Type of Ingredient: Skin lightener
Main Use: Hydroquinone is a skin-lightening agent. It bleaches the skin to reduce the appearance of dark spots.
Safety Concerns: Some studies have shown that hydroquinone may act as a carcinogen and with its long-term use, possibly cause ochronosis. Hydroquinone is banned in Japan, the European Union, and Australia. At LeCerre, we have put hydroquinone on our never list of ingredients so you won’t find it in any of our products. Ironically, in the United States, it is considered a standard in skin lightening by dermatologists.
Science Facts: Studies in rats have shown that hydroquinone causes cancer. For ochronisis, there are many patient case files that shows correlation of long-term use of hydroquinone to the development of ochronosis.
What is hydroquinone?
Hydroquinone is also known as benzene-1,4-diol or quino and it essentially bleaches the skin. It is highly effective and works by obstructing a melanin-producing enzyme called tyrosinase. When tyrosinase is blocked, less melanin is produced, and this creates a lighter appearance of the skin in the treated area. Hydroquinone works and can be used to treat not only dark spots but also freckles and scars.
While nobody disputes that hydroquinone works, controversy swirls around its safety. It is banned in Europe, Australia, and Japan due to concerns that it may be a carcinogen. It can also irritate the skin, and some studies indicate it may be linked to altered immune function and liver disease. With long term use of a high concentration of hydroquinone, the product can cause ochronosis or increased pigmentation and darkening of the skin. The discolored skin can be permanent in some cases, which is why anyone using a prescription-strength product should be closely monitored by their doctor. Some dermatologists simply won’t prescribe it as they feel the risks outweigh the benefits and feel that other potentially safer products can achieve similar results.
In some users, the cream can cause excessively dry skin, as well as redness and a burning sensation. Since hydroquinone lightens pigment, there is also concern that it makes skin more prone to UV damage which will also continue the vicious cycle of dark spots. If you are using any type of lightening cream, always be extra vigilant about applying sunscreen – otherwise, the dark spots will just reappear. This goes for all skin lightening products. The skin fading effects last as long as you use the product so exposure to the sun can trigger more pigment production and the return of the dark spot.
There’s been some back-and-forth on the safety of hydroquinone. In 1982, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognized the ingredient as safe and effective.
Several years later, concerns about safety urged retailers to pull hydroquinone from the market. The FDA went on to discover that many of the products in question contained contaminants like mercury. They established that these contaminants were behind reports of adverse effects. Since then, the FDA has confirmed that hydroquinone can be safely sold over the counter (OTC) in 2 percent concentrations.
How is Hydroquinone Used?
Nobody debates that hydroquinone works to fade dark spots and discoloration. It’s highly effective and also works faster than other products on the market. Most users can expect to see improvement within eight to 12 weeks of use. Another pro? It’s cost-effective. Products containing hydroquinone cost less than other procedures such as chemical peels, microdermabrasion, and laser treatments.
Many people use hydroquinone in combination with other skin brightening ingredients such as vitamin C and retinol for a multi-prong approach. “Hydroquinone works to improve hyperpigmentation by helping limit the skin from creating excess melanin. It is sold over the counter at 2% strength vs 4% is prescription only topicals. With daily usage” explains dermatologist Dr. Dray “it can lighten post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, melasma, and sunspots in 2-3 months of consistent use. Unfortunately, it can be irritating, particularly if used alongside too many other things or without sun protection”.
Levitt, J. The safety of hydroquinone: a dermatologist's response to the 2006 Federal Register. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2007 Nov;57(5):854-72. Epub 2007 Apr 27.