Hydrogen peroxide: more than 200 years of history

Louis Jacques Thénard. Image source: L’Est éclair

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) was first synthesized in 1818 by Louis Jacques Thénard, who named it eau oxygénée1 in French, which means “oxygenated water”. He reacted nitric acid with barium peroxide2 to produce H2O2, and got surprised about the high content of oxygen in the final product, therefore the name. Nowadays, it is produced by the anthraquinone process, whereby anthrahydroquinone is reacted with oxygen under pressure to extract hydrogen peroxide and anthraquinone, which can be reduced to anthrahydroquinone again2. Since the mid-1800s, hydrogen peroxide has been commercialized to be used in different areas, including as non-polluting bleaching, as an oxidizing agent, disinfectant in food processing and even fuel for rockets3.

In 1856 Schoenbein identified the presence of H2O2 in living systems for the first time3,4, but the first medical use of hydrogen peroxide was not described until 32 years later by Love, as efficacious in treating numerous diseases, including scarlet fever, diphtheria, nasal catarrh, acute coryza, whooping cough, asthma hay fever and tonsillitis3,6. In 1891, B. W. Richardson proposed H2O2 as a disinfectant for the first time7. Three years later, Wolffenstein first extracted 100% pure H2O2 from H2O through vacuum distillation3,5. Oliver and colleagues reported that intravenous injection of H2O2 was efficacious in treating influenza pneumonia in the epidemic following World War3,8.

The development of new medicines during the 1940s decreased the medical interest in further research on hydrogen peroxide3. However, in the early 1960s, Urschel, and later Finney and co-workers, suggested an important protective action of H2O2 against ischemia-reperfusion (IR) injury3,9,10.

During the 1980s, “oxidative therapy” was used to treat wide variety of diseases3. Farr, the pioneer of this method, proposed intravenous infusion of H2O23,11, and later on, Willhelm promoted the therapeutic use of H2O2 to treat cancer, skin diseases, polio and bacteria-related mental illness3,12. He defined H2O2 as “God’s given immune system”3,12,13, even if nowadays scientists do not recommend these unproven alternatives promoted as a cure for cancer, and other major diseases without scientific evidence13,14.

Serious environmental concerns (including the formation of dioxins and other deleterious chlorinated products) led, over the course of the second half of the 1990s, to the replacement of chlorine with H2O2 as a bleaching agent in paper production15. Since 2008, in addition, H2O2 started to be extensively used as a terminal oxidant in the newly industrialized synthesis of propene epoxide (PO), and the world’s production capacity has increased considerably15. From being an expensive chemical, hydrogen peroxide turned into an affordable product manufactured in large-scale. This helped to discover new uses for this valued substance, which are highly beneficial to the environment15. Today H2O2 is in high demand from companies in well diversified markets including: HPPO= HP (H2O2) for PO; textile (bleaching of cotton and wool fabrics); food (aseptic packaging of milk and fruit juice) and aquaculture (antiparasite for salmon farming); mining (detoxification of cyanide tailings, enhanced recovery of metal); water and wastewater treatment (advanced oxidation processes); semiconductors (cleaning silicon wafers in the manufacture of printed circuit boards); chemical industry (reactant); and pulp and paper (bleaching wood pulp)15. Research into H2O2 has been therefore reinvigorated, leading to the introduction of interesting new materials and innovative processes based on this valued molecule15.



  1. Thénard, L. Observations sur des nouvelles combinaisons entre l’oxigène et divers acides. Ann Phys 8, 306–312. (1818).
  2. Urban, M. V., Rath, T. & Radtke, C. Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2): a review of its use in surgery. Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift 169, 1–4 (2017).
  3. Armogida, M., Nisticò, R. & Mercuri, N. B. Therapeutic potential of targeting hydrogen peroxide metabolism in the treatment of brain ischaemia. British Journal of Pharmacology 166, 1211–1224 (2012).
  4. Schoenbein, C. On ozone and oronic actions in mushrooms. Phil Mag 11, 137–141 (1856).
  5. Wolffenstein, R. Concentration und Destillation von Wasserstoffsuperoxyd. Ber Dtsch Chem Ges 27, 3307–3312 (1894).
  6. Love, I. Peroxide of Hydrogen as a remedial agent. JAMA 10, 262–265. (1888).
  7. Richardson, B. W. On peroxide of hydrogen, or ozone water, as remedy. Lancet 137, 707–709 (1891).
  8. Oliver, TH; Cantab, BC; Murphy, D. Influenzal pneumonia: the intravenous injection of hydrogen peroxide. Lancet 1, 432–433. (1920).
  9. Urschel, H. C. Progress in cardiovascular surgery. Cardiovascular effects of hydrogen peroxide: current status. Dis. Chest 51, 180–192 (1967).
  10. Finney, J. W. et al. Protection of the ischemic heart with DMSO alone or DMSO with hydrogen peroxide. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 141, 231–241 (1967).
  11. Farr, C. Physiological and biochemical responses to intravenous hydrogen peroxide in man. J Adv Med 1, 113–129. (1988).
  12. Willhelm, S. Personal Communication from Fr. Richard Willhelm.Enlightened Catholic Health Organization (ECHO). (1989).
  13. Green, S. Oxygenation Therapy: Unproven Treatments for Cancer and AIDS | Quackwatch. ci Rev Altern Med 2. 6–13 (2001). Available at: https://quackwatch.org/related/cancer/oxygen/. (Accessed: 15th October 2020)
  14. Cassileth, B. Oxygen therapies. Oncol. (willist. Park. 23, 1182 (2009).
  15. Ciriminna, R., Albanese, L., Meneguzzo, F. & Pagliaro, M. Hydrogen Peroxide: A Key Chemical for Today’s Sustainable Development. ChemSusChem 9, 3374–3381 (2016).