Hydrogen peroxide (a.k.a H²O²) is one of the most common chemicals people use around the world. This isn't surprising as hydrogen peroxide is suitable for many different applications due to its qualities. You probably already have some in your bathroom or kitchen cabinet or, perhaps, in that first aid kit you've tucked away.
Despite its worldwide popularity, a lot of people still misunderstand hydrogen peroxide. People ask what it is, when to use it, how to use it, and a lot more.
Understanding Hydrogen Peroxide
Don't get us wrong:
It's great that so many are curious about this helpful chemical. It's always a good idea to understand what a chemical can do before buying or using it and it's for this reason we've listed down the top 8 facts you need to know about hydrogen peroxide.
1. Hydrogen Peroxide is Closely Related to Water
As you may have noticed from its chemical name, hydrogen peroxide (H²O²) is closely related to water (H²O). It just has one more oxygen atom than water.
Hydrogen peroxide looks like water but with a very pale bluish hue. It also behaves like water but is 40% denser.
The key difference between hydrogen peroxide and water lies in its chemical behavior. In H²O², the single bond holding its two oxygen atoms together is weak. This is why hydrogen peroxide easily breaks down into hydrogen, HO², or two OH molecules.
Hydrogen peroxide also acts as an oxidant. When it interacts with a compound, it takes out electrons from that compound's atoms. This can change a substance's properties on a molecular level.
2. You Can Use It as a Disinfectant
You may already be aware of hydrogen peroxide's disinfecting qualities. Several sources back up this chemical's effectiveness as a disinfectant. Even the CDC acknowledges hydrogen peroxide for its bactericidal, virucidal, sporicidal, and fungicidal properties.
According to the CDC:
"Hydrogen peroxide works by producing destructive hydroxyl free radicals that can attack membrane lipids, DNA, and other essential cell components. Catalase, produced by aerobic organisms and facultative anaerobes that possess cytochrome systems, can protect cells from metabolically produced hydrogen peroxide by degrading hydrogen peroxide to water and oxygen. This defense is overwhelmed by the concentrations used for disinfection."
This chemical is effective against bacteria, yeasts, fungi, viruses, and spores. Experiments using 3%, 10%, and 15% concentration showed effectiveness against various germs. The CDC also found that concentrations of at least 7.5% (marketed as a sterilant) do indeed function as a sterilant.
3. Hydrogen Peroxide Shouldn't be Used to Clean Dressed and Bandaged Wounds
Many people keep over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide as part of their first aid kit to clean wounds. I certainly remember back in my childhood years where my mother would use hydrogen peroxide to clean my wound. You'd think this would be a no-brainer since it does have disinfecting qualities.
You may be doing more harm than good. While you may use hydrogen peroxide to clean a fresh wound initially, prolonged usage damages the tissue and slows down the healing process. This is why we don't recommend using hydrogen peroxide to clean dressed and bandaged wounds.
4. Different Concentrations Have Different Applications
As we've mentioned above, hydrogen peroxide comes in various concentration levels. Each formula has its uses for different industries.
The 3% concentration you get in brown bottles at your local pharmacy is effective enough for disinfecting household items and surfaces.
6% to 10% is used in hair dyes and for disinfecting electronics.
35% hydrogen peroxide is mostly used for industrial purposes as well as the food and beverage industry to rid fruits and vegetables of fungus, molds, and mildew.
5. Our Bodies Naturally Produce Hydrogen Peroxide
Yes, you read that right.
Damaged tissues call on a variety of cells to help defend the body from infection, these responding cells include white blood cells. White blood cells release a "respiratory burst" consisting of highly reactive antimicrobial molecules which include hydrogen peroxide.
So, you might say our body produces hydrogen peroxide through our white blood cells. Right?
Further observations found that hydrogen peroxide was already present in injured tissue 17 minutes before any immune cells arrived. Apparently, damaged tissues release hydrogen peroxide which enters the surrounding tissue, thereby, alerting the immune cells to come to the rescue. It's like your damaged tissues' way of calling 911.
6. It Also Naturally Occurs in Our Atmosphere
Most of the world's hydrogen peroxide is industrially produced by using methane or natural gas to provide a source of hydrogen which is then reacted with oxygen in a catalytic process under high heat.
But did you know that hydrogen peroxide also naturally occurs in nature?
It's naturally formed when sunlight acts on water. It's also naturally produced by both plant and animal cells (as mentioned above).
7. Most of the Hydrogen Peroxide in the World is Used as a Bleaching Agent
Most, if not all, people prefer their store-bought cotton to be ultra white. The same goes for the paper we use in offices or classrooms. And even our teeth.
The thing is:
Objects that we usually expect to be ultra-white don't naturally come in that color. You seldom find anything in nature that's ultra white.
So, how do modern industries achieve that level of whiteness? Bleaching with hydrogen peroxide.
There's so much demand for the ultra white color that the bleaching industry, by volume, uses 36.4% of the world's hydrogen peroxide -- the most amount of hydrogen peroxide used by a single industry.
8. Hydrogen Peroxide Can Be Dangerous if Misused
Hydrogen peroxide is a great disinfectant with several different industrial uses.
It helps us keep our homes clean and free from bacteria, helps the food and beverage industry to clean our produce, lets us manufacture whiter cotton and paper, and is even produced by the body naturally to alert white blood cells of any injury.
With so many advantages hydrogen peroxide offers, one should never forget that it can still be harmful if misused.
Depending on the concentration, you may need to use proper safety gear and equipment like safety gloves, glasses, or even a respirator.
It's also important to keep hydrogen peroxide away from sources of fire, heat, and moisture. It must be stored in a tightly-closed container and kept away from incompatible materials such as organic materials, metals, acids, alkalis, combustible materials, and oxidizing agents.
Hydrogen peroxide must also be disposed of per federal, state, and local environmental control regulations.