Hydroquinone for Skin Lightening
Hydroquinone has a reputation as a controversial ingredient for skin, yet for more than 50 years it’s been established as the most effective ingredient for potentially fading uneven skin tone, brown or dark spots, and lightening skin.
As always, we turn to the research to reveal why considering hydroquinone for skin lightening is a logical approach depending on what you’re trying to achieve. In the long run, hydroquinone is considered the best ingredient for skin lightening and that hasn’t changed over the years.
Of course, if you decide hydroquinone isn’t the ingredient for you, we have some alternative options with some impressive research behind them for skin brightening that you can consider trying.
How Hydroquinone Works
Hydroquinone helps limit skin from creating an excess amount of melanin, which is what gives skin its colour. Too much melanin clustered together leads to the brown spots. Hydroquinone steps in to interrupt this process, causing brown spots to gradually fade.
Over-the-counter hydroquinone products can contain up to 2% concentrations, with 2% being the most effective OTC amount. 4% concentrations of hydroquinone (and sometimes even higher) are available by prescription only and can be helpful for stubborn or advanced brown or dark spots.
With daily usage, you can reasonably expect a hydroquinone-based skin-lightening product to produce visible results within 2-3 months (8-12 weeks) of consistent use. We know that sounds like a long time, but keep in mind those brown spots didn’t happen over night; they took several years to form and then show on skin’s surface.
The Hydroquinone Controversy
Hydroquinone’s controversial reputation stems from when it was banned in South Africa many years ago. As it turns out, the products in question were found to contain mercury and glucocorticoids, among other caustic and illegal contaminants—a highly probable cause of the side effects seen.
Unfortunately countries in the European Union followed suit chiefly on the basis of these reports, despite the fact that when properly formulated, hydroquinone is not a harmful ingredient. In contrast, there’s abundant research showing hydroquinone to be safe and extremely effective.
Another issue is the extremely rare association with long term use of hydroquinone (especially in high concentrations or from adulterated products) and a skin disorder called exogenous ochronosis.
Ochronosis is a reaction where the skin darkens in areas where the product was applied. If you’re concerned about this risk, you can turn to the alternatives to hydroquinone for skin brightening we list below. However, if you still want to consider hydroquinone, then we strongly encourage you to stop using it immediately if you see any amount of skin darkening taking place and consult your physician.
Getting the Most Benefit from Using Hydroquinone
Sun protection (and, some dermatologists would stress, sun avoidance) is a key part of any skincare routine, but this is especially important if you’re going to use skin-lightening products. You won’t get the results you want without being obsessive about applying sunscreen 365 days a year, rain or shine. If used as directed with other sun protection measures, this decreases the risk of skin cancer and early skin ageing caused by sun.
Don’t leave home without it, because it’s important to reapply as needed (which is more often than you think, especially after washing your hands). We wish this wasn’t so rigid, but it’s what the research has shown is necessary to take the best possible care of your skin when brown spots are the concern.
It’s essential that your hydroquinone product be packaged in an opaque container that minimises air exposure. Hydroquinone degrades in the presence of air, which means it should not come packaged in a jar. Once the jar is opened it lets air in, the hydroquinone loses its potency.
Natural Alternatives to Hydroquinone
Plant extracts such as Mitracarpus scaber (madder) extract, Uva ursi (bearberry) extract, Morus bombycis (mulberry), Morus alba (white mulberry), and Broussonetia papyrifera (paper mulberry) are indeed good options to consider for natural skin brightening ingredients.
However, it’s interesting that all of these break down into hydroquinone when absorbed into skin, which explains why they have a positive effect.
Another natural alternative is arbutin, which also breaks down into hydroquinone when absorbed into skin. While these alternatives are certainly viable options, if you’re concerned about hydroquinone, this is important information for you to know.
Whether or not you use a hydroquinone-based skincare product is of course up to you—what’s abundantly clear is that it’s a well-researched ingredient, incredibly effective for its intended purpose, and as it the top of class in terms of effectiveness. Now that you’re armed with the facts, you can decide what’s best for your skin!
References for this information:
Dermatology and Therapy, December 2014, pages 165-186
The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, August 2014, pages 13-17
Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology, August 2006, pages 781-787
Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, July 2009, pages 741-750
About the Experts
Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:
The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!