Is Hydroquinone dangerous to the Skin?

If you are currently dealing with dark spots, freckles, melasma, age spots, hyperpigmentation or acne scars, maybe the word “Hydroquinone” has come to you as a recommendation of a friend. Otherwise, you might have read it on the internet as the best solution to these skin problems. However, there are many other comments that put in doubt the safety of this treatment. 

In fact, many people have associated it with skin cancer and there are plenty of theories about its side effects. While Hydroquinone is one of the most effective topical available, many people shy away from it due to safety concerns. In this opportunity, I will clear as much as possible all the myths and facts related to the use of hydroquinone. 

What is Hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a chemical compound that interacts with the cells that produce melanin in our skin. Since its discovery in 1800, people have done it different uses, from skincare to photo developing. The effect in our skin is to reduce the production of pigment and it has been very controversial around the fact that it could not be safe.  

This chemical compound works at the cellular level to reduce the generation of pigment. In this manner, it hasn’t an immediate effect. In fact, it can take several weeks to start seeing improvements and months of consistent use to see full results. Generating  new skin with less pigment takes time, that’s the reason why people combine Hydroquinone with other skin care compounds such as Retin-A

Hydroquinone bleaches the area of the skin where you apply it by decreasing the amount of melanocyte in the area. However, I need to remind that the effects of hydroquinone aren’t permanent. If you don’t use it continuously and expose your skin to the sun without protection, it will produce pigment again, leading to the appearance of dark spots


The proper way to use Hydroquinone

As each skincare product, you need to know the best way to use it in order to take the most out of its features. If you want to treat hyperpigmentation, you need to be constant and patient. 

Pay attention to the proper way of using Hydroquinone and read carefully to introduce this product to your skincare routine. Of course, I always recommend doing a patch test in order to identify if this compound could have undesired side effects on your skin. In order to do this, follow the steps: 

  • Apply a small amount of product on the inside of your forearm. 
  • Cover the skin with a little bandage. 
  • Wash your hands very well to avoid the contact of hydroquinone with your clothes or the rest of your body. 
  • Wait 24 hours and see if you have any itching, redness or irritation in the area. 
  • If your skin passes the patch test of Hydroquinone, you are ready to include it in your skincare routine. The best stage to apply this compound is right after the cleansing and toning but before the moisturizing. 
  • I recommend taking a little amount of product and applying it across the affected area on your skin, massaging it until it’s completely absorbed. Wash your hands very well after using it to prevent the contamination we mentioned before. 

    This is not all! 

    You should ALWAYS use sunscreen while using Hydroquinone. I recommend it to use it as the final ingredient of your skincare routine because the sun exposure worsens the hyperpigmentation. Being exposed to the sun without protection will only reverse the effects of Hydroquinone. 

    The use of Hydroquinone must be temporary 

    You should pay attention to how your skin reacts to the treatment. It may not cause any uncomfortable side effects on your skin but if you don’t see any relevant result after three months, you should stop using it. 

    If everything goes well and you feel satisfied with the results of hydroquinone in your skin, you can use the product for up to four months. After this period, you should start reducing its use. I don’t recommend applying Hydroquinone for more than five months at a time. 

    The best advice is to give your skin a break from this compound around two or three months after start using it again.

    Is Hydroquinone Safe to use? 

    I must start by saying that currently, there is no clinical evidence to suggest that hydroquinone is harmful to humans. Generally, this compound is well tolerated for different types of skin. However, if you suffer from dryness or sensitive skin, I would recommend you to avoid this product because Hydroquinone will only further the irritation. 

    In extremely rare cases, Hydroquinone has caused a condition called ochronosis. Several papules and bluish-black pigmentation are the common effects of this problem. It’s related to prolonged daily use of Hydroquinone. 

    If your skin is normal or even oily, you won’t find problems with the use of Hydroquinone. It’s always a wise idea to go to your dermatologist before following any Hydroquinone’s treatment. I have no doubt that this is an effective product to lighten your skin but sadly is not for everyone. 

    Does Hydroquinone cause cancer? 

    Many users of hydroquinone and patients who want to try it are worried about the fact that the Federation of American Dermatologists (FDA) hasn’t ruled out this compound as carcinogenic. Even when it’s demonstrated that it increases the amount of neoplasm in rats, these effects on humans aren’t confirmed yet. 

    In fact, there are newer studies that reveal an anti-cancer activity in mice that receive it intravenously. However, neither of both reports are enough to predict the effects of hydroquinone on humans that use it topically. 

    In addition, there were also concerns about the presence of mercury on topical hydroquinone products. However, they were related only to the overseas formulation. I want to share with you some other considerations you need to take in count carefully if you decide to follow this treatment: 

  • It works better on fair skin tones - There is a minimal risk of darkening (1 of 100,000) in dark skin tones; generally Asian, Indian and African. This result took place after receiving a high concentration of hydroquinone (8%) with long-term usage of years. If you have a medium-to-dark skin tone and use hydroquinone, you should take periodic brakes between the usages. However, professional analysis of your skin with a specialist will clear all of your doubts. It could reveal that hydroquinone may not be the best solution for you.
  • You need to be constant - As I mentioned before, if you don’t give a continuous use to hydroquinone, the pigment will return as soon as you stop its use. Personally, I recommend my clients to take breaks of hydroquinone during the winter, rather than the summer. It’s better to complement its use during the warmer days with other melanin suppressing products. 

  •  If you still have some doubts about the safety of this product, there are other options in the market to fight against all the skin issues mentioned before such as Vitamin C, Kojic Acid, Niacinamide, Papaya enzymes, etc. However, as a professional in the skincare field, I haven’t found them as effective as hydroquinone. 

     What are your thoughts? Have you have experienced rare side effects using hydroquinone?