Skin lightening with hydroquinone

Some skin lightening ingredients work extremely well in the short-term but when used over a longer period of time, actually damages our skin. Hydroquinone is one of them.

What is hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a widely used skin lightening ingredient found in over-the-counter, cosmetic and prescription products. Hydroquinone is usually combined with other ingredients (such as alpha hydroxy acids and tretinoin) to increase its penetration and effectiveness.

Hydroquinone works to lighten skin by inhibiting tyrosinase, which is responsible for catalyzing melanin production (it prevents the conversion of dopa to melanin). Hydroquinone has also been shown to be toxic to melanocytes, the cells in our skin that produces pigment or melanin.

hydroquinoneSafety and effectiveness of hydroquinone (2%, 4%, and higher)

The application of 2% hydroquinone will cause some lightening in both normal skin and hyperpigmented skin. While low 2% concentrations of hydroquinone appear to be safe, you should not use it for more than 6 months.

At higher concentrations of 4% and above, hydroquinone appears to be more effective in lightening skin.  A 5%  concentration of hydroquinone will reduce tyrosinase activity by 50%.

However, these higher concentrations also raises the risk of irritation and may actually cause or worsen hyperpigmentation. Prolonged and continuous use may cause paradoxical hyperpigmentation or permanently damage skin through exogenous ochronosis.

No matter what the concentration, hydroquinone creams can only produce a partial change in skin color at the most. They are also more effective for treating light spots than dark ones. On darker spots, hydroquinone can produce about a 50% improvement at best.

Hydroquinone is banned in many countries and highly regulated in others

There have been many concerns about the toxicity of hydroquinone, and its potential ability to mutate cells. Hydroquinone has been banned in Europe and Japan, and is highly regulated in Asia. The sale of over-the-counter skin bleaching creams containing hydroquinone was banned in South Africa in 1992.

In the US, 2% hydroquinone can be bought over-the-counter, while higher 4% concentrations require a doctor’s prescription. In Canada, 2% or 4% hydroquinone can be bought without a prescription.

Skin lightening creams containing dangerous levels of hydroquinone

Product name

Brand

Hydroquinone
concentrations

Other information

Maxi White S1 Lightening Cream Gel – strong formula Labo Farmax 9%
Body Clear Cream – Lightening Body Cream Picos-ci 2.6%
Skin light, Super Lightening Body Lotion Rodis 5% Lotion smells of cocoa butter


An ad for Ultra Nadinola bleaching cream, which also contains hydroquinone. Printed in Ebony magazine, October 1964.

An ad for Ultra Nadinola bleaching cream, which contains hydroquinone. Printed in Ebony magazine, October 1964. Click to enlarge.

An ad for Ultra Bleach and Glow, a bleaching cream that contains hydroquinone. Printed in Ebony magazine, September 1970

An ad for Ultra Bleach and Glow, a bleaching cream which also contains hydroquinone. Printed in Ebony magazine, September 1970. Click to enlarge.
























21 thoughts on “Skin lightening with hydroquinone”

  1. You should go deeper about the hydroquinine. It seems to me that most of the info is contradictory.

    But, in my very particular case, i would like to know where it is appropiate to use.

    I’m a spaniard of Celtic decent.I live in latin america, and the sun is quite…hot.I’m all white, but, some parts of my face,noose forehead in example, are radically darker (morethan my tanned arms!) than say, my neck (This happened right after i applied a anti-acne cream, danm, it felt hot and burn my face badly in those spots, i had it still applied when i went to the street). I still need to go to a dermatologist, but asking this there would be kinda embarrasing…

    Also, a consults section would be cool, since this is more like a cosmetic-like thing than medical.

    1. Hi John, yes the information on hydroquinone can be quite contradictory (and confusing). If you’re worried about your skin’s reaction to hydroquinone, it’s best to do a test patch on your arm first.

      I can’t be 100% sure of course, but based on your description of what happened (a burning sensation after applying the acne cream), it sounds like what you have could be post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation. This is quite common, but immediate sun exposure after skin damage can make the spots darker and more stubborn.

      Most cases of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation will resolve on their own given enough time (up to several months). And since you’re white (with Type II/III skin?), the odds are good that your spots will fade over time. I would suggest using a good zinc oxide sunscreen everyday to help things along.

