Trying to get rid of dark marks from age spots, melasma or post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation? You’re not alone and if you’ve ever searched for products to help reduce the appearance of dark spots, you’ve probably noticed there is a vast myriad out there that claim to achieve this. While there are many ingredients that can help brighten your complexion and protect it from UV damage, the most recommended and prescribed ingredient for skin lightening is Hydroquinone.
What Is Hydroquinone?
Hydroquinone is an organic compound that can be found naturally in different fungi, plants and animals but was first synthetically produced in the 1800s for the purposes of developing black and white photography. Later on, in the beginning of the 20th century, the effects of Hydroquinone on the skin as a melanin inhibitor, antioxidant and skin lightener were discovered and the ingredient was put to use in topical skincare.
For the last 50+ years, Hydroquinone has been the gold standard for skin lightening and recommended by a number of board-certified dermatologists including SLMD founder, Dr. Sandra Lee, for reducing the appearance of pigmentation resulting from acne, melasma, and sun exposure. Misinformation and confusion has caused Hydroquinone to become a controversial ingredient, but we’re here to set the record straight and share the right info with you!
Is it Dangerous?
The first misconception that Hydroquinone is dangerous stemmed from a controversy in South Africa, in 1980, after they identified products containing Hydroquinone to be hazardous. As a result, South Africa placed a ban on the ingredient, and Japan, EU and Australia followed suit. However, further research uncovered that these products they identified as hazardous also contained mercury and other illegal contaminants. Therefore, there was no substantial evidence that the reason for this toxicity was due to the Hydroquinone, and plenty more research upholds Hydroquinone to be safe and effective when used topically!
A skin disorder known as exogenous ochronosis, which causes skin to darken with blue-black pigmentation, has been linked to the use of prescription strength Hydroquinone chronically (long-term) and at very high percentages. It is important to note that this occurrence is very rare — there have been less than 40 cases recorded in the US. For this reason, when using prescription strength HQs, dermatologists will recommend that after a couple months of use you take a break from the product before continuing your treatment.
Similarly, there has been no evidence or study that indicates that use of a topical Hydroquinone causes cancer in humans. It is true that hydroquinone should not be ingested orally in high doses, but as it's manufactured in its powdered form for topical skincare, it's a very stable, safe ingredient!
How does Hydroquinone work?
Hydroquinone works to lighten dark spots over time by decreasing the production of melanin (the protein that gives your skin pigment) and increasing the breakdown of melanocytes (the cells that create melanin). This works because Hydroquinone prevents the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme needed to make melanin. Melanin is a natural function of our skin — it’s how we get the pigment in our skin, eyes, and hair, but it becomes problematic when Melanocytes (which sit in the Dermis layer of our skin) are stimulated to release extra melanin that form dark spots on the top layer of our skin. This process can be triggered by UV exposure and trauma (from picking at your skin). Hydroquinone also has some antioxidant properties that help protect the skin from UV damage and brighten complexion. Because Hydroquinone functions on the cell-level, it requires consistent use to see results — it is not bleaching your skin over time, just making the melanin production of your skin more even.
You’ll find this powerful active ingredient in over-the-counter skin care products at a concentration of up to 2%. Our favorite? SLMD’s Dark Spot Fix. With the highest over-the-counter concentration of Hydroquinone and added Salicylic Acid and Kojic Acid, this blend helps to reduce the appearance of pigmentation, even out complexion, and keep pores clear and healthy.
Hydroquinone in prescription products are typically at concentrations up to 4%, but dermatologists will often turn to compound pharmacies to create products that contain up to 10-12% Hydroquinone. When being incorporated into prescription products, the most common ingredients that dermatologists will incorporate it with are tretinoin, retinol, vitamin C or glycolic acid.
Typically, results are seen after four to six weeks of continuous use! Note that products containing Benzoyl Peroxide or Resorcinol should not be used with Hydroquinone. When you are using Hydroquinone, also be sure you are applying SPF every day (you should be anyways!), so UV rays don’t have the chance to intensify spots you are trying to lighten up. A moisturizer with built in sunscreen like SLMD Daily Moisturizer with SPF 15 kills two birds with one stone, but a mineral-powdered sunscreen like UV Bounce is another great option for those wanting a different texture, and looking to mattify their skin throughout the day.
At the end of the day
It’s always best to consult with your dermatologist if you’re unsure whether a skincare ingredient is right for you. Lighten up those dark spots with Hydroquinone, if you wish, and keep on applying your SPF! You’ll be on your way to flaunting a brighter, even, complexion in no time.