What is hydroquinone and why this bleaching agent is banned?

hydroquinone and why this bleaching agent is banned hydroquinone and why this bleaching agent is banned

What is hydroquinone and why this bleaching agent is banned?

It could be a possibility that any of your skin care products or over the counter creams or topical ointment prescribed by your doctor contains hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is a commonly used skin-lightening ingredient to treat skin issues like hyperpigmentation, melasma, age spots, liver spots, and freckles. However, since 90’s, this skin bleaching agent is under controversies due to its safety concerns. Hydroquinone can benefit in lightening dark tones but its potential side effects have made people cautious of its frequent use. This whole article summarizes about what is hydroquinone, mode of action, uses, side effects, and safety concerns?

Mechanism of action

It causes a decrease in the number of melanocytes that ultimately leads to lighter skin.  However, the skin brightening effects of hydroquinone are reversible when exposed to sunlight.


What hydroquinone does to your skin?

Overproduction of melanocytes is the reason behind pigmentation and hydroquinone only halts its production. So, during this process melanocytes die off, which further gets accumulated on the skin surface just like any other dead skin cells. As a result, the deposition of such skin cells makes the skin look darker. This condition may persist for a couple of weeks depending upon the severity of hyperpigmentation.


Is hydroquinone safe?

People use hydroquinone creams as a beauty concern, but sun exposure while using this ingredient increases the risk of skin sensitivity.  It not only reverses the hyperpigmentation condition but also makes the skin conditions worse. This is the reason, use of the sunscreen becomes imperative with this skin lightening agent. However, application on a large area of skin for prolonged durations, makes it penetrate into the body. Accumulation of such compounds can increase the risk of DNA damage and mutations that might cause cancer and toxicity in kidneys and blood. Recent researches have pointed out cancer-causing effects of hydroquinone. The environmental working group has also categorized it as a skin toxicant and allergen. Considering the safety matter, FDA has recommended NTP (National Toxicology Program) to conduct further studies in order to evaluate the health-related effects of hydroquinone. Several ongoing studies on hydroquinone have compelled many companies to look for safer alternatives to hydroquinone.


Possible side effects after the use of hydroquinone 

  • Ochronosis (a persistent blue-black pigmentation)
  • Mild skin irritation
  • Burning sensation
  • Itchy inflammation of the skin (dermatitis)
  • Inflammatory reaction
  • Dryness
  • Redness
  • Unusual skin discolorations

Hydroquinone – Contraindications

After considering the side effects of hydroquinone, many dermatologists and skin experts don’t encourage the use of this topical skin lightening agent. In addition, below-given contraindications also make Hydroquinone an inappropriate choice to treat dark spots or age spots.

  • The use of Hydroquinone should be avoided in sun and windburn skin. In such conditions, it may worsen up the symptoms. Hence, it is advisable to heal the skin before starting with the treatment.
  • The use of this bleaching agent has not been found good for people who have sensitivity to sulfite. The reason is, Hydroquinone contains sodium metabisulfite, a sulfite which can cause allergic-type reactions including anaphylactic symptoms and asthmatic episodes in certain vulnerable individuals.
  • Pregnant women and lactating mothers should use this lightening agent only under the guidance of health care professionals.
  • Avoid its use near eyes, any cuts or abrasions.



Will hydroquinone cause cancer?

Several rodent studies have concluded that the administration of high doses of hydroquinone is linked with cancer. A study published in The British Cancer Journal has stated similar results in mice experiments. These animal studies have demonstrated the carcinogenic activity of hydroquinone. But so far, no studies have indicated cancer concerns in humans. Furthermore, hydroquinone increases the skin’s vulnerability to UV rays which are associated with the risk of skin cancer. Hence, the application of broad-spectrum sunscreen is emphasized if your skincare products contain hydroquinone.

Where is hydroquinone banned?

A few years ago, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented a ban on the use of cosmetic that contains a skin-lightening agent (hydroquinone). As per reports of FDA, there are approximately more than 60 countries who sell 200 different types of skin lightening products.

These are some of the countries where the use of hydroquinone is prohibited

  • S.A
  • European Union
  • Africa
  • United Arab Emirates
  • Asia-Pacific
  • Australia

Why this bleaching agent is banned?

Hydroquinone is forbidden in many countries because of its side effects. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) refers hydroquinone for treating pigmentation disorders. Meanwhile, AAD recommends that over usage of hydroquinone may result in unwanted effects on the skin such as irritation and potential darkening of the skin. Hence, it is strictly suggested to seek skin expert or dermatologist’s advice for treating dark spots. To add this, instead of looking for solutions, the right approach is to opt for preventive measures. Greater exposure to the UV rays is one of the major causes of dark spots formation or hyperpigmentation.  Hence, wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen before going outdoors builds a shield for your skin that ceases the development of skin spots.


What are the natural alternatives to Hydroquinone?

Till now, there are no clear evidences about the safety status of hydroquinone. However, there are other safer and natural ingredients to deal with skin discolorations, dark spots, and pigmentation. Plant-derived bioactive compounds and antioxidants are very beneficial to even out the skin complexion meanwhile protecting the skin from ultraviolet rays of the sun. These below given natural ingredients are found very effective for skin radiance –


What are the natural alternatives to Hydroquinone?

  • Pterocarpus marsupium Extract

Pterocarpus marsupium is commonly known as Malabar kino, Indian kino tree, or Vijayasar. Since ancient times, this plant has great medicinal importance in the traditional system of healing. Its antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties make it an effective cure for several ailments including skin problems. It has a natural phytochemical compound pterostilbene that is packed with skin lightening properties. It exhibits strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action with UV protection benefits.


  • Tetra-hydrocurcumin

Tetra-hydrocurcumin is an antioxidant compound derived from curcumin. Anti-pigmentation properties of this bioactive compound have made it now a key ingredient in skin brightening creams.  Tetra – hydrocurcumin is an effective and natural alternative to hydroquinone. Its melanin inhibition action has been found more effective in comparison to bleaching agents such as kojic acid and hydroquinone. Apart from lightening the skin complexion, it offers skin protection, improves the collagen levels, and skin elasticity as well.


  • Vaccinium Myrtillus Fruit/ Leaf Extract

Vaccinium Myrtillus is commonly called Bilberry. It contains higher levels of bioactive compounds such as resveratrol and quercetin, which help to protect the skin from UV damage. Several studies have concluded that the topical application of Bilberry offers skin lightening effects. One can obtain the extraordinary skin benefits of this fruit by incorporating skincare creams containing bilberry extract.


  • Alpha Hydroxy Acids or AHAs

Alpha Hydroxy Acids are the compounds derived from the fruit such as sugarcane. Its mild exfoliating properties help to clear the deposited cell debris, revealing a new and brighter layer of skin. AHAs work effectively to improve the skin tone, facial discolorations, and age spots. In addition, it has been found that AHA also helps to reduce acne scars, Post Inflammatory Hyperpigmentation (PIH), and skin damage from the sun.


Before buying any product, it is very imperative to check the list of ingredients thoroughly on the labels to know if they are appropriate for your skin.  Be precise with your skincare products because healthy, glowing, and radiant skin is only in your hands.

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