Hydrogen peroxide is one of those common products you probably have stashed in a bathroom cabinet next to the band-aids.

While it may be useful in some situations, there are times when it can harm your health.

Because hydrogen peroxide is such a common household product, we wanted to take a moment to explain when is the right time to use it and when to hide it away.

Here are the facts you need to know for safe, effective use of this powerful disinfection tool.

What Is Hydrogen Peroxide?

Hydrogen peroxide is classified by chemists as a compound, which just means that it contains at least two atomic elements.

When stored at room temperature, undiluted hydrogen peroxide is a clear liquid with a slight blue tinge.

Its chemical formula is H2O2, which makes it a close neighbor of plain old water, H2O. In fact, the air around you also contains traces of a gaseous form of hydrogen peroxide. However, the extra oxygen atom means that H2O2 and water have very different properties. This is why hydrogen peroxide is a green – or environmentally friendly – chemical. It naturally breaks down into oxygen and water.

Hydrogen peroxide acts as an oxidizer or oxidant, which means that it can pull electrons from the atoms of other substances when they make contact with them.

When oxidation occurs, the process releases oxygen molecules into the environment. If you have ever seen hydrogen peroxide foam up, you’re witnessing that oxidation in action.

Why is Hydrogen Peroxide Used to Disinfect?

So why are we droning on about all this sciency stuff? Well, for one, because we’re scientists and we love it. But also because this oxidation process is what gives hydrogen peroxide its disinfectant quality.

When it oxidizes, it can kill harmful bacteria by damaging the organism’s cell wall.

Many people us household-strength hydrogen peroxide as a topical antiseptic, which means it’s effective for treating superficial wounds. However, it is not suitable for deep wounds.

Also, it can slow down the healing process if it’s applied repeatedly. Therefore, it’s best to use hydrogen peroxide only to disinfect the wound right after it happens. Once the wound is clean and bandaged, you don’t need to use it again. Of course, if you’ve suffered a serious injury, it’s best to get medical attention and follow a healthcare professional’s instructions for care.

Hydrogen peroxide should also not be used to treat animal bites or on any burns. If you’ve suffered one of these injuries, seek medical attention right away.

Are There Different Types?

Yes! Not all hydrogen peroxide is the same. The substance comes in varying strengths, each of which has its specific uses.

Most people recognize and use the 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide packaged in distinctive brown bottles at grocery stores and pharmacies. This solution is relatively weak, while still being effective as a household disinfectant.

However, we don’t recommend using the type found in the brown bottle for household disinfection. Rather, you’ll typically find accelerated hydrogen peroxide (AHP) in disinfectants. Chemists combine it with a couple of other synergistic chemicals to achieve a potent germ-killing effect with a low percentage of the compound.

You’ll also find it in hair dyes in concentrations ranging from 6% to 10%. Additionally, “food-grade” hydrogen peroxide has a concentration of 35%, which, ironically, is not edible. Industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide, used in electronics manufacturing, tops out at a whopping 90%.

Is Hydrogen Peroxide Dangerous?

While hydrogen peroxide has its potential advantages, it also has its drawbacks.

Some health experts advise against using it for topical wounds because it can kill beneficial bacteria on your skin.

Every year, poison control centers around the U.S. receive reports of children who accidentally drink household hydrogen peroxide. In small amounts, the compound poses little threat. However, in larger amounts, it can cause stomach irritation or even tissue damage. If you store it in your home, be sure to keep it on a high shelf or behind a locked cabinet where children cannot reach it.

The pure food-grade and accelerated versions of hydrogen peroxide can cause severe damage to your tissues if swallowed due to the higher concentration of H2O2.

If you or someone you know experiences pain or physical distress after consuming hydrogen peroxide, please contact Poison Control at 800-222-1222 or use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for help.

In the right hands, it can be a powerful weapon in the fight against the spread of infection. At GermBlast, we use a hydrogen peroxide-based disinfectant as part of our infection control service. Not only is our disinfectant safe for all surfaces, but it’s also environmentally friendly.

If you have any questions about hydrogen peroxide or infection control, let us know in the comments below.