What You Should Know About Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone gets a bad rap. Which sucks because it’s considered the gold standard of skin lightening among experts.

What?!

Yes girl.

It’s generally used in the treatment of freckles, brown patching, melasma, dark spots - and does a fantastic job.

Explain...

Our skin contains melanin, the pigment that gives it color. Melanin is produced by the enzyme tyrosinase in melanin producing cells called melanocytes.

Hydroquinone works by stopping tyrosinase, from producing melanin and damages the melanocytes.

That’s why it does a fantastic job at lightening dark patches and such. The excess melanin that would have been produced e.g. during an acne healing phase, making the skin darker in some areas, literally isn’t produced. So your complexion would stay nice and even.

But…

Because colorism and racism are real, many people have taken advantage of this and added dangerous levels of hydroquinone to skin bleaching products.

Instead of using it to get rid of a couple of dark spots here and there, people are slathering these dangerous creams from head to toe to lighten their natural complexions.

Not good.

So now, in many countries it is used under medical supervision - only your doctor can prescribe it to you for a certain period of time. In others, like Uganda, it’s completely banned - but sadly, there is still a lot on the black market.

If you ever need to use hydroquinone,  here is what you need to know.

Hydroquinone is safe to use at certain levels

Not every product with hydroquinone is cooked by someone in their kitchen. Some are safely formulated in a proper lab.

In concentrations of 2-5%, hydroquinone is considered effective and safe to use. The best person to recommend such a safe hydroquinone product to you would be a trusted dermatologist.

Hydroquinone is not the only way

Sometimes you may not need hydroquinone to get rid of discoloration. Other skin brighteners like kojic acid, alpha arbutin or treatments like lasers and peels could work.

Make sure to invest in an effective brightening routine that includes plenty of AHAs, brighteners, SPF and patience before trying hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone should be used for specified periods of time

Especially if you have darker skin. By darker, I mean if you are of African, Indian or Middle Eastern descent. Generally, hydroquinone is used in 3 month cycles in alternation with other skin brighteners.

If you throw caution to the wind and use it for more than 3 months straight, you could develop ochronosis.

Ochronosis is a permanent darkening of the skin and is more common in darker skin tones. Ochronosis is rare and some experts say it only happens after using high concentration hydroquinone for long.

But still... to be on the safe side, only a dermatologist should prescribe you hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone has not been linked to cancer in humans

There was a study where mice exposed to hydroquinone developed liver tumors.

A 2006 review of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology explains that the results from the study were reported misleadingly. (More  here.)

The International Agency for Research on Cancer also considers hydroquinone as not classifiable on its carcinogenicity (cancer causing-ness) in humans. More on that here.

So, basically, unless you are a very unlucky mouse, you’re good to go.

Hydroquinone does not play nice with some ingredients

Like benzoyl peroxide (antibacterial), hydrogen peroxide (antibacterial) and resorcinol (another skin brightener).

According to Futurederm, mixing peroxides with hydroquinone might temporarily stain the skin and using resorcinol with hydroquinone may cause ochronosis.

So in case you have skincare with these ingredients, halt usage while treating with hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone should not be near your eyes

While researching this post, I came across articles talmabout using hydroquinone for dark circles?

Huh?! I’m not so sure about this.

If hydroquinone enters the eye, it could permanently damage the cornea aka you go blind! How will you watch Lupita slaying it as Trevor's mum in Born a Crime?!

I wouldn’t risk or recommend using hydroquinone around the eye. Some dark circles are genetic anyway, no skin brighteners will get rid of them.

SPF reigns supreme

Remember, hydroquinone suppresses the production of melanin, which is part of our skin's natural defence system.

Your skin will be more sensitive to injury like sun damage.

Use plenty of SPF when you are using hydroquinone. Roasting the skin in the sun is not an option.

Do not use hydroquinone if you're pregnant

This study shows that if you're pregnant, it would be better to steer clear of strong treatments like hydroquinone and tretinoin.

Thus far, hydroquinone is not associated with increased risk of birth defects, but a large amount (35-45%), is absorbed into the system when applied topically. 

Until further studies are done on what this huge absorption rate means for the fetus, don't use hydroquinone during pregnancy.

If you need a good dermatologist...

If you’re in Kampala, go to Unity Skin Clinic in Acacia Mall. Unity has another branch along Buganda Road, opposite Hotel Triangle, but parking is a nightmare in town.

If you’re in Nairobi, go to Avane Cosmetic Clinic in Parklands or Yaya Centre. They are the only dermatologists I visit in Nairobi. I was treated like a queen from the get-go and I’m of the “if-it-aint-broke-dont-fix-it” crowd.

If you are in Mombasa, Avane has a branch at Nyali Centre, near another fave of mine, The Beauty Box salon, on the 2nd Floor. Nobody threads eyebrows like Lois at The Beauty Box!

Do you have any questions about hydroquinone? Ask away!