Hydroquinone – perhaps worth avoiding!

Chemical Structure Background

Hydroquinone – the gold standard for ‘masking’ pigmentation! But using this ingredient comes with a few risks and like most products/ingredients on the market today, it does absolutely nothing to treat the actual source. Extremely effective at masking a concern… flat out useless at producing ‘real, long lasting’ results.

What is Hydroquinone?


Hydroquinone is an ingredient found in most quick-fix products for the treatment (masking) of pigmentation. It works by inhibiting the activity of Tyrosinase – the enzyme that controls the synthesis of melanin. In addition, it increases the cytotoxicity of Melanocytes (a cell within the body responsible for producing melanin). What this means is that your Melanocytes are destroyed/killed off.

Not really skin’care’ if you ask us!

Risks / Side Effects

There are a few risks associated with the use of Hydroquinone – and more so than the majority of alternatives.

While using Hydroquinone, it’s imperative that you stay out of the sun. If you need to go outside, sunscreen and a hat become your new best friends.

Of course, most skincare companies will always try to convince you their products and ingredients are safe, whether they are or not. They will get you visible results and get them fast (no doubt there). Unfortunately, your health and the quality of your skin is often a secondary issue. When this secondary issue crops up (and eventually it will) they will have another product on the shelf ready to treat that as well. It’s a never ending cycle.

We’ve said it many times in the past – just because you can see a visible result, doesn’t mean it’s a good one.

What you need to keep in mind is that melanin (pigment) is designed to protect the skin so if you’re blocking it’s production or more importantly killing the cells responsible for creating it, it leaves the skin more vulnerable to sunburn, increased risk of pigmentation and even accelerated aging.

This potent skin‐lightening agent can lead to permanent loss of melanocytes because of its oxidative damage of membrane lipids leading to irreversible loss of inherited skin colour. In addition, it was recognised that this substance is transported rapidly from the epidermis into the vascular system and is detoxified within the liver into inert compounds. Because of the risks of side effects such as permanent depigmentation and exogenous ochronosis following long‐term use, hydroquinone has been banned by the European Committee.


Blue-black pigmentation resulting as a complication of long-term application of skin-lighteners containing hydroquinone.

In some cases, it can cause pigmentation to darken and get worse, particularly in those with dark skin types. Long term use of Hydroquinone, particularly in higher concentrations can lead to the development of a permanent condition known as exogenous ochronosis.

Exogenous ochronosis is a form of dermatitis that results in bluish-black or brown-grey hyperpigmentation on the surface of the skin.

It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it.


There are a lot of studies that suggest Hydroquinone may cause cancer. In our research, we couldn’t find anything definitive that directly links Hydroquinone to cancer in ‘humans’. At very high doses administered to mice/rats there is some evidence to suggest otherwise. But we humans have a very different physiological makeup to that of mice.

Indirectly, Hydroquinone may contribute to damaged DNA and cancer through increased photosensitivity. As above, it’s blocking melanin production and killing off the cells responsible for producing it, making your skin more vulnerable to UV – so although the ingredient itself may not cause cancer, the effects associated with its use may.

Eye Damage

Probably one of most serious health effects for humans is pigmentation of the eye and permanent corneal damage. While this only occurs when the eye is directly exposed to Hydroquinone, it is still a risk factor. For this reason, it is very important to avoid the eye area.

Other considerations

Some countries have banned the ingredient all together. In others, you need a prescription to get it – especially at percentages higher than 2%.

It has also been well known to cause mild burning and stinging, mild itching, redness and other irritations. Probably best not to swallow it either.

Overall, it’s just not a very nice ingredient but hey, it gets results fast so I guess for some, the benefits outway the risks.

Chemical peels and lasers are also alternatives and often used in conjunction with Hydroquinone. As if the ingredient alone wasn’t bad enough, lets use acids and ablative heat based treatments as well. Probably one of the most important risks you need to consider is post inflammatory hyperpigmentation. That’s right – the heat/damage caused by a peels and lasers can actually have a negative/reverse effect. While it’s rare on its own, combining it with ingredients that can also have negative/reverse effects further increases the risks.

Our Advice

Avoid Hydroquinone.

It’s simply too harsh and comes with more risks than benefits, it does nothing at all to treat the source and there are better options available. Granted, while some of these options may take slightly longer, they are more respectful of the skin and the results overall will be safer and better.

Keep in mind that any fading agent or ingredient that inhibits the production of melanin should only be used as a spot treatment and for short periods of time (roughly 8-12 weeks). In addition, it should ‘always’ be used in conjunction with something that is treating the source. If you’re not treating the source, you’ll be continually chasing the problem.

If you’re not sure on what alternative path to take, please contact us. It won’t involve anything ablative and respects the skin in its entirety. It’s actually skin’care’.

Unfortunately, treating the source of any skin condition generally requires a more meticulous approach and it’s one that most clinics simply don’t want to entertain and as a client you’ll need to be a little more patient. In addition, if the clinic you’re seeing is prescribing you ingredients like hydroquinone then we would be fairly certain they have nothing to treat the source anyway. The whole process will be counterproductive. You’ll get the ‘one size fits all’ approach which will generally consist of scrubs, acids, peels and so on. They may even throw in a laser treatment or two.