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 an old theory that low oxygen levels can cause cancer.
Hydrogen peroxide is an oxygenating compound, which means it’s a chemical that contains oxygen. People who support using hydrogen peroxide to treat cancer claim that it kills cancer cells by flooding them with oxygen.
This type of treatment is also called:
- bio-oxidative therapy
- hyperoxygenation therapy
- oxidative therapy
Keep reading to learn more about the science behind using hydrogen peroxide as a cancer treatment and whether it actually works.
To produce energy, normal cells typically go through a process that starts with glycolysis (the breaking down of glucose, or sugar) and ends with oxidative phosphorylation.
In 1931, Otto Heinrich Warburg won a Nobel Prize for discovering that cancer cells use only glycolysis to produce energy. While normal cells sometimes use only glycolysis too, this occurs only when there isn’t enough oxygen.
Cancer cells, on the other hand, use only glycolysis even when oxygen is present. This phenomenon is called the Warburg effect.
Researchers spent the next several decades trying to figure out why cancer cells survive without oxygen. Some developed a hypothesis that low oxygen levels may 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 very early study in 1957, 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 closer look
While some of the early studies on hydrogen peroxide and cancer seemed promising, more recent research reveals major problems. For example, researchers now know that cancer cells don’t survive any 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. This means cancer cells can survive with or without oxygen — so flooding them with oxygen won’t stop their growth.
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’d find in a brown bottle at most drugstores.
In 2006, the 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 an alternative to traditional cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, there’s a reason doctors don’t use it or recommend it.
It hasn’t been shown to treat or cure cancer in humans.
Plus, 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.