Ingredient Spotlight: Hydroquinone

If you’ve ever used a skincare product that promises lighter skin, skin bleaching, reduced dark spots, tan removal and the like, you’re probably already familiar with hydroquinone. People suffering from skin conditions such as melasma and chloasma are often prescribed a hydroquinone topical. Hydroquinone is a popular and go-to ingredient for anything to do with skin lightening. Perhaps, it’s time to learn all about this compound and what it’s doing to your skin.

So, what exactly is hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a compound – sometimes referred to as HQ – that naturally occurs in small quantities in fruits, beer, coffee and many other things in nature.

What does it do?

Like we mentioned earlier, Hydroquinone is the go-to ingredient for skin lightening. It’s a potent solution to get rid of uneven dark patches and spots. Basically, hydroquinone is effective on any area on the skin that has a higher concentration of melanin.

Hydroquinone’s main function is to slow down the production of melanin in skin cells. Hydroquinone works by inhibiting the natural occuring enzyme tyrosinase, which is important for the development of skin melanin (pigment) . As long as you continue to use hydroquinone, you will inhibit tyrosinase, and hence pigment, production.

What’s the downside to it?

Many safety concerns surrounding HQ have been raised all around the world including cancer. In fact, it’s strictly regulated in Europe, USA and some parts of Africa and Asia.

  • Ochronosis: This is a very rare side-effect of HQ. Use of HQ Ochrosis is a condition that intensifies hyperpigmentation after using hydroquinone. If used in concentrations of 2% or greater can cause a condition known as exogenous ochronosis. This is a reflexive darkeningof the skin — exactly the converse of what you want when using hydroquinone! It is worsened with sun exposure. As such, those with darker skin may wish to take extra precautions in avoiding products with excessive sun exposure when using hydroquinone
  • Skin sensitivity: Allergic reaction to hydroquinone is fairly common. It can also cause skin irritation and contact dermatitis.
  • Damaged melanocytes: The reaction between hydroquinone and oxygen can kill melanocytes – the cells responsible for melanin production. This leads to uneven skin bleaching, discoloration and so on. Avoid using hydroquinone products after its expiry or when it starts to get a yellowish tint.
  •  In many cases when you discontinue use of hydroquinone, your skin’s natural supply of tyrosinase will no longer be inhibited and your skin’s natural pigmentation will return. And if it's only a temporary solution, it's better to look for less potent formulations that can be used for a longer period of time without any side effects.

What can I use instead of Hydroquinone?

While there aren’t too many compounds as potent as hydroquinone, there are still quite a few safer options for you to consider. Such as, retinoids, azelaic acid, kojic acid, licorice extract and Vitamin C among others. Some of these can also be used along with HQ to enhance its effectiveness as well as limit your usage, while still getting good results.

In closing, we’d say that for those with serious hyper-pigmentation issue, hydroquinone may not be as dangerous as it’s made to sound, when used prudently. But, make sure you don’t self-medicate. Use this product under the supervision and guidance of your dermatologist.

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