A quick search online for using hydrogen peroxide for your skin can reveal conflicting, and often confusing, results. Some users tout it as an effective acne treatment and a skin lightener. It’s sometimes used as a disinfectant, but it can cause severe side effects when used on your skin.

Hydrogen peroxide is used to disinfect tools, bleach hair, and to clean surfaces. It’s also used in oral care and gardening. It may be discomforting to know that a touted skin treatment can also be used as a household cleaner.

According to the National Capital Poison Center, over-the-counter products with hydrogen peroxide contain “safe” concentrations of 3 percent, while some industrial versions contain up to 90 percent.

Your doctor may use hydrogen peroxide in small doses to help treat instances of oxidative stress in your skin. It’s not, however, widely regarded as a safe product for alternative skin care. Learn more about the risks to your skin and what you should use instead.

Why you should keep hydrogen peroxide off your skin

Hydrogen peroxide is a type of acid that is pale blue to translucent in color. This disinfectant is available for OTC usage in smaller concentrations that those used in industries. You can buy it in wipes or as a liquid to apply with a cotton ball.

It’s sometimes used to treat minor cases of the following conditions:

Medical professionals no longer use this acid as a disinfecting agent. Hydrogen peroxide may inadvertently damage healthy cells around wounds that are needed for healing. Reports of these negative implications have also been reported in mice studies.

Proponents claim that its wound healing effects may translate to acne treatment and other skin issues like hyperpigmentation. Still, the dangers of the product far outweigh any potential benefits when it comes to your skin. These complications include:

  • dermatitis (eczema)
  • burns
  • blisters
  • hives
  • redness
  • itchiness and irritation

Aside from skin side effects, hydrogen peroxide can also cause:

  • toxicity or fatality when inhaled or swallowed
  • a potentially higher risk of cancer
  • damage to your eyes
  • internal organ damage

More serious risks are associated with higher concentrations and long-term use. If you do get hydrogen peroxide on your skin, be sure to rinse thoroughly with water. You may need to rinse for up to 20 minutes if it gets in your eyes.

For bleaching skin, one study says that you need a concentration of between 20 and 30 percent. This is much higher than the 3 percent that’s considered safe for home use. The risks of burns and scars are far greater than any potential skin lightening effects.

Interest in hydrogen peroxide as a potential acne treatment is growing. A hydrogen peroxide-based cream called Crystacide was just as potent as benzoyl peroxide with fewer cases of reported sensitivity. However, Crystacide only contains a 1 percent concentration and is part of a combination product.

Ask your dermatologist before purchasing over-the-counter treatments. Some prescription formulas are also available.

What to use instead

Instead of taking a risk with hydrogen peroxide, there are other ingredients that have been researched as safe and effective.

Wound treatment

Wound treatment depends on whether you have a burn, scrape, or an open cut. Your approach to treatment should aim to stop any bleeding while protecting your skin so it can heal without becoming damaged or infected. Try the following steps:

  • Apply bandages or wraps.
  • Increase your intake of vitamin C.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin A and zinc in your diet.
  • Only take OTC pain medication (acetaminophen, ibuprofen) when necessary.

Acne and skin lightening treatment

You’ll first need to consider whether your pimples are caused by inflammation or not. Blackheads and whiteheads are two types of noninflammatory acne. These may be treated with salicylic acid to get rid of extra dead skin cells that are trapped in your pores. Inflammatory lesions, such as nodules, papules and cysts, may need benzoyl peroxide. Your dermatologist may recommend oral medications for more severe cases.

If you wish to lighten your skin from scars and other causes of hyperpigmentation, consider the following options:

  • alpha-hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid
  • hydroquinone, a bleaching agent
  • kojic acid, a more natural ingredient
  • vitamin C

Avoid using hydrogen peroxide

While hydrogen peroxide is sometimes used as a skin disinfectant, you should never use this product without consulting your doctor first. The pure formulas you can buy at the drugstore aren’t proven to be effective for any other skin concerns and conditions.

Talk with your dermatologist about other OTC products and professional procedures you might be able to use for acne, hyperpigmentation, and other skin care issues.