  2. And you say, a 50% improvement at best. 50% improvement on previous tone? that’s not a mild improvement, i believe!

  3. how did you figure out how much hydroquinone is in those products listed above?? where did the data come from??? POOF PLEASE!

    1. You have to key the product name in your search browser, and also the word ingredients. This will give you a list of ingredients along with the percentage as well. I hope this is helpful. For example, Nadinola extra strength has 3% hydroquine and black & white product has only 2% of the skin bleaching ingredient.

  4. I used a 7% doctor prescribed hydroquinone for a couple weeks, maybe 3. Doctor said to stop after a couple months, but I’ve been told 2 weeks. Since then I use it off and on. not more than once or twice every 3 months. I can’t say whether it made an improvement or not, I just have darker skin on my face from too much sun exposure, while the rest of my body has already returned to lighter color. I will probably use it again this winter, more regularly.I have found your site very helpful. Made my own vitamin c serum :)

    For anyone interested in 7% hydroquinone, I did buy extras since I thought I would need a lot more, so if you are interested, please contact me (robolegojupiter@gmail.com) It has to be kept refrigerated and apparently has no expiration date. I bought it one year ago.

  5. ****By extras, I meant I only bought 2 more. Not selling wholesale or fakes, etc. The names of the place/physician I went to is on the bottle.

  6. hi
    I am a caucasian male leaving for 3 years in singapore now, here the sun is extremely hot, my head from neck above has become much darker than the other parts, I have used sun block creams (40) and have avoided sun for a year now but no improvements is observed, is it permanent or it will go by time?
    tnx

  7. I’ve been using a cream called fair and white and it kinda of lightens me up but not really and what makes me upset is that i’m trying to look for a cream that will even my arms and legs back to my really lighgt complexion i already have.

  8. Hi
    Thank you for the information, I am looking to purchase a skin lightening product, I am Indian, is there a product that is safe and results orientated that you can recommend?

    looking fwd to your response.

  9. hello,thnx for your page,i have found very interesting information. i was wondering for how long i can use a hydroquinone treatment,. well my mom is mexican and shes not as white but shes tanned skin, so we moved to Colorado where is usually very cold, and comin from mexico where its usually very hot,and she started gettin this black spots on her face,then on her neck and finally on her arms, but she got it after exposing herself to the sun in Denver CO and it started itching,and she scratched and then those black spots came up. so i was wondering if you reccomnd any treatment and for how long she shud use it and how much she should apply every night or so. this was like 2 years ago and they keep gettin darkk,it doesnt look good.. help please :) will appreciate it

  10. hi, i am a Nigerian, and fair but not too light, i need a cream to use or what to do to have a fair and pimples free skin, cos i have pimples on my face. just give me the name of the cream and a natural beauty routine to follow for a glowing skin. thanks

    Regards

  11. Hi
    I use the maxi white s1 cream and gel
    It doesnt mention that it has hydroquinone in the ingredients section.
    I believe that it does but i want to know how do you know it attains 9% hydroquinone?
    Did u reasearch
    I would like to know in order to stop using it.
    Regards

    1. This article was written in 2010. That said, formulations can always change. It’s best to do your own checks and ask questions to the manufacturer directly.

      1. Hi Hessa,

        My Dermalogist prescribed me to use DEPIDERM cream for skin lightning(Pigmentation). Could you pls suggest me how effective this cream is & is it containing Mercury or hydroquinine.

        Thanks in advance.

  12. hi, i’ve been using HQ 4% Prescribed by my docter for 8 mnths now. I had mild to severe acne scars, and by using this i have recieved instant changes in 4-6 week. i have continued using this to get better results, but when i stop using for like about 3-4 days, i see m scars comming up and darkening of face.so i went to my doctor and he changed it to salycylic acid 15% ointment – used this for 1 week and saw more scaring. well i know that it takes around 3 months for SA to work, iam continuing with HQ. Ijust want to know what is the maximum amount of time to use HQ- as said earlier i’ve used for 8 mnths.. when can i stop using.. to avoid high potential risks tat may occur later. thank you for this site

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