Skin lightening with hydroquinone can cause permanent skin damage. Although this cosmetic ingredient is effective at treating darkened areas of skin resulting from blemishes, wounds, aging or hormone therapy, its side effects outweigh its benefits, especially when it comes to long-term use. Knowing more about how it works helps you to protect your skin and overall health.
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What Is Hydroquinone?
Hydroquinone is an organic compound that’s a derivative of benzene. It’s widely available in the form of creams, gels, lotions or soaps and marketed for “lightening” or “whitening” skin. According to the National Toxicity Program, or NTP, hydroquinone lightens skin by killing melanocytes—the cells that carry melanin or pigment in your skin—and blocking the production of melanin.
Hydroquinone and the FDA
In 1982, the Food and Drug Administration approved regulation stating that hydroquinone be Generally Recognized As Safe and Effective, also known as GRASE. The agency also proposed that skin care products contain a maximum of 1.5 to 2 percent hydroquinone. However, in 2006 the FDA backtracked on hydroquinone’s GRASE status over concerns that the compound could cause cancer and other serious side effects.
Hydroquinone is absorbed through the skin when applied topically. It breaks down mostly into sulfate and glucuronide conjugates that are eliminated from the body in urine, explains the NTP. While hydroquinone may initially lighten pigment, used over a period of time it darkens and disfigures skin causing a condition called exogeneous ochronosis.
In some cases hydroquinone may lead to contact vitiligo, which means you completely lose pigment in areas of your skin. By reducing or eliminating pigment in the skin, hydroquinone increases your sensitivity to sun and to various forms of skin cancer.
Although research isn’t conclusive, there is still concern that hydroquinone can cause cancer and it is banned in several countries around the world. The NTP plans to carry out more in-depth studies on the carcinogenic effects of hydroquinone.
You may be jeopardizing your health even more as a result of the specific hydroquinone product you purchase. At the time of the NTP’s toxicological evaluation on hydroquinone in 2009, the product was still being used at doses of 2 percent in skin creams for skin lightening. However, some hydroquinone creams available by prescription contain higher concentrations of the compound.
Also, in an interview with the BBC, Dr. Olivia Stevenson, consultant dermatologist at Kettering General Hospital, pointed out that the strength of hydroquinone in some cosmetic products can vary considerably. And, although hydroquinone is banned in the U.K., it's still sold in some cosmetic products.
Protecting Your Skin
Avoid using skin bleaching or lightening products that contain hydroquinone unless prescribed by a doctor for a condition such as melasma. Never exceed the prescribed dose. Because hydroquinone inhibits melanin production, avoid the sun as much as possible. Apply a sunscreen when you’re going outside to protect your skin from sun damage. Also, you should never apply a hydroquinone cream all over your skin to try to whiten it. As Dr. Stevenson points out, trying to alter your natural pigment is a losing battle.