Hydroquinone: Uses, Safety, Side Effects, OTC Products, Alternatives (2023)

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What is hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a skin-lightening agent. It bleaches the skin, which can be helpful when treating different forms of hyperpigmentation.

Historically, there’s been some back-and-forth on the safety of hydroquinone. In 1982, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognized the ingredient as safe and effective.

Several years later, concerns about safety prompted retailers to pull hydroquinone from the market. The FDA went on to discover that many of the products in question contained contaminants like mercury. They established that these contaminants were behind reports of adverse effects.

Read on to learn more about how it works, who might benefit from use, products to try, and more.

Hydroquinone bleaches your skin by decreasing the number of melanocytes present. Melanocytes make melanin, which is what produces your skin tone.


In cases of hyperpigmentation, more melanin is present due to an increase in melanocyte production. By controlling these melanocytes, your skin will become more evenly toned over time.

It takes about four weeks on average for the ingredient to take effect. It may take several months of consistent use before you see full results.

If you don’t see any improvements within three months of OTC use, talk to your dermatologist. They may be able to recommend a prescription-strength formula better suited to your needs.

Hydroquinone is used to treat skin conditions related to hyperpigmentation. This includes:

Although hydroquinone can help fade red or brown spots that have lingered, it won’t help with active inflammation. For example, the ingredient can help minimize acne scarring, but it won’t have an effect on redness from active breakouts.

Is it safe for all skin types and tones?

(Video) Hydroquinone to Lighten Skin ~ Be Careful! ~ Instructions and Safety Precautions

Although hydroquinone is generally well-tolerated, there are a few exceptions.

If you have dry or sensitive skin, you may find that hydroquinone causes further dryness or irritation. This usually tapers off as your skin adjusts to the ingredient.

People who have normal or oily skin are less likely to experience these side effects.

The ingredient tends to work best on fair skin tones. If you have a medium-to-dark skin tone, talk with your dermatologist before use. Hydroquinone may actually worsen hyperpigmentation in darker skin tones.

Consistency is key to treating hyperpigmentation. You’ll want to use this ingredient every day for maximum results. Follow all product instructions carefully.

It’s important to do a patch test before your first full application. This will allow you to determine how your skin will react and whether it results in unwelcome side effects.

To do this:

  • Rub a small amount of the product into the inside of your forearm.
  • Cover the area with a bandage.
  • Wash your hands to prevent the product from staining your clothes or other materials.
  • Wait 24 hours.
  • Discontinue use if you experience severe itching or other irritation during this time.

If you don’t experience any side effects, you should be able to safely add it to your skin care routine. You should apply it after cleansing and toning, but before your moisturizer.

(Video) NO MORE HYDROQUINONE in the US| Dr Dray

Take just a small amount of the product and apply it evenly across the entire area of skin. Gently massage into your skin until it’s completely absorbed.

Make sure you wash your hands after use — this will prevent the product from affecting other areas of skin or staining your clothes and other materials.

You should also wear sunscreen while using this ingredient. Sun exposure can not only make hyperpigmentation worse, but also reverse the effects of your hydroquinone treatment.

Sunscreen is usually the last step of a skin care routine. Be sure to reapply as needed throughout the day.

While consistency is important for maximum results, you shouldn’t use it for long periods of time. If you don’t see any improvement after three months, discontinue use.

If you do see improvement, you can use the product for up to four months, and then begin to taper off use. You shouldn’t use it for more than five months at a time.

If you want to begin using the product again, wait two to three months before you resume use.

To date, hydroquinone is deemed safe in the United States. There isn’t any clinical evidence currently to suggest that hydroquinone is harmful to humans.

(Video) Hydroquinone How to Apply on Face

However, minor side effects are still possible. It may cause a temporary uptick in redness or dryness at first, especially if you have sensitive skin. These effects should fade as your skin becomes used to the product.

In rare cases, hydroquinone has caused a condition called ochronosis. It’s marked by papules and bluish-black pigmentation. This can occur after prolonged daily use. As such, you shouldn’t use products with this ingredient for more than five months at a time.

If you’d rather not use a chemical agent like hydroquinone, natural skin-lightening products are available.

These typically include one or more of the following:

  • Antioxidants. Vitamins A and C are commonly used in anti-aging products to brighten the skin and improve your overall tone. When used over time, antioxidants may also help lighten areas of hyperpigmentation.
  • Plant-based acids. Contrary to popular belief, acids aren’t always chemically based. Many acids in skincare products are actually derived from plants. For hyperpigmentation, you might try kojic or ellagic acids. These work by slowing down your skin’s melanin production.
  • Vitamin B-3. Commonly labeled as “niacinamide,” this ingredient has the potential to prevent darker areas of pigmentation from rising to the surface of your skin.

