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Hydroquinone: Approach with Caution

Posted by A J on

Some of the most common products marketed to women of color globally are skin lightening agents, many of which contain hydroquinone. Over the counter formulas with hydroquinone are available to people around the world and recommended for long term daily use --which is incorrect. While this chemical is often prescribed by physicians at higher concentrations, it is meant to be used for limited periods of time. Years ago, products that contained this ingredient were overtly marketed as skin lightening agents in the US. However, during the 1960s and 1970s, as women of color in the U.S. loss interest in lightening their skin, products with hydroquinone shifted their marketing messages and promised “even skin tone”, but still recommended daily use. In fact, hydroquinone is meant for spot treatments and short term use. Furthermore, hydroquinone is known to be less effective on darker skin tones, although it is marketed in the U.S. with no recommendations or adjustments for darker skin.

This chemical has been banned in Europe, South Africa, Japan, and several other countries due to concerns about the health impact resulting from long term use. Before turning to this ingredient to treat your hyperpigmentation, it is best to know about the health concerns related to long term use and what alternatives are available to you.

The Health Effects of Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is very effective for treating skin discolorations as it inhibits melanin production. When prescribed by doctors, they usually recommend people use it for a limited period of time to treat their hyperpigmentation. However, when this chemical is included in skincare products that are used every day, the long-term exposure to hydroquinone can lead to a number of issues. Many studies show that long-term hydroquinone use can lead to the following:

  • Ochronosis
  • Photosensitivity
  • Allergic Reactions
  • Cosmetic Skin Damage
  • Cancer Risk

Ochronosis is a condition that results in thickening and blue-black discolorations on the skin. If you have a darker skin tone, you are more likely to get ochronosis after using hydroquinone. Paradoxically, when women with darker skin tones use hydroquinone, they may begin to develop blue-black marks on their skin as a result of the hydroquinone, but may continue to use this ingredient hoping it will fade the marks. Unfortunately, when women are not aware of what’s causing their marks, they can get into a vicious cycle of using the exact ingredient that is causing the condition they are trying to treat.

Photosensitivity, or sensitivity to sunlight, is a common reaction to hydroquinone. As this chemical limits your skin’s ability to produce melanin, your skin loses its natural defense against the harmful effects of the sun. Exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun leads to sun damage, which we discussed in the article about sunscreen use. In addition to causing wrinkles and cancer, sun damage also results in dark marks and hyperpigmentation, especially in darker skin tones. One of the many benefits of darker skin is its natural protection from sun damage; using hydroquinone depletes your skin’s ability to defend itself resulting in sun damage not normally seen in darker skin.

People can have allergic reactions to hydroquinone. As with any allergic reaction, the signs can include severe burning or stinging sensations, hives, breathing trouble and facial, throat or mouth swelling. As people of color are more likely to report having sensitive skin, we should be mindful of using hydroquinone (and other harsh chemicals) that can cause skin reactions from allergies.

While hydroquinone is often prescribed by doctors for limited periods of time, the problems with its effects on the natural beauty of skin result from long term, daily use. In addition to creating a pasty, unhealthy appearance, the product degenerates the collagen and elastin fibers in your skin. As collagen and elastin give your skin its youthful and smooth appearance, hydroquinone ages your skin. Finally, hydroquinone is known to thin the outer layer of the skin (the epidermis), which causes the skin to take a longer time to heal from cuts, wounds, and stitches. When this ingredient is used daily, it often is used in combination with other products, which can cause further issues with your skin. Combining hydroquinone with skin products that contain benzoyl peroxide or hydrogen peroxide can cause temporary staining of the skin.  

Lastly, hydroquinone has been reported to cause cancer. However, this claim is controversial. Although this chemical is known to cause cancer in rodents. Those studies were done at very high doses. So far, there have been no studies that show a definite link with cancer in humans at the doses found in skincare preparations.

Because of these health concerns, we think that hydroquinone is best used under the guidance of a physician – and for limited periods of time. This ingredient is a very effective inhibitor of melanin, and has its place in medical treatment of skin discolorations. But it should never be used as a general skin lightener, and should not be used for a long period of time.

When trying to treat dark spots and hyperpigmentation, there are lots of alternative options available, with many natural ingredients, that are very effective and do not take away from your natural beauty. We’ll be happy to talk about those options in another post! Come back for more information!




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