxidants and anti-irritants like glycerin, green tea, pine bark, grape seed and red tea extract to calm and reduce redness.

If this sounds like the product for you, get in touch with us here to book a free video consultation to discuss a prescription of ZO Acne Control.


What percentage should I be using?


Benzoyl peroxide is often sold in 2.5%, 5% and 10% strengths, giving different options for different skin concerns and sensitivities. At Face Dr, we offer prescription-only products of 5% (Obagi CLENZIderm range) and 10% (ZO Acne Control) benzoyl peroxide, so one of our Skin Experts can advise on the best percentage for you and adjust over time if needed. Book a free consultation with us to discuss your benzoyl peroxide prescription options.


How long before I see results?


It is important to be patient when it comes to a new skincare routine, especially when acne is involved. Benzoyl peroxide can result in some initial side effects that eventually go away, so try not to quit in the first few weeks while your skin is still adjusting to the product - great skin could be just around the corner.

Your complexion will likely start to improve after eight to ten weeks of product use, so stick to the routine advised by your Skin Expert and don’t be discouraged by any skin peeling or flaking that occurs. If you have not seen improvements after around 12 weeks, speak to your Skin Expert to see if adjustments need to be made.


Summary: Is benzoyl peroxide for me?



Woman using skincare products


It could be! If you suffer from acne, benzoyl peroxide could really help, but it’s always best to speak to a Skin Expert to find out if it’s the best option for you. Obagi Medical and ZO Skin Health have a number of products and systems containing benzoyl peroxide, and each has its own benefits. If your acne is more on the mild side or tends to be cyclical, a less intense ingredient may be more appropriate for your skin, and our Skin Experts will always let you know this.

We try to recommend products in the most honest, unbiased way possible, and will only ever prescribe what we believe is right for your skin needs and goals. If you receive a prescription for a high strength benzoyl peroxide product after one of our free video consultations, the product will be unlocked for you to purchase online, and if you choose to, we will post it to you next working day, anywhere in the UK.

 Ready to get rid of your acne once and for all?

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