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Facts about the skin from DermNet New Zealand Trust. Topic index: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


Hydrogen peroxide

Background

Hydrogen peroxide is a bleach and an oxidising agent, which means that when applied to tissues, oxygen is released. It is active against a wide variety of microorganisms. There are no known disease-causing bacteria or fungi that develop resistance to hydrogen peroxide.

Uses of hydrogen peroxide

Hydrogen peroxide at low concentrations has a variety of medicinal and domestic uses. At higher concentrations hydrogen peroxide has many commercial and industrial uses.

Strength Uses Comments
Medicinal 1-5% Antiseptic, topical acne treatment
  • 1-5% hydrogen peroxide is frequently used to clean cuts, scrapes, and other minor injuries. Although it effectively kills organisms in the laboratory, there is little evidence that it is effective in reducing bacterial counts in actual wounds.
  • Hydrogen peroxide 1% in stabilised cream (Crystacide®) can be used to treat acne. One study showed Crystacide® is as effective as benzoyl peroxide (a commonly used topical treatment for mild to moderate acne).
Domestic 3-6% Disinfectant, contact lens disinfectant Hydrogen peroxide is active against bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses, and spores on inanimate surfaces. Contact lenses must be neutralised before use to avoid pronounced stinging and possible corneal damage.
Cosmetic Up to 10% Peroxide-based hair dyes, hair perming products, teeth whitening Some teeth whitening products used by dentists (office-based only) contain up to 35% hydrogen peroxide. Over-the-counter teeth whitening products contain up to 6% hydrogen peroxide.
Commercial and industrial Above 35% Bleach for textiles, paper, and food; a component of rocket fuel; used in the production of chemicals and foam rubber; agricultural uses Workers in these industries may be exposed to hydrogen peroxide through inhalation or contact with the skin. Hydrogen peroxide breaks down rapidly in water and soil so does not accumulate in the food chain.
Common uses of hydrogen peroxide

Adverse effects of hydrogen peroxide

Concentrated hydrogen peroxide can be toxic if taken by mouth, inhaled, or if it comes into contact with the eyes or skin. The main toxic effects of exposure to dilute solutions of hydrogen peroxide are irritation at the site of contact. Exposure to more concentrated solutions of hydrogen peroxide is most likely to occur in an occupational setting; personal protective equipment is recommended for workers likely to be exposed.

Adverse effects of hydrogen peroxide
Route of exposure Effects
By mouth
  • Ingestion of dilute solutions of hydrogen peroxide may result in vomiting, mild gastrointestinal irritation, gastric distension (ballooning inside the stomach due to release of oxygen), and on rare occasions, gastrointestinal bleeding or air embolism (blockage of blood vessels by air bubbles).
  • Ingestion of solutions of 10-20% strength produces similar symptoms, but exposed tissues may also be burned. Symptoms may include abdominal pain, foaming at the mouth, vomiting (may contain blood), and gastric distension.
  • Ingestion of even more concentrated solutions, in addition to the above, may also induce rapid loss of consciousness and can result in death.
Inhalation
  • Inhalation of household strength hydrogen peroxide (3%) can cause irritation to the nose, throat and respiratory tract.
  • Inhalation of vapours from concentrated (higher than 10%) solutions may result in bronchitis and pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs), which can be fatal.
Eyes
  • Eye exposure to 3% hydrogen peroxide may result in redness and stinging, but severe injury is rare.
  • More concentrated solution may result in ulceration or perforation of the cornea. Permanent eye injury, including blindness, can result.
Skin
  • Skin contact can cause irritation and temporary bleaching of the skin and hair.
  • Contact with concentrated solutions may cause severe skin burns with blisters and ulcers.

Long-term adverse effects

Little is known about the long-term adverse effects of hydrogen peroxide. It is not known if exposure to hydrogen peroxide may cause cancer or affect reproduction in humans.

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Author: Dr Marie Hartley, Staff Writer.

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If you have any concerns with your skin or its treatment, see a dermatologist for advice.