Hyperpigmentation can be a difficult condition to treat. Although hydroquinone may help lighten your skin, this ingredient isn’t appropriate for everyone.


You should check with your dermatologist before use, especially if you have sensitive skin or a medium-to-dark skin tone. They can advise you on how you should use this ingredient, if at all.

They can also recommend alternative skin-lightening treatments, including natural products and chemical peels.


What is the best alternative to hydroquinone? ›

Mequinol (4-Hydroxyanisole)

Mequinol is the main alternative prescription alternative to hydroquinone. It's also known as methoxyphenol, hydroquinone monomethyl ether, and p-hydroxyanisole.

What is a natural alternative to hydroquinone? ›

Other safe, natural alternatives to hydroquinone include brightening ingredients like kojic acid, vitamin C, mushroom, licorice/glycyrrhizin, azelaic acid, and niacinamide (vitamin B3).

Is there natural hydroquinone? ›

Free HQ was found in coffee (0.2 ppm), red wine (0.5 ppm), wheat cereals (0.2-0.4 ppm), and broccoli (0.1 ppm). After consuming a meal including arbutin- and HQ-containing foods, volunteers showed significant increases in plasma and urinary levels of HQ and its conjugated metabolites (total HQ).

What food has hydroquinone? ›

Free HQ was found in coffee (0.2 ppm), red wine (0.5 ppm), wheat cereals (0.2–0.4 ppm), and broccoli (0.1 ppm). After consuming a meal including arbutin- and HQ-containing foods, volunteers showed significant increases in plasma and urinary levels of HQ and its conjugated metabolites (total HQ).

Which natural food contains hydroquinone? ›

Well, hydroquinone is also found in certain fruits, such as pears and blueberries. Since hydroquinone, reduces melanin production, taking these fruits could make your white patches even whiter.

Why you should not use hydroquinone? ›

FDA has received reports of serious side effects including skin rashes, facial swelling, and ochronosis (discoloration of skin) from the use of skin lightening products containing hydroquinone.

Which plant contain hydroquinone? ›

Arbutin is a glycoside; a glycosylated hydroquinone extracted from the bearberry plant in the genus Arctostaphylos among many other medicinal plants, primarily in the family Ericaceae.

Which acid can lighten skin? ›

Kojic acid is often used topically to treat a number of different cosmetic conditions. It's been approved for use in cosmetic products in concentrations of 1 percent or less. It's most often used as a skin-lightening agent.

How do you break down melanin in your skin? ›

You can use topical products to lighten your skin. These products reduce melanin and are commercially available. Prescription or over-the-counter skin lightening products often have the following ingredients: hydroquinone, kojic acid, vitamin C, glycolic acid, azelaic acid, retinoid.

What naturally removes hyperpigmentation? ›

Aloe vera contains aloin, a natural depigmenting compound that has been shown to lighten skin and work effectively as a nontoxic hyperpigmentation treatment, according to a 2012 study. To use: Apply pure aloe vera gel to pigmented areas before bedtime. Rinse using warm water the next morning.

What is the best ingredient to fade hyperpigmentation? ›

Hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is the gold-standard when it comes to treating hyperpigmentation. Hydroquinone helps to fade patches of darker skin by inhibiting melanin production in the skin. It's typically used as a targeted spot treatment to fade dark spots, melasma, or patches of pigmentation.

What will permanently lighten skin? ›

Skin whitening creams only give you temporary results and do not have very lasting effects however, laser surgery as well as chemical peel treatment methods promise to give permanent solutions.

Can turmeric lighten skin? ›

Yes. Turmeric works as a skin lightening agent for your skin. The curcumin in it reduces the excess melanin production and lightens your skin tone. Adding turmeric to your skincare routine can brighten your skin tone and reduce any kind of dark spots and pigmentation.

How much hydroquinone in coffee? ›

It's also worth noting that a lot of food items contain hydroquinone, including coffee (0.31 micrograms per gram), wheat germ (10.65 micrograms per gram) and pears (D'Anjou pears have 15.09 micrograms per gram).

Does apple cider vinegar lighten melasma? ›

Other home remedies may actually make melasma worse. Don't apply things like lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, raw onion, or garlic to your skin. These highly acidic ingredients can irritate your skin, which can lead to darkening of the very spots you're trying to lighten.

What Vitamin gets rid of melasma? ›

Conclusions: Full-face iontophoresis of vitamin C appears to be an effective short-term treatment for melasma and postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.

How I cured my melasma naturally? ›

Papaya Both raw and ripe papaya are used for curing various skin disorders. Papain, present in papayas, causes them to be the best home remedy for melasma. Mash a few pieces of papaya and mix it with honey. Apply the paste on affected areas and leave it for 20 minutes.

