Is Hydroquinone Safe? Let's Weigh the Pros and Cons Of This Gold Standard Skin Lightener

Sitting in rush-hour traffic, waiting for your Postmates order and for your post-acne marks to fade. An all too familiar scene, amiright?? After a seemingly endless bout with hormonal acne all summer long, I was left struggling with PIH (post-inflammation hyperpigmentation) in levels I’ve never dealt with in the past. 

Desperate for a solution, I decided to do some research about hydroquinone, an ingredient I hadn’t tried before. Even after using my beloved AHA exfoliants, I just wasn’t seeing a significant lightening of these particularly stubborn acne spots. Not fast enough, anyway. So, off I went to venture into previously uncharted skincare territory.

What is Hydroquinone?

Simply put, hydroquinone is a topical skin-bleaching agent used to lighten various hyperpigmentation issues like melasma, freckles, liver spots, age spots, and of course, acne spots. It works by interfering with melanin production by melanocytes, resulting in a chemical reduction in pigment. As weird as it may sound, this chemical first became popular from its use in the photo development process. 

What are the side effects of hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone has become quite a controversial ingredient over the last few decades. It’s been banned in South Africa when high concentrations (up to 20%) in products led to cases of a skin disorder called ochronisis, a blue-black discoloration, particularly in darker skin. Today, it’s still banned in the UK, Europe, Japan, and Australia. In the U.S., up to 2% concentration can be sold over the counter and up to 4% can be prescribed by a dermatologist. Sounds like serious stuff, right?

Although low percentages of hydroquinone in products are normally well tolerated, those with dry or sensitive skin should avoid it as it can increase dryness and sensitivity. 

That being said, it’s still considered by many skincare experts as one of the most effective ingredients for fading the most common hyperpigmentation issues. 

How long does it take hydroquinone to work?

The question is: is hydroquinone worth it? And how fast does hydroquinone work? Like with all topical skin treatments, hydroquinone takes time to show visible results. Over-the-counter you can find hydroquinone in up to 2% concentrations (with 2% being the most effective), and hydroquinone 4% (and sometimes higher) can be available via prescription for stubborn or advanced brown or dark spots. Dermatologists suggest that hydroquinone should only be used for a period of three to six consecutive months, taking two to three-month breaks in between to decrease the risk of side effects. If you don’t see any results within the first two to three months, however, you should discontinue using the product. (2) Curious about how to make hydroquinone work faster? You can combine it safely with other skin lightening ingredients to expedite results (think vitamin C, retinol etc). 

It’s also super important to note that prolonged sun exposure can undo any progress. Hydroquinone’s lightening effect is definitely reversible by UV rays. Using a strong sunscreen of SPF 45 or more (rain or shine) is not only a non-negotiable, particularly when it comes to tackling hyperpigmentation, it’s the best way to prevent those spots from returning or getting worse. But hey, I’m preaching to the sunscreen choir here!

What are natural alternatives to hydroquinone? 

Looking for skin lightening without hydroquinone? If you’re feeling a little iffy about hydroquinone after weighing out the pros and cons, there are lots of great alternatives out there that address those pesky dark spots effectively with less risk of side effects. 

Alpha arbutin, the naturally occurring derivative of hydroquinone from the extract of the bearberry plant, has been shown to provide the same lightening benefits for those who can’t tolerate hydroquinone. It can have an even greater effect when paired with other skin brighteners like kojic acid, vitamin C (or its derivatives) or niacinamide

Another great ingredient to help fade dark spots is the relatively new kid on the block, bakuchiol. This natural retinol alternative has been shown to speed up natural skin regeneration to help even out skin tone. Because it’s gentler than traditional retinol, it’s also easier to incorporate into your existing skincare routine. 

And let’s not forget holy-grail AHAs like glycolic and lactic acids. These superstar acids speed up skin’s cellular turnover, which not only helps brighten the complexion and even out texture, they help other skin lighteners work more efficiently.

If you’re still curious about hydroquinone, consult your dermatologist first to assess if it’s worth a shot, how long you should use it, and what products to use in conjunction to lessen the risk of irritation. 

Whether you go the hydroquinone route for a period of time or opt for one or more of its gentler alternatives, remember that when it comes to fading hyperpigmentation, consistency is key and patience is a virtue.  And of course, sunscreen should be your BFF no matter what!

(1) https://www.aocd.org/page/Hydroquinone

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539693/


1 comment

  • I’ve been using Tri-Luma for one month now, and while it seems to be lightening my dark spot, I’ve had two scabs on the spot. Why?

    Julie Hatfield

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