Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical compound that’s used for many purposes, from whitening teeth to cleaning small cuts and scrapes. Some people claim it can even cure cancer.
The claim is based on a theory that low oxygen levels can cause cancer. Hydrogen peroxide is an oxygenating compound, meaning it’s a chemical that contains oxygen. Proponents of using hydrogen peroxide to treat cancer claim that it kills cancer cells by flooding them with oxygen.
This type of treatment is also called:
- hyperoxygenation therapy
- bio-oxidative therapy
- oxidative therapy
Keep reading to learn more about the science behind using hydrogen peroxide as a cancer treatment and whether it actually works.
In 1931, Otto Heinrich Warburg won a Nobel Prize for discovering that cancer cells use a process called glycolysis to produce energy. By contrast, noncancerous cells typically use a process called oxidative phosphorylation to produce energy. Sometimes noncancerous cells use glycolysis like cancer cells do, but only when there isn’t enough oxygen.
This phenomenon of cancer cells surviving without oxygen is called the Warburg effect.
Researchers spent the next several decades trying to figure out how cancer cells survive without oxygen. Some developed a hypothesis that low oxygen levels actually cause cancer.
This led to a belief that oxygenating compounds, including hydrogen peroxide, could kill cancer cells by flooding them with more oxygen than they could handle.
Based on this research, some people claim that drinking or injecting a solution containing a 35 percent concentration of hydrogen peroxide cures cancer.
Studies looking at the link between cancer cells and oxygen started in the 1950s. In one study, rats with cancerous tumors drank a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water. Between 50 and 60 percent of the rats were tumor-free within 60 days.
Other animal studies were done over the next few decades. However, most found that injecting hydrogen peroxide into cancerous tumors was ineffective.
A 1981 animal study found that delivering hydrogen peroxide directly to tumors through microscopic beads avoided the side effects found in other studies and did seem to have some anticancer effects.
While these results show some promise, more human studies are needed.
A closer look
While some of the early studies done about hydrogen peroxide and cancer seem promising, more recent research reveals major problems. For example, researchers now know that cancer cells don’t survive better in an environment without oxygen.
Cancer cells grow without oxygen because they spread so quickly that blood vessels can’t deliver oxygen to them fast enough. Cancer cells can survive with or without oxygen. Flooding them with oxygen won’t stop their growth.
In addition, newer research suggests that cancer cells produce their own hydrogen peroxide, which may help them grow. This suggests that using hydrogen peroxide as a cancer treatment can actually help cancer cells survive.
Hydrogen peroxide can be dangerous to humans when swallowed or injected.
If you have some hydrogen peroxide in your medicine cabinet, it’s likely a 3 percent concentration. When swallowed, 3 percent hydrogen peroxide can cause stomach irritation and even chemical burns in some cases.
Hydrogen peroxide cancer treatments usually involve 35 percent hydrogen peroxide. This is more than 10 times stronger than what you find in a brown bottle at most drug stores.
In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against using 35 percent hydrogen peroxide as a medical treatment, claiming it can cause serious health problems, including death.
Injecting 35 percent hydrogen peroxide can cause:
- inflammation of the blood vessels at the injection site
- oxygen bubbles that block flood flow and lead to gas embolisms, which can be fatal
- destruction of red blood cells (red cell hemolysis)
- kidney failure
Drinking 35 percent hydrogen peroxide can cause:
- mouth, throat, and stomach burns
- foaming at the mouth
- stomach bloating
- loss of consciousness
- trouble breathing
Simply breathing in the vapors of 35 percent hydrogen peroxide can cause breathing problems as well as fainting. You can also develop blisters or a severe burn if your skin has any contact with it.
While hydrogen peroxide might sound like a safer alternative to traditional cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, there’s a reason doctors don’t use it or recommend it.
The high-strength hydrogen peroxide that some people recommend using as a cancer treatment is extremely dangerous, especially when you take it internally.
It can cause several severe conditions, from organ failure to a fatal embolism.