Hydrogen Peroxide for Skin: Is It Safe?

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Hydrogen peroxide for skin care should not be done at home. The chemical does have a number of medical applications, though, in ranges as broad as 1% to 45% concentration.

But that doesn’t mean hydrogen peroxide for skin care at home is recommended. Low concentrations may cause temporary blisters and other skin damage, but concentrations of 9% or higher can cause more severe symptoms including tissue death.

This article discusses the uses of hydrogen peroxide, its toxicity, and why healthcare providers no longer recommend its use for skin conditions like acne or hyperpigmentation (dark spots on the skin). It also looks at some alternatives to hydrogen peroxide.

Illustration by Michela Buttignol for Verywell Health


What Is Hydrogen Peroxide?

Hydrogen peroxide is water with an extra oxygen molecule. As it releases the extra oxygen molecule (and causes foaming), it acts as a disinfectant and bleach. It’s also naturally occurring in the body, and plays a key role in managing oxidative stress, which contributes to a number of health conditions.

Yet that doesn’t make it helpful for skin care. Different concentrations of hydrogen peroxide have stronger or weaker effects. Medical-grade hydrogen peroxide comes in a 3% concentration. This means the bottle contains 3% hydrogen peroxide and 97% water.

Higher concentrations are available but can be toxic if swallowed or inhaled. For example, hydrogen peroxide with a 35% concentration is extremely toxic. Most household cleaners that contain hydrogen peroxide have a 3% to 9% concentration. 

Low concentrations of hydrogen peroxide are usually safe for cleaning surfaces. Higher concentrations are very irritating to the eyes, skin, and gut. If inhaled or swallowed, they can cause:

  • Burning
  • Blistering
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Bleeding 

Common Uses on Skin

Hydrogen peroxide can kill germs and sanitize surfaces. In the past, it was used to treat common skin problems such as:

As it stands, however, hydrogen peroxide is no longer recommended for use on the skin. This is because of its potential side effects and risk of toxicity. If you are considering its use, talk to your healthcare provider.

Other options may work; for example, there is research to suggest that certain topical probiotics may be useful as antifungal agents, but more studies are needed.

Acne

Acne forms when dirt and bacteria clog pores. Hydrogen peroxide can kill acne-causing bacteria, but the risks outweigh the benefits.

Hydrogen peroxide is harsh and irritating to the skin. It can cause inflammation and worsen acne symptoms. Hydrogen peroxide that’s temporarily applied to the skin isn’t an acne treatment that will work throughout the day, either.

Wounds

Because of its ability to fight germs, hydrogen peroxide was once used on cuts and scrapes. It does clean and disinfect the surfaces it touches. While that sounds helpful for keeping a cut clean, it probably does more harm than good.

Studies have shown that hydrogen peroxide can cause:

  • Blistering of the skin
  • Worsening wounds
  • Increased risk of infection

It may also interfere with the body’s natural wound healing. This is because it irritates the skin and also kills the cells that promote healing.

Skin Lightening

Hydrogen peroxide works as a bleach. This means it could help lighten dark areas of the skin, such as those caused by:

  • Sun damage
  • Aging
  • Scars
  • Medications
  • Changes in hormones

It can also, however, cause irritation and skin breakdown. 

Side Effects and Risks

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical and may cause serious side effects. The higher the concentration, the more serious the side effects can be.

Using a high concentration of hydrogen peroxide on your skin could cause blistering and burning. Even 3% medical grade can cause skin irritation, which can usually be remedied by washing the skin and applying ointment.

Accidental Ingestion

Accidental ingestion of hydrogen peroxide at low concentrations probably won’t cause serious health risks. But it’s a special concern with children and swallowing hydrogen peroxide can be an irritating cause of vomiting and other symptoms.

If you ingest a higher concentration of hydrogen peroxide, seek emergency medical care right away. Hydrogen peroxide can cause:

Life-threatening side effects like convulsions, fluid build-up in the lungs, and shock are also possible. 

Inhaling high concentrations of hydrogen peroxide is also dangerous. Symptoms may start as eye and nose irritation and progress to:

  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest congestion
  • Bleeding in the lungs 

To avoid these risks, never keep highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide in the house. If you keep a bottle of 3% hydrogen peroxide for cleaning purposes, place it on a high shelf away from children. Make sure it is clearly labeled.

When to Call Poison Control

If a hydrogen peroxide splash causes eye irritation, follow these steps:

  • Rinse your eyes with clean water for up to 20 minutes
  • Call poison control at 1-800-222-1222

If you or your child accidentally ingests or inhales hydrogen peroxide of any concentration, seek medical help or call poison control. 

Alternatives to Hydrogen Peroxide

Fortunately, there are safer and more effective alternatives to hydrogen peroxide.

Acne

Talk with your dermatologist about safe options for treating acne. Benzoyl peroxide and salicylic acid have both been proven to improve acne symptoms without significant skin irritation. Unlike hydrogen peroxide, benzoyl peroxide forms a film on the skin and continues to work hours after it’s applied.

Wounds

Wash minor cuts and scrapes with a gentle soap and water. Pat dry with a clean towel, apply an antibacterial ointment, and cover with a Band-Aid. For larger or more serious cuts, seek medical care. You may need to have a doctor clean and stitch the wound.

Skin Lightening

Dark spots and age spots are usually related to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Sunscreen can keep your dark spots from getting worse. It can also prevent new ones from forming.

To lighten the dark spots you already have, look for an over-the-counter product that contains one of the following:

These ingredients can reduce the amount of melanin in your skin. Melanin is what causes the darkened appearance. Ask your dermatologist for help addressing any skin pigment issues.

Summary

Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical agent. It is an effective disinfectant and bleach, but it should not be used on the skin. Seek alternative treatments for acne, hyperpigmentation, or small cuts.

Keep hydrogen peroxide in your home for household cleaning and disinfecting surfaces only. If you are concerned that you may have swallowed or inhaled hydrogen peroxide, call poison control or seek emergency care right away.

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