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Why Benzoyl Peroxide Is the Secret to Clear Skin

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Photo: Hoxton/Tom Merton/Getty Images

Nothing is certain in life except death and taxes...and pimples. Whether you suffer from full-on acne, the occasional breakout, or something in between, blemishes happen to the best of us. And when it comes to treating those pimples, there are a few ingredients dermatologists recommend time and time again. One of the most popular? Benzoyl peroxide. Ahead, experts weigh in on this skin-clearing superstar.

What Is Benzoyl Peroxide?

Benzoyl peroxide's biggest attribute: It's antibacterial and can combat acne-causing p.acnes bacteria. "By delivering oxygen into the pores, benzoyl peroxide creates a toxic environment in which these bacteria can't survive," says dermatologist Rhonda Klein, M.D., partner at Modern Dermatology of Connecticut. But it doesn't stop there. "It also has anti-inflammatory effects to reduce redness and soreness associated with blemishes, and can help unclog pores to keep them clear and prevent new blemishes from forming." To that point, BP (as skin docs call it) is your best bet for treating those large, red, inflamed pimples; while it can help treat blackheads and whiteheads, salicylic acid is best for those (it's better at dissolving the oil and dead skin cells that clog pores and create those types of blemishes). Though if you're dealing with both, the two ingredients do play nicely and can be used together. 

Important Things to Keep in Mind

Benzoyl peroxide's biggest drawback? "It can be irritating and drying, so you might not be able to tolerate it if you have sensitive skin or conditions such as dermatitis or eczema," says Deanne Robinson, M.D., a member of the Women's Dermatologic Society and co-founder and president of Modern Dermatology of Connecticut. It can also be too intense if you're dealing with adult acne, says Rebecca Kazin, M.D., associate director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Chevy Chase, M.D., since the older you get, the dryer and more sensitive your skin becomes. (Related: Alternative Adult Acne Treatments.) That being said, "many of the newest benzoyl peroxide products contain ingredients to help counteract the potential for irritation," Dr. Kazin adds. The type of product you pick also matters...

How to Pick a Benzoyl Peroxide Product

The derms we spoke with unanimously agreed that benzoyl peroxide washes are best: Because they're not on the skin for long, the likelihood of any irritation is lower, and you can also easily use one in the shower to treat blemishes not only on your face, but on your back and chest too, Dr. Robinson says. (Related: The Best Beauty Products to Fight Body Acne.) "Look for one that contains 2.5 percent to 5 percent benzoyl peroxide," Dr. Klein says. "These lower percentages have been shown to be just as effective as 10 percent concentrations, but much less irritating." A few to try: Differin Daily Deep Cleanser ($10; amazon.com); Neutrogena Clear Pore Cleanser/Mask ($7; target.com); PanOxyl Benzoyl Peroxide Acne Creamy Wash ($12; walgreens.com).

Leave-on spot treatments are also a good option if you have one particularly pesky pimple (though keep it targeted to small areas, rather than applying all over your face, in order to minimize irritation). One to try: Glossier Zit Stick ($14; glossier.com). (Related: What Dermatologists Do When They Get a Pimple.) It's also worth noting that benzoyl peroxide can bleach fabric—pillowcases, towels, clothing—so keep that in mind if you're opting for a leave-on BP product.

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