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Benzoyl Peroxide

Editor: Marcus B. Goodman Updated: 10/10/2022 8:04:47 PM


Benzoyl peroxide is an over-the-counter topical medication and is also an FDA-approved prescription medication for the treatment of acne vulgaris. It is bactericidal with activity against Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes) on the skin and within the hair follicles. Benzoyl peroxide has mild sebostatic and keratolytic effects and is most effective when used combined with other acne vulgaris therapies.[1][2] In contrast to other topical antibiotics, drug resistance has not appeared to develop with benzoyl peroxide use.[1]

Off-label indications for benzoyl peroxide include[3][4][5][6][7]:

  • Inflammatory forms of rosacea 
  • Folliculitis including gram-negative folliculitis, non-infectious folliculitis, and drug-induced folliculitis (acneiform eruptions)
  • Pseudo-folliculitis barbae
  • Progressive macular hypomelanosis 
  • Pressure ulcers
  • Perforating diseases
  • Pitted keratolysis

Mechanism of Action

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Mechanism of Action

Topical benzoyl peroxide exhibits bactericidal effects against Cutibacterium acnes, a key component of acne vulgaris.[1][2] Benzoyl peroxide, once absorbed by the skin, is converted to benzoic acid. Approximately 5% of the benzoic acid is systemically absorbed and excreted by the renal system. The remaining benzoic acid is metabolized by cysteine in the skin, releasing active free-radical oxygen species resulting in the oxidization of bacterial proteins.[8] Improvement of acne vulgaris occurs by reducing lipids, free fatty acids, and P. acnes.

After applying 10% benzoyl peroxide daily for two weeks, the amount of P. acnes in hair follicles decreased by 98%, and the amount of free fatty acids decreased by 50%, which is comparable to results obtained after four weeks of antibiotic therapy.[9] Topical benzoyl peroxide also has mild sebostatic effects contributing to its keratolytic activity and efficacy in treating comedonal acne.[1] Benzoyl peroxide effectively treats cutaneous ulcers through stimulation of healthy production of granulation tissue and rapid ingrowth of epithelium.[10] 


Benzoyl peroxide is available as both over-the-counter and prescription formulations in concentrations of 2.5%, 5%, and 10%. Available preparations include lotions, creams, gels, foams, solutions, cleansing bars, cleansing lotions, cloths, pads, masks, and shaving creams.  Each application vehicle has specific instructions for the frequency of use. Cleansing bars and washes are used one to three times a day, whereas mask application is a thin layer that is left on for 15 to 25 minutes once a week.[11] Studies have shown that to treat acne vulgaris, the combination products containing benzoyl peroxide and topical antibiotics or adapalene are more effective than either medication used alone.[12][13] Combination preparations with erythromycin or clindamycin are applied twice daily, whereas combination preparations with adapalene are applied once daily.[11]

Adverse Effects

The most common adverse effect from benzoyl peroxide is its bleaching quality, potentially causing the discoloration of colored fabrics and bleaching of hair.  At higher concentrations, topical benzoyl peroxide causes mild dryness, erythema, and scaling.[14] There are also case reports of contact dermatitis in a small percentage of patients, which should arouse suspicion in patients who develop marked erythema and irritation at the treatment site. In such instances, the prudent course of action is to discontinue the use of benzoyl peroxide.


Patients who present with a known history of hypersensitivity to benzoyl peroxide should not use benzoyl peroxide products. Patients with hypersensitivity to cinnamon and other benzoic acid derivatives should be cautious in using benzoyl peroxide as cross-reactivity may occur.[15]

Benzoyl peroxide is not indicated for use around the eyes, nose, mouth, mucous membranes, and open skin as it may cause severe irritation. In instances of mucous membrane or ocular contact, thoroughly rinse affected areas with water for a minimum of 15 minutes.

