Warning: 7 Facts You Need to Know Before Starting With Hydroquinone

It is hard to talk about skin lightening without involving hydroquinone. For over 50 years, hydroquinone has been used as an effective skin lightening agent and is actually considered the ‘gold standard’ for depigmenting agents in US. However, its use has also been linked to some harmful effects which have attracted some controversy concerning its use.

This has put it at the centre of both negative and positive interest in equal measure. So, what is this that always keeps people talking about hydroquinone?

Here are 7 facts you need to know before starting with hydroquinone:

#1 – Hydroquinone Should NOT be used together with Peroxides

Peroxides are used to treat a wide range of conditions due to their anti-infective properties: Hydrogen peroxide is used as a mouth rinse to relieve irritations such as the ones caused by cold sores.

The solution is also used topically to treat skin-pigmentation conditions like seborrheic keratosis which are benign tumours that manifest as dark lesions.

Another common peroxide is Benzoyl Peroxide, an antibacterial solution used to treat acne and also as a skin lightener.

While hydroquinone and peroxide-infused products are similarly used to treat and lighten skin, using them at the same time causes the skin to stain. The stains are however temporary and can be removed by washing with soap and water. The whole inconvenience can, however, be completely avoided by not combining their use.   

#2 – Hydroquinone SHOULD always be Used with Sunscreen

With proper use, hydroquinone can effectively lighten your skin. However it causes the skin to be highly sensitive, a condition which can be made worse by exposing yourself to sunlight. Hence its recommended that HQ creams should always be used with sunscreen.  

To this end, you will find many HQ creams to contain sunscreen. You should, however, read the label to ensure that the sunscreen is of high SPF (sun protection factor) rating. Go for creams with sunscreen whose SPF rating is 30 or higher. If your skin is overly sensitive, wear protective clothing in addition to using sunscreen.   

#3 – Hydroquinone is Made from CRUDE OIL

Hydroquinone can be found in nature from certain organisms; however, it’s usually created in a lab. In nature, it’s found in Agaricus hondenis mushrooms and the bombardier beetle, an insect which sprays the substance as part of its defense mechanism. 


It’s impractical to harvest hydroquinone from natural sources hence it has to be produced in a lab, from crude oil!

Acetylene, the main raw material used in manufacturing hydroquinone is a product of natural gas or crude oil. The molecular structure of hydroquinone is C6H6O2 or C6H4(OH)2. These are two hydroxyl groups bonded with a benzene ring. Without going deep into the whole chemical process behind its production, hydroquinone is made by reacting acetylene and carbon monoxide in the presence of an organic solvent which acts as a catalyst.   



#4 – Prolonged use of Hydroquinone may cause Skin Darkening

Yes, you read that right – if hydroquinone is used longer than the recommended time, the results will reverse and your skin will darken!

The resulting disorder is known as ochronosis, which is the appearance of permanent black, dark brown or blue colouration on the face, neck and photo-exposed areas. The condition is mostly seen in people with dark skin.

It has been hypothesised that hydroquinone brings about ochronosis by inhibiting homogentisic acid oxidase, an enzyme whose deficiency leads to accumulation of homogentisic acid. As the acid accumulates, it polymerises to form dark pigmentation on the skin.

While dermatologists agree that hydroquinone is an effective treatment for hyperpigmentation, they are also concerned about the effects of long-term use. In fact, one reports a case of resistance developed after more than 4 or 5 months of satisfactory use. This results to either lack of improvement or worsening of the affected areas.

Therefore it is recommended that you should take a break after every 4-5 months, a period during which you can use other milder or natural alternatives to lighten your skin.

Use of hydroquinone in combination with other compatible natural ingredients may also produce better results. Some of the milder alternatives include kojic acid, azelaic acid, retinoic acid, arbutin and vitamin C among others.

#5 – There are Concerns over the Carcinogenicity of Hydroquinone 

In various researches, hydroquinone has been known to cause toxicity and increased development of leukaemia and DNA damage in female rats and liver adenomas in male rats. These tests, however involved oral administration and much larger amounts of doses compared to what a human body absorbs when hydroquinone is topically applied on the skin.


That said, no research has linked such results in humans which makes it difficult to classify hydroquinone as carcinogenic to humans.

On the other hand, contact with eyes can injure the corneal epithelium, cause corneal ulceration or permanent corneal damage.  

#6 – Hydroquinone has been Banned in Several Countries and Regions

Questions about the toxicity of hydroquinone has led many countries to ban its OTC (over the counter) sale and use.

In 2006 the FDA overturned its previous approval of substance citing its potential carcinogenicity in humans. This was in a wide sweep that saw OTC creams containing 1.5-2% HQ no longer classified as GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective).

In Canada, hydroquinone is on the Cosmetics Ingredient Hotlist, which bans its use on the skin. The product is also banned in the UK, European Union and Japan for use in cosmetic products.

To add on to this, “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics” has also raised concerns over HQ use. Some dermatology and cosmetic associations are however of the opinion that, if used under strict guidelines, the product’s benefits far outweigh the risks.        


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#7 – Use of Excess Hydroquinone Concentrations can Cause Rebound Hyperpigmentation

As with many beauty products, hydroquinone has been prone to abuse. This usually stems from the belief that using the product in high concentrations hastens the results.

While this may be true, the results are usually short-lived and you can end up with up with rebound hyperpigmentation; this has been linked to use of creams with over 4% HQ without a doctor’s supervision.

High concentrations of HQ forces melanocytes into a state shock. As defense mechanism, the cells regroup and produce more melanin. Rebound pigmentation is also observed in HQ creams which contain steroids.

The inclusion of steroids is aimed at suppressing inflammation. Steroids also treat pigmentation caused by trauma or disease. When steroids are used on smooth un-inflamed skin, melanocytes similarly regroup and produce excess melanin which darkens your skin. With that in mind, it’s advisable to avoid steroid-based HQ creams unless prescribed by a doctor.


According to the various researches available, these facts can be confirmed; 

  • Hydroquinone causes temporary skin staining when used with various peroxides 
  • its use increases photosensitivity 
  • it is made from crude oil 
  • prolonged use can lead to ochronosis 
  • no tests have linked hydroquinone to carcinogenicity in humans,
  • its use has been banned in several countries and regions
  • last but not least, higher concentrations can give you quite the opposite results.

Hydroquinone is a very effective skin lightening ingredient. It has been in use for more than 50 years in topical skin lighteners. However, it has also attracted lots of controversy concerning its safety.


sonia knight

Sonia Knight is the founder of be:skinformed.

Apart from having her own experience with hyperpigmentation, Sonia has gained vast knowledge in the dermatology field. For more info on this, check out our about us page.

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