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Hydroquinone for Skin Lightening: Is it Harmful?

By HERWriter
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Skin, Hair & Nails related image Photo: Getty Images

As we age, many of us have acquired brown spots or discolorations on our skin. Naturally, we look to see if there is any type of cream that will help and we try to understand what risks there are in using one. Here is where using hydroquinone becomes confusing. There are two camps. One feels that hydroquinone should be entirely banned due to cancer and other health risks. The other expresses that it is safe to use in low concentrations or under the guidance of a doctor. What should you do?

How does hydroquinone work?

Hydroquinone does not actually bleach the skin; it simply lightens it by blocking the production of melanin. Common risks are skin irritation and possible allergic responses and it is recommended to not use hydroquinone products for longer than six months.

It has been reported in South Africa to cause skin discoloring instead of lightening in a condition called exogenous ochronosis but that rarely has happened here in the U.S. However, in Britain there have been reports of ochronosis during short-term use of cosmetics containing hydroquinone as a skin brightener.

According to dermadoctor.com, the American Academy of Dermatology stated that “Hydroquinone is one of the most effective molecules for the treatment of dark discoloration over the past 40-50 years and has been used in millions of people. It is used to treat the top concerns among our patients including melasma, photo-aging, post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, medically and cosmetic disfiguring dyschromias.” The AAD expressed that hydroquinone is safe and effective, is also present in various food products and there has not been malignancies reported from any of these sources in 50 years of use.

In 2006 the United States Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban of hydroquinone due to evidence that it may be carcinogenic as demonstrated in studies with rats though it has not been documented as such in humans. Currently over the counter products can contain up to 2 percent hydroquinone but 4 percent concentrations must be prescribed by a doctor. No new products containing hydroquinone can be released in the U.S. unless newly approved by the FDA.

In Japan, the European Union, and Australia hydroquinone is banned due to cancer concerns and also because “some studies also report abnormal function of the adrenal glands and high levels of mercury in people who have used hydroquinone-containing cosmetics,” according to medicinenet.com. Many feel that if so many other countries have banned hydroquinone then the U.S. should do so as well.

What are the alternatives to hydroquinone?

To avoid potential side effects of hydroquinone, there are various other topical products that can be used instead. Examples are arbutin, kojic acid, azelaic acid, glabridin (Licorice extract), tretinoin (retinoid drugs) or alpha hydroxyl acids. Additionally, some people use chemical peels or laser treatments, which can be expensive. Lasers are more often used to treat spot specific areas.

Like many products, it is unclear how much hydroquinone over how long a period will cause what kind of harm. Does cancer in rats mean potential cancer in humans? You will need to weigh the risks and benefits yourself.

No matter what products you decide to use, it is vital that you religiously use sunscreen to protect not only your newly lightened skin but to prevent excess exposure to cancer causing UV rays.



Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues. Other articles by Michele are at www.helium.com/users/487540/show_articles

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.