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What Is Hydrogen Peroxide?

Updated on January 4, 2015

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is a colorless liquid that is a useful oxidizing agent. Though it resembles water, it is actually a simple peroxide. Peroxides are chemical compounds that have an oxygen-oxygen bond, making hydrogen peroxide the simplest peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide’s oxygen-oxygen bond is thought to be weak and breaking that bond results in free radicals, which are highly reactive. This is what makes hydrogen peroxide useful in jet fuel and gives it its notable bleaching properties.

Louis Jacques Thenard, who produced the compound in a laboratory, discovered hydrogen peroxide in 1818. Long thought to be an unstable compound, diluted hydrogen peroxide is now approved by the FDA for over-the-counter use. The solution decomposes into oxygen and water when it is heated or when in the presence of certain other substances, such as iron. Hydrogen peroxide must be stored in opaque containers to prevent decomposition.

The earliest commercial use of hydrogen peroxide was as a bleaching agent. The oxidizing properties of the hydrogen peroxide destroy the pigment of various materials, such as straw or hair. In fact, hydrogen peroxide was first used commercially as a bleaching agent for straw to make straw hats. Now, it is used to bleach laundry, paper, hair, and teeth. Many whitening toothpastes, laundry detergents, and commercial hair dyes contain hydrogen peroxide.

Use of high concentration hydrogen peroxide (also known as High Test Peroxide, or HTP), as a propellant has made the compound quite famous. To create a reaction strong enough to propel something as large as a jet, hydrogen peroxide needs to be forced to decompose quickly. Putting the liquid into a chamber where there is a natural substance, such as nickel, causes the rapid decomposition. This chemical reaction creates a jet of steam and oxygen, which is then forced out of the chamber and into a pipe, creating propulsion. This system has been employed for use in rockets, submarines, and torpedoes.

Though utilized widely commercially and militarily, it is more commonly recognized as the low-concentration hydrogen peroxide sold in drugstores. Household hydrogen peroxide is sold in low concentrations of three percent peroxide and 97 percent water, making it very safe to use for a variety of everyday purposes. One of the most common uses of hydrogen peroxide is as an antiseptic on small wounds. Though some research suggests that using peroxide on small cuts could delay healing, proponents of the compound believe that hydrogen peroxide is effective at cleaning and disinfecting cuts. Still others believe that peroxide can do even more than simply cleaning a paper cut. Some believe, though clinical research has yet to give thorough evidence supporting the claims, that hydrogen peroxide can cure cancer, treat MRSA and other bacterial infections, and clear up acne.

Although it is the simplest peroxide, H2O2 is certainly a useful compound. Applications range from simple household antiseptic to rocket propulsion. Forms of hydrogen peroxide available to the public over-the-counter are lower concentrations and, therefore, more stable. However, care should be taken when using the compound for medical purposes.


The information provided in this hub is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult your physician or health care provider before taking any home remedies or supplements.


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