There seems to be a lot of conflicting information out there when it comes to whether or not benzoyl peroxide has been banned in the European Union. This oddly named (who can forget the ring to it?) chemical ingredient commonly used in over the counter acne treatment products here in the US has been around ever since I can remember. It was certainly a staple in the drug store OTC acne products I grew up with in the 80’s and 90’s.
The question of whether this ingredient has been banned or not is really two fold answer. Yes, it has been banned, however only in OTC products. It is not entirely banned from the marketplace overall though. It is still available, it just is a controlled ingredient and can only be purchased through prescription. Therefore, it is not allowed to be imported to the country, and access to it is restricted due to its status as a restricted substance.
Why Ban Benzoyl Peroxide from OTC Products?
The EU has listed the ingredient as a potential cancer causing agent due to studies in animals showing the repeated application could cause skin tumors. This may have been a lot more applications than the typical user would apply for purposes of experimentation. However EU tends to have more stringent rules on what types of products and ingredients they provide people without a prescription and with little controls on where they can access it.
By restricting access to this chemical, they are effectively reducing its use by quite a bit. And many Europeans still seem to want access to it, judging by the online presence of such requests and frustration that it is not even allowed to be imported to the country.
Bleaches the Skin
Another effect that many may not like is the bleaching effect it tends to have on the skin over repeated application. It makes sense since it’s a “peroxide” chemical, however most people don’t assumed it may bleach out their skin. Most people want to use it to target acne prone areas of the skin and to help treat existing pimples. It definitely helps dry out the skin. But other than that and the fact that it has some antibacterial properties, I’ve found that salicylic acid (and many essential oils) are the superior ingredient to use in acne treatment products.
Dryness and Redness
Benzoyl peroxide also has another undesirable effect on some with more sensitive skin. It can be extremely drying and can increase the redness and irritation associated with acne breakouts. Treating acne can be tricky for this reason. You want to “dry out” the pimple and help prevent the localized sebum from prolonging the pimple, however this can easily be counterproductive and cause more harm than good.
I can remember many times, before I figured out that benzoyl just did not agree with my skin type, the painful severity of the dryness and flakiness it caused. Sometimes it would become so irretrievably dry that the area would crack and bleed. Not sure what looks worse, an acne breakout or scaly, dry and red skin! This also happened to my skin on Retin-A, which happens to be a prescription. They flaking and dryness was so severe as to become just another eye sore, so it became quite a tradeoff.
Often times, drying your skin to this degree can have the opposite of the desired effect in the fight against blemishes. It shocks the skin into producing more sebum, since sebum is the main protectant and lubricant of the skin. When your skin senses that this protective layer is compromised, it will produce more. The more sebum, the more bacteria has a chance to get in the pores and cause a breakout. It all becomes a vicious cycle, which is why some people cannot use harsh chemicals like this to treat their acne.
All in all, the FDA has deemed benzoyl peroxide safe enough for occasional OTC use here in the US. It may be ok to use it in moderation. However, the simple fact that it may be one of the more inferior ways to treat acne due to its other side effects makes it worth a look into the other major ingredient, salicylic acid, or a host of antibacterial essential oils that are known to help fight acne topically like lavender, tea tree, and rosemary oil among others.