The Effects of Hydroquinone on Skin

Hydroquinone is an ingredient found in many skin-lightening products marketed to women for purposes of reducing age spots, melasma, freckles and other types of hyperpigmentation. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a rule that hydroquinone be considered "generally recognized as safe and effective," or GRASE. Depending on the concentration of hydroquinone in your skin lightener, you may get sufficient results; however, there are known side effects you should be aware of when using a hydroquinone-based bleaching cream.

More About Hydroquinone

When used in skin-lightening creams and similar products, hydroquinone inhibits the production of melanin, the pigment that gives your skin its color, states Cosmetic skin-lightening products containing hydroquinone often have a strident scent reminiscent of bleach, and in fact, they are often referred to as "bleaching creams." According to the FDA, nonprescription skin-lightening creams can contain up to two percent hydroquinone. Doctors may prescribe topical medications that contain up to four percent.

Skin Irritation

A common effect associated with hydroquinone is skin irritation. indicates that it should not be used on skin that is dry, chapped, sunburned or already irritated, nor should it be applied to an open wound. Irritation can be reduced by avoiding the use of harsh cleansing agents, such as soaps and shampoos, hair dye, permanent waves, cream depilatories, waxes made for hair removal and products that contain alcohol, lime, spices or other astringents. Avoid using medicated products unless instructed by a physician.

Sun Sensitivity

Hydroquinone makes your skin more sensitive to the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays, states However, if you are trying to fade sun spots, freckles and other types of hyperpigmentation, sun protection is essential, notes the American Osteopathic College of Dermatology, as sun exposure in itself makes discoloration worse. Always smooth on a broad-spectrum sunscreen before you go outdoors so you will not undo the benefits of your skin-lightening products.

Other Effects

Over-the-counter products that contain hydroquinone may not work rapidly, cautions the Mayo Clinic. Although these may successfully remedy minimal discoloration, the product needs to penetrate through the top layer of skin to where it meets the epidermis and the melanin is located. The Mayo Clinic states that it may be several weeks or even months before you notice the product's effects.


If purchasing a skin-lightening cream that contains hydroquinone, make sure to read the product's label first, advises the American Academy of Dermatology. As noted, nonprescription products can contain, by law, up to two percent hydroquinone. If the skin lightener that piques your interest does not specify a concentration, it is best to pass it over. If you use a topical cream that contains too much hydroquinone you might end up with discoloration that is almost impossible to treat. Only your doctor can tell you if it is safe to use hydroquinone at a concentration of more than two percent.

Further Study

As of July 2010, nonprescription skin lighteners containing two percent hydroquinone were still available on the consumer market. However, in December 2009, the FDA recommended that hydroquinone be studied by the National Toxicology Program to further assess its safety to humans to make sure it poses no risk as a carcinogen or toxic agent.

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