Patients should limit their UV exposure and apply sunscreen to decrease the risk of developing phototoxicity and skin irritation.[14] 


There is little data available supporting the clinical safety and efficacy of benzoyl peroxide when used in children. Because of its minimal systemic absorption, topical benzoyl peroxide is generally regarded as being safe in the pediatric population.[16] 


The FDA classifies benzoyl peroxide as pregnancy risk category C. The effects of benzoyl peroxide on reproductive health and fetal health are unknown. However, because of its minimal systemic absorption, topical application of benzoyl peroxide is generally considered safe during pregnancy.[17] 


There is not much data available on the use of benzoyl peroxide while breastfeeding. Because of its low rate of systemic absorption, minimal risk to the infant is likely, and the topical use of benzoyl peroxide is generally regarded as safe while breastfeeding, as long as its application is not where the infant would have direct contact during breastfeeding or close skin-on-skin contact.[17]

Drug Interactions

  • Patients should avoid concomitant use of topical sulfone products (e.g., dapsone) with topical benzoyl peroxide as it reportedly causes yellowing of the skin and facial hair.[18] 
  • Patients should avoid concomitant use of topical hydroquinone with topical benzoyl peroxide as it may result in increased skin irritation and transient staining of the epidermis.[19]
  • Concomitant use of oral isotretinoin with topical benzoyl peroxide has been reported to result in increased skin irritation and dryness.[20] 
  • Patients should avoid concurrent application of topical benzoyl peroxide with topical tretinoin as it results in decreased efficacy of tretinoin. Unlike tretinoin, adapalene is resistant to oxidation by benzoyl peroxide and is an acceptable combination product.[2]
  • Concomitant use of topical anesthetics with topical benzoyl peroxide reportedly decreases the efficacy of anesthetics. For optimal results, the recommendation is to thoroughly wash the treatment area before applying topical anesthetics.[21]


There are no monitoring parameters identified for benzoyl peroxide, and no routine tests are recommended. Development of contact dermatitis to benzoyl peroxide should be monitored, with discontinuation of the medication in patients that develop marked erythema and irritation with its use. Before using benzoyl peroxide, a test area should have a test treatment to monitor for tolerability and sensitivity.[14][15]


Topical benzoyl peroxide is not to be taken by mouth; indications are strictly limited to topical use. In case of ingestion, patients should call 911, contact the poison control center (1-800-222-1222), or report to the nearest emergency department. There are no known antidotes for this medication.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

The most common medications prescribed for acne vulgaris include benzoyl peroxide, retinoids, and topical/oral antibiotics. Despite their individual efficacy in treating mild-to-moderate acne vulgaris, studies have shown that the combined use of antibiotics or retinoids with benzoyl peroxide is more efficacious than either medication used alone. The combination is believed to be synergistic and has also been shown to prevent the development of antibiotic resistance.[2][12] However, in a survey of patients with an indication for benzoyl peroxide as an additional acne treatment, only 30% of the patients obtained the benzoyl peroxide product.[22] Therefore, to improve patient compliance and treatment efficacy, healthcare providers should seek to prescribe combination products that would result in simpler skincare regimens and greater patient adherence. The initial disadvantage of combination products is their increased cost and need to be refrigerated to prevent degradation.[11] Although refrigeration is encouraged, cost reduction is possible through the utilization of specialty compounding pharmacies.



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Zaenglein AL, Acne Vulgaris. The New England journal of medicine. 2018 Oct 4;     [PubMed PMID: 30281982]


Leyden JJ, Topical treatment for the inflamed lesion in acne, rosacea, and pseudofolliculitis barbae. Cutis. 2004 Jun;     [PubMed PMID: 15228127]


Wu XG,Xu AE,Luo XY,Song XZ, A case of progressive macular hypomelanosis successfully treated with benzoyl peroxide plus narrow-band UVB. The Journal of dermatological treatment. 2010 Nov;     [PubMed PMID: 20524876]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Fernández Vozmediano JM,Alonso Blasi N,Almenara Barrios J,Alonso Trujillo F,Lafuente L, [Benzoyl peroxide in the treatment of decubitus ulcers]. Medicina cutanea ibero-latino-americana. 1988;     [PubMed PMID: 3070200]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Lukács J,Schliemann S,Elsner P, Treatment of acquired reactive perforating dermatosis - a systematic review. Journal der Deutschen Dermatologischen Gesellschaft = Journal of the German Society of Dermatology : JDDG. 2018 Jul;     [PubMed PMID: 29927512]

Level 1 (high-level) evidence


Vlahovic TC,Dunn SP,Kemp K, The use of a clindamycin 1%-benzoyl peroxide 5% topical gel in the treatment of pitted keratolysis: a novel therapy. Advances in skin     [PubMed PMID: 19935134]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Nacht S,Yeung D,Beasley JN Jr,Anjo MD,Maibach HI, Benzoyl peroxide: percutaneous penetration and metabolic disposition. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 1981 Jan;     [PubMed PMID: 7204686]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Nacht S,Gans EH,McGinley KJ,Kligman AM, Comparative activity of benzoyl peroxide and hexachlorophene. In vivo studies against propionibacterium acnes in humans. Archives of dermatology. 1983 Jul;     [PubMed PMID: 6222704]

Level 1 (high-level) evidence


O'Meara SM,Cullum NA,Majid M,Sheldon TA, Systematic review of antimicrobial agents used for chronic wounds. The British journal of surgery. 2001 Jan;     [PubMed PMID: 11136304]

Level 1 (high-level) evidence


Hoffman LK,Bhatia N,Zeichner J,Kircik LH, Topical Vehicle Formulations in the Treatment of Acne. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD. 2018 Jun 1;     [PubMed PMID: 29879262]


Leyden JJ,Wortzman M,Baldwin EK, Antibiotic-resistant Propionibacterium acnes suppressed by a benzoyl peroxide cleanser 6%. Cutis. 2008 Dec;     [PubMed PMID: 19181031]


Leyden JJ,Thiboutot D,Shalita A, Photographic review of results from a clinical study comparing benzoyl peroxide 5%/clindamycin 1% topical gel with vehicle in the treatment of rosacea. Cutis. 2004 Jun;     [PubMed PMID: 15228129]

Level 1 (high-level) evidence


Foti C,Romita P,Borghi A,Angelini G,Bonamonte D,Corazza M, Contact dermatitis to topical acne drugs: a review of the literature. Dermatologic therapy. 2015 Sep-Oct;     [PubMed PMID: 26302055]


Shwereb C,Lowenstein EJ, Delayed type hypersensitivity to benzoyl peroxide. Journal of drugs in dermatology : JDD. 2004 Mar-Apr;     [PubMed PMID: 15098979]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Coughlin CC,Swink SM,Horwinski J,Sfyroera G,Bugayev J,Grice EA,Yan AC, The preadolescent acne microbiome: A prospective, randomized, pilot study investigating characterization and effects of acne therapy. Pediatric dermatology. 2017 Nov;     [PubMed PMID: 29024079]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Pugashetti R,Shinkai K, Treatment of acne vulgaris in pregnant patients. Dermatologic therapy. 2013 Jul-Aug;     [PubMed PMID: 23914887]


Dubina MI,Fleischer AB Jr, Interaction of topical sulfacetamide and topical dapsone with benzoyl peroxide. Archives of dermatology. 2009 Sep;     [PubMed PMID: 19770443]


Saade DS,Maymone MBC,Secemsky EA,Kennedy KF,Vashi NA, Patterns of Over-the-counter Lightening Agent Use among Patients with Hyperpigmentation Disorders: A United States-based Cohort Study. The Journal of clinical and aesthetic dermatology. 2018 Jul;     [PubMed PMID: 30057662]


Chernyshov PV,Tomas-Aragones L,Manolache L,Svensson A,Marron SE,Evers AWM,Bettoli V,Jemec GB,Szepietowski JC, Which acne treatment has the best influence on health-related quality of life? Literature review by the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology Task Force on Quality of Life and Patient Oriented Outcomes. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology : JEADV. 2018 Sep;     [PubMed PMID: 29729107]

Level 2 (mid-level) evidence


Burkhart CG,Burkhart CN, Decreased efficacy of topical anesthetic creams in presence of benzoyl peroxide. Dermatologic surgery : official publication for American Society for Dermatologic Surgery [et al.]. 2005 Nov;     [PubMed PMID: 16416626]


Huyler AH,Zaenglein AL, Adherence to over-the-counter benzoyl peroxide in patients with acne. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. 2017 Oct;     [PubMed PMID: 28917458]