Do dermatologists recommend hydroquinone? ›

Hydroquinone is considered the topical gold standard in dermatology for reducing hyperpigmentation.” Dermatologists often use hydroquinone to treat melasma, a skin condition where dark patches appear on the forehead, cheeks and upper lip.

Is hydroquinone cancerous? ›

FRIDAY, May 27, 2022 (HealthDay News) -- Hydroquinone use increases the risk for both melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers by more than threefold, according to a study presented at the Society for Investigative Dermatology Annual Meeting, held May 18 to 21 in Portland, Oregon.

Is hydroquinone damage reversible? ›

According to doctors, damage caused by the application of hydroquinone can be reversed by exposing the affected area to the sun. Also, you are recommended to use strong sunscreen along with hydroquinone. In case of irritation, apply anti-itch cream to the infected skin.

What is another name for hydroquinone? ›

Hydroquinone, also known as benzene-1,4-diol or quinol, is an aromatic organic compound that is a type of phenol, a derivative of benzene, having the chemical formula C6H4(OH)2.

Which is better hydroquinone or glutathione? ›

Hydroquinone is for local applications and works on local area only, whereas Glutathione on the other hand helps with anti aging and skin lightening on overall body complexion. Hydroquinone works on reducing melanogenesis,(pigment production) but it doesn't target the cause of pigment production.

What oil is best for skin whitening? ›

Grapeseed oil: Grapeseed oil is probably the most natural and safest way to lighten and whiten skin tone. Grapeseed oil is rich in linoleic acid and it can remove blemishes, sun tan, and hyperpigmentation.

Does lemon clear cream contain hydroquinone? ›

Does Lemon Clear Cream Contain Hydroquinone? No, it doesn't contain hydroquinone.

Are there any safe skin-lightening products? ›

Some use it to lighten specific areas of hyperpigmentation. However, many use skin bleaching products to lighten their complexion overall. There is no safe or reliable way to lighten someone's skin tone.

What vitamin is good for skin brightness? ›

Vitamins can be used to lighten your skin and lighten dark spots. Three of the best vitamins for lightening dark spots are vitamin C, vitamin B12, and vitamin E. Vitamin C helps your skin produce more collagen while inhibiting the formation of melanin.

Is hydroquinone better than Kojic acid? ›

Hydroquinone and Kojic acid are both well-known topical hypopigmenting agents with comparable efficacy. Kojic acid is found to be a more irritating agent.

Which is better niacinamide or hydroquinone? ›

Colorimetric measures did not show statistical differences between both sides. However, good to excellent improvement was observed with niacinamide in 44% of patients, compared to 55% with HQ. Niacinamide reduced importantly the mast cell infiltrate and showed improvement of solar elastosis in melasma skin.

Which natural ingredients have hydroquinone? ›

Arbutin, the b-D-glucopyranoside derivative of hydroquinone, is a naturally occurring plant derived compound found in the dried leaves of a number of different plant species including, bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), blueberry, cranberry, and pear trees.

Is hydroquinone or Vitamin C better? ›

Results: The best subjective improvement was observed on the hydroquinone side with 93% good and excellent results, compared with 62.5% on the ascorbic acid side (P < 0.05); however, colorimetric measures showed no statistical differences. Side-effects were present in 68.7% (11/16) with hydroquinone vs.

What are the dangers of hydroquinone? ›

► Exposure can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, dizziness, and muscle twitching. ► Hydroquinone may cause a skin allergy. ► Long term exposure may affect the liver and kidneys.

Is kojic acid same as hydroquinone? ›

Kojic acid is similar to a chemical called hydroquinone. They are both effective treatments for hyperpigmentation. Treatment with kojic acid isn't immediate. For significant improvement, you'll need to use a kojic acid cosmetic for up to three months in some cases.

Which is better arbutin or hydroquinone? ›

Alpha-Arbutin has been proven to have superior results, even when compared to its chemically similar molecules, hydroquinone, and beta-arbutin. In addition to higher efficacy, it also boasts a better safety profile compared to hydroquinone and is more stable when compared to beta-arbutin.

What not to mix with hydroquinone? ›

Chan both agree hydroquinone does not play well with benzoyl peroxide, hydrogen peroxide, or other peroxide products. Not only will pairing them cause irritation and dryness, but it can also temporarily stain your skin.

Is azelaic acid as good as hydroquinone? ›

Azelaic acid is used to treat acne and melasma. It has selective effects on hyperactive and abnormal melanocytes and minimal effects on normally pigmented human skin, freckles, and senile lentigines. It is reported to be as effective as 4% hydroquinone.

Does niacinamide really lighten skin? ›

In the clinical studies, niacinamide significantly decreased hyperpigmentation and increased skin lightness compared with vehicle alone after 4 weeks of use. Conclusions: The data suggest niacinamide is an effective skin lightening compound that works by inhibiting melanosome transfer from melanocytes to keratinocytes.


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