The polarizing acne-fighting ingredient can have great success—if you know how to use it properly.
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If you're always dealing with pesky breakouts or acne, then you should familiarize yourself with one of the best over-the-counter ingredients to treat it: benzoyl peroxide. The common ingredient is known for its ability to help clear and prevent acne. But despite the ingredient's impressive results in treating breakouts, it may also cause irritation, dryness, or redness for some. 

Benzoyl peroxide is found in many acne-fighting skincare products, but many of us aren't sure how to use it properly. Here, two board-certified dermatologists share everything you need to know about benzoyl peroxide, including its benefits, side effects, and ways to incorporate it into your skincare routine. 

What is benzoyl peroxide? 

Benzoyl peroxide is an antiseptic, an ingredient that kills bacteria, and an FDA-approved acne medication. "It's most typically used to treat and prevent acne and is quite effective at killing the p.acnes bacteria (the bacteria that contributes to the formation of blemishes)," explains Corey L. Hartman, MD, founder of Skin Wellness Dermatology in Alabama. "There are numerous over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide creams, and both face and body washes." 

Skincare benefits of benzoyl peroxide

Benzoyl peroxide is best known for its ability to help clear and prevent the development of acne. Dr. Hartman explains that since it reduces acne bacteria found on the skin, there is less opportunity for that bacteria to turn into active acne. "It can help clear our pores and get rid of dead skin cells," he says. 

Side effects of benzoyl peroxide

Typically, benzoyl peroxide is well tolerated by most skin types, says Audrey Kunin, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of DERMAdoctor. "However, it can be drying, cause redness and irritation, and may even lead to an allergic reaction."

Dr. Hartman says it might make the skin feel warm, tingly, or have a slight stinging sensation with application. "I always advise my patients to use a well-tolerated moisturizer after applying benzoyl peroxide, as well as sunscreen during the day as the skin is more susceptible to UV damage when using an acne treatment like [benzoyl peroxide]." 

It's also worth noting that benzoyl peroxide may bleach the skin. "It does have bleaching qualities, so if you use it frequently you may notice that your skin is lighter or you may see dark spots fade," says Dr. Hartman. He says it's typically not a dramatic change on the skin, but make sure it doesn't get on your fabrics, as the bleaching will be noticeable. 

Mixing benzoyl peroxide with other active ingredients

Typically, benzoyl peroxide should not be mixed with any other active ingredients. "It can lessen the effectiveness of some actives like vitamin C and retinol, so plan to use products with those actives at different times of the day or on different days," says Dr. Hartman.

You should also make sure to only use one product containing benzoyl peroxide at a time. "So if you use a spot treatment with it, don't use a face wash with it as well," he says.  

How to incorporate benzoyl peroxide into your skincare routine

As with all active ingredients, slowly introduce benzoyl peroxide into your routine by using it once a week to make sure your skin has time to build tolerance. Once you've used it a few times, you can begin to use it more often.

It will be easiest to incorporate benzoyl peroxide into your routine with a face wash or spot treatment. "If you're using it in a face wash, make sure the skin is clear of any makeup before washing your face, and make sure to mix the wash with a bit of water to work up a lather, gently rubbing it in upwards motions on the face," says Dr. Hartman. He recommends Differin Daily Deep Cleanser ($9.92, amazon.com) as it treats active acne while also preventing future acne from popping up, and it doesn't leave the skin feeling stripped or dry. Dr. Kunin likes PanOxyl Maximum Strength Antimicrobial Acne Foaming Wash ($9.48, amazon.com) as it's a medicated cleanser that's balanced with humectants and skin protectants to help minimize potential skin irritation.

"To use benzoyl peroxide as a spot treatment, apply it after cleansing to active acne around the face and allow it to dry before applying a moisturizer," says Dr. Hartman. He and Dr. Kunin say that La Roche-Posay Effaclar Duo Acne Treatment ($19.99, amazon.com) is amongst their favorite. "It's not only easy to use, but combines benzoyl peroxides with LHA to unclog pores, kill acne bacteria, and clear skin," says Dr. Hartman.