Hydroquinone: Is It Safe to Use?


Skin bleaching and lightening products are all over these days. Whether your goal is to help fade your naturally darker skin, or to help reduce the appearance of various types of skin hyperpigmentation problems (for example, acne markings, sun spots and age spots). With so many products to choose from, how do you know you are making the right choice? What about hydroquinone?

This brings us to a question many of us have asked. Just how safe is it? Why do I need a prescription to use a product that has more than 4% hydroquinone in it? What is it even, and are there alternatives? Read on to help you make your choice.

Just what is hydroquinone anyway?

Hydroquinone has a long history with mankind. There is evidence that we have been using it since around 500B.C. What it is, is a skin lightening chemical with the main function of reducing melanin in the skin. Pretty much all chemicals that alter the body’s function in some way, can have negative effects though.

Hydroquinone is a proven ingredient when it comes to skin whitening, and yet in the EU it is banned for over the counter sales. In the United States, it is only possible to buy products with up to 2% hydroquinone over the counter.

So, does this mean it is unsafe?

Let’s investigate why some authorities have taken the steps of banning folks from using it in their everyday skin products. For starters, there is a large amount of research that shows that consistent use of it can result in serious skin problems and health issues. It has been found that while hydroquinone will initially lighten skin, over time a reaction can occur between the chemical and sunlight which will actually result in a person’s skin becoming darker. Which may lead to further use of hydroquinone.

This is a problem, because as a person begins to use more their skin becomes weaker. Weaker skin leads to an increase in the chance that hydroquinone will come into contact with your blood and make its way to your organs. It has been shown that possible long-term effects of hydroquinone are carcinogenesis, so having it reach our organs is definitely a bad thing (see a study by TJ Kooyers and W. Westerhof called “Toxicology and health risks of hydroquinone in skin lightening formulations”). Most research into this has been on very large doses of the chemical, so it is uncertain whether small doses still have the same risk. Many dermatologists would agree that in small amounts, there is little risk. So, ultimately it is a choice you would have to make yourself.

What are my options if I am looking for a similar product without hydroquinone in it?

Thankfully, cosmetic producers have that covered. There are a wide range of lightening products that now use ingredients such as arbutin, and kojic acid. Those containing arbutin are usually derived from plant extracts which are considered by most to be safer and, at least, more natural.

Lumixyl offers a great alternative in their Topical Brightening Creme, which gives very similar results but without having to use hydroquinone. It contains an oligopeptide which is non-toxic and non-irritating, and it can be used indefinitely.

Clinique also have a great product called Even Better Dark Spot Corrector, which is definitely easier on the wallet than Lumixyl. In a four week trial against a product containing 4% hydroquinone, the results were comparable.

Personally, even with dermatologists agreeing that small doses are likely safe for you, I still would shy away from products containing hydroquinone. The reasons for this being that it whitens your skin by killing off the pigmentation cells, it can cause irritation and contact dermatitis, it degenerates collagen and elastin fibers, it can cause ochronisis, and it has been shown to damage DNA and cause mutations.

Again, all of these things are shown to happen while using large doses and using these doses over an extended amount of time. The recommended amount of time for use of hydroquinone is no more than six months. In all likelihood, this won’t occur when using a 2 percent formula, obtained over the counter, for just a few weeks.
The choice is yours, my friends, and with a wide array of products from many companies to choose from.

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