Hydroquinone: Is It Still The Gold Standard for Skin Lightening?

Over the past sev­er­al years, hydro­quinone has become a con­tro­ver­sial skin-care ingre­di­ent for top­i­cal use. For over 50 years, hydro­quinone has been estab­lished as the most effec­tive ingre­di­ent for reduc­ing and poten­tial­ly elim­i­nat­ing brown skin dis­col­orations often referred to as melas­ma, liv­er spots and café au lait spots. Hydro­quinone is a strong inhibitor of melanin production. 

Hydro­quinone pre­vents skin from mak­ing the enzyme respon­si­ble for trig­ger­ing melanin, the chief pig­ment that gives skin its col­or. Its effec­tive­ness is based on the con­cen­tra­tion of hydro­quinone in the prod­uct. Over-the-counter prod­ucts can con­tain 0.5% to 2% con­cen­tra­tions. At the phar­ma­cy, 4% con­cen­tra­tions of hydro­quinone (and some­times even high­er) are avail­able by pre­scrip­tion only. A con­cen­tra­tion of 12% hydro­quinone actu­al­ly pre­vents the pro­duc­tion of melanin altogether. 

Over the past sev­er­al years, infor­ma­tion about neg­a­tive side effects from using hydro­quinone prod­ucts has been released. Yet a clos­er look at the research indi­cates prob­lem­at­ic skin reac­tions are rare and, more often than not, minor. The neg