What Are the Uses of Hydrogen Peroxide?

by Lucy Bell-Young

The simplest of all peroxides, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is a versatile substance with a range of uses. From bleaching to cosmetics, there are many industries that utilise the properties of this chemical compound.

But before we get into its uses, it’s important to take note of some of the properties that make hydrogen peroxide suitable for such a range of applications:

  • Hydrogen peroxide has an unstable peroxide bond that causes it to decompose quickly
  • When it decomposes it converts into water and oxygen gas
  • There is one extra oxygen atom in the H2O2 molecule which makes it an oxidiser
  • It has highly reactive oxygen atoms that are released after decomposition

These characteristics are utilised by several industries and are what make hydrogen peroxide especially effective as a bleaching and antibacterial agent.

What Is Hydrogen Peroxide Used For?

Bleaching Agent

Although H2O2 has a variety of applications, its main use is as a bleaching agent. In fact, around 60% of the world’s production of hydrogen peroxide is used in this industry. It is an effective bleaching agent because of its instability and is used to bleach paper, wood pulp, cotton and much more.

Its high reactivity means that hydrogen peroxide can break the chemical bonds of a chromophore, the region of a molecule that is responsible for colour. When these bonds are broken, the molecule is altered so that it appears to have no colour.

This happens because H2O2 contains a peroxide bond. This is an oxygen-oxygen single bond that is very weak and unstable. When this bond breaks, hydrogen peroxide decomposes into water and oxygen gas, releasing free radicals that are highly reactive with other substances. These reactions often result in bleaching.

White wooden table that has been bleached with hydrogen peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is widely used as a bleaching agent, especially for wood pulp, cotton, paper and hair.

Antibacterial Agent

Hydrogen peroxide has a lot of antibacterial properties that are used in the medical, cosmetic and cleaning industries. Its ability to kill and deter bacteria is part of the reason why honey has an eternal shelf life; the traces of H2O2 prevent bacteria from growing and help to preserve the sticky treat for – literally – centuries.

Antiseptic for Wounds

When hydrogen peroxide decomposes, a lot of energy is released, killing bacteria and other microorganisms. This is why H2O2 is sometimes used to clean and disinfect wounds.

When hydrogen peroxide comes into contact with blood, it converts into water and oxygen gas. This is because blood contains catalase, an enzyme that attacks H2O2 and causes it to decompose.

Because the oxygen atoms in the molecule are highly reactive, they are able to steal electrons from other compounds, including bacteria. This process is known as oxidation. Hydrogen peroxide is effective at killing bacteria because the fewer electrons bacteria has, the more damaged their cell walls become.

Eventually, the cell walls of bacteria are destroyed as the oxidation process continues. Physically, this all occurs as an effervescing white foam on the skin.

Is Hydrogen Peroxide Safe to Use on the Skin?

While the oxidation that occurs does kill bacteria, it also damages the healthy skin around the cut or wound.

When hydrogen peroxide is absorbed into the skin, it can also reduce the number of fibroblasts in the body. Fibroblasts are cells that are found in connective tissue, where they produce collagen and other fibres to help repair damaged tissue.

By reducing the number of fibroblasts, hydrogen peroxide could affect the overall healing time of a wound, and could even cause scarring by preventing the wound from healing properly. This is why many doctors and dermatologists actually advise against hydrogen peroxide as a topical antiseptic for cuts and wounds.

What Is Hydrogen Peroxide Used for Around the House?

Although its safety on skin has been contested, hydrogen peroxide is a great way to disinfect surfaces in your home. In fact, some of your go-to cleaning products probably contain H2O2.

Recognised as a bacteriostatic, hydrogen peroxide inhibits bacterial growth. It prevents bacteria from reproducing by using its secret weapons: free radicals. When the O-O (peroxide) bond breaks, two H-O radicals are formed. Not only do these have oxidising effects, but they also have disinfectant properties that protect against bacteria. You can use hydrogen peroxide to disinfect kitchen counters, for example.

Person slicing vegetables on a wooden chopping board
Hydrogen peroxide is used for its antibacterial properties. It is often found in many cleaning products as an effective surface disinfectant.

Cosmetic Industry

Given its bleaching properties and oxidising effects, hydrogen peroxide is often used in the cosmetic industry for:

  • Skin lightening
  • Eliminating dark spots
  • Hair bleaching and dyes
  • Teeth whitening
  • Nail brightening

Hydrogen peroxide is also often used to clean and disinfect makeup brushes, which is important due to how often these tools come in contact with the face. It can also soften calluses when feet are left to soak in a hydrogen peroxide/water solution.

Some have even raved about how this compound is a great natural alternative for deodorant – but that’s your call!

A woman putting her hands on top of each other on a table
Hydrogen peroxide is often used a way of brightening nails. It is also used in teeth whitening and skin lightening.

What Is Hydrogen Peroxide Food Grade Used For?

Although it might seem unlikely, hydrogen peroxide is used in the production of food. Food-grade hydrogen peroxide is used in dental care, toothpaste and mouthwash, for example, and also in food preparation processes such as in aseptic packaging, where food is sterilised separately from the packaging and then put into the packaging in a clean environment.

Other Uses of Hydrogen Peroxide

  • Glow sticks: hydrogen peroxide reacts with di-esters and creates chemiluminescence – the glow we see in glow sticks
  • Horticulture: a weak solution of hydrogen peroxide can be used to water plants. The solution quickly decomposes and releases oxygen, which stimulates a plant’s root development
  • Stain remover: hydrogen peroxide can remove wine, chocolate, grass, mould, and underarm sweat stains
  • Fish aeration: as for plants, a weak hydrogen peroxide solution can be used in aquariums to provide oxygen to fish

Benefits of Hydrogen Peroxide

The benefits of hydrogen peroxide are closely linked to its uses, and include:

  • Antiseptic
  • Disinfecting
  • Sanitising
  • Oxidising
  • Lightning and whitening
  • Healing (in small, weak doses)

ReAgent has a range of hydrogen peroxide products for sale in our online shop. Choose a concentration and pack size that suits you, and get your order shipped within 24 hours.


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