Hydroquinone for Skin Lightening

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Over the past several years, hydroquinone has become a controversial skin-care ingredient for topical use. What is known for certain is that hydroquinone is a strong inhibitor of melanin production and for over 50 years has been established as the most effective ingredient for reducing and potentially eliminating brown skin discolorations on skin often referred to as melasma.
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Concentration Counts!

In different concentrations hydroquinone inhibits or prevents skin from making the enzyme responsible for triggering melanin, the chief pigment that gives skin its color (Source: Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, March 2010, pages 215-218). Over-the-counter hydroquinone products can contain 0.5% to 2% concentrations, with 2% being the most effective OTC amount. At the pharmacy, 4% concentrations of hydroquinone (and sometimes even higher) are available by prescription only. A concentration of 12% hydroquinone actually prevents the production of melanin altogether.

Misinformation Breeds Confusion

What is confusing to the consumer is the exaggerated information about possible negative side effects from using hydroquinone products. Yet a closer look at the research indicates problematic skin reactions are rare and, more often than not, minor. The most startling risk is a skin disorder called ochronosis which is a bluing discoloration of the skin. Although that's scary stuff, it's important to keep in mind that with millions of gallons of hydroquinone used over the past 50 years, only a handful of ochronosis cases have been directly associated to using hydroquinone. What's more, these cases have been a result of long term use of high concentrations, or of using hydroquinone products that have been adulterated with dangerous ingredients (Sources: Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, July 2009, pages 741-750; and Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, November 2007, pages 854-872).

The Hydroquinone Ban Should Be Lifted!

Hydroquinone-based products were banned in South Africa years ago where the most severe problems occurred. However, hydroquinone products in South Africa and other African countries were found to also contain mercury and glucocorticoids, among other caustic and illegal contaminants, which is believed by many to be the cause of the serious side effects seen (Sources: International Journal of Dermatology, February 2005, pages 112–115; and British Journal of Dermatology, March 2003, pages 493–500). Countries that are part of the European Union have banned hydroquinone chiefly on the basis of these reports. This ban is frustrating to many because when properly formulated, hydroquinone is not a harmful ingredient and there's no substantiated research proving otherwise.

Is Hydroquinone Carcinogenic?

Questions concerning hydroquinone in terms of it being a carcinogen have also been addressed in the research. Problematic incidences have been shown when hydroquinone was fed or injected into rats in large doses, though with topical use there has been no research showing it to be mutagenic on humans or animals. In reality, there is abundant research showing hydroquinone to be safe and extremely effective (Sources: Cutis, April 2008, pages 356–371 and August 2006, pages S6–S19; Critical Reviews in Toxicology, November 2007, pages 887–914; Journal of Cosmetic Laser Therapy, September 2006, pages 121–127; American Journal of Clinical Dermatology, July 2006, pages 223–230; and Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, May 2006, pages S272–S281).

Interestingly, hydroquinone happens to be a potent antioxidant and there is even research showing that workers who handle pure hydroquinone actually have lower incidences of cancer than the population as a whole (Sources: Free Radical Research, April 2010, pages 473-478; Journal of Natural Products, November 2002, pages 1,605–1,611; and Critical Reviews in Toxicology, May 1999, pages 283–330).

Natural Alternatives to Hydroquinone

Ironically, plant extracts such as Mitracarpus scaber (madder) extract, Uva ursi (bearberry) extract, Morus bombycis (mulberry), Morus alba (white mulberry), and Broussonetia papyrifera (paper mulberry) touted as being natural skin lightening agents actually break down into hydroquinone when absorbed into skin, which explains why they have a positive effect. Another natural alternative is arbutin which also, you guessed it, breaks down into hydroquinone in skin.

Whether or not you consider using hydroquinone in a skin-care product is of course up to you. What is abundantly clear is that hydroquinone is a well-researched ingredient, incredibly effective for its intended purpose, and that no other skin lightening ingredient compares to its effectiveness.

Hydroquinone Hates Air!

One critical point to keep in mind: hydroquinone can turn a strange shade of brown with prolonged, daily exposure to air or sunlight. When you are considering a hydroquinone product, it is essential to be sure it is packaged in a non-transparent container that doesn't let light in and that minimizes the amount of air exposure. Hydroquinone products packaged in jars are absolutely not recommended because once opened they quickly become ineffective.

Options Beyond Hydroquinone

For other potential options for skin lightening—though with far less research or impressive and consistent improvement—niacinamide, licorice extract (specifically glabridin), azelaic acid, and stabilized forms of vitamin C (L-ascorbic acid, ascorbic acid, and magnesium ascorbyl phosphate) can also be considered. There is also no research showing exactly how much of each ingredient is needed to achieve results so you have to trust the cosmetic company making the claims, and we all know how reliable that is! Still, some companies, such as Procter & Gamble (P&G, owner of brands such as Olay and DDF) are amassing an impressive body of research concerning skin lightening ingredients that rival the effectiveness of hydroquinone.

(Sources: Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, September–October 2005, pages 592–597; Journal of Dermatological Science, August 2001, pages S68–S75; Critical Reviews in Toxicology, May 1999, pages 283–330; Journal of Cosmetic Science, May–June 1998, pages 208–290; and Dermatological Surgery, May 1996, pages 443–447.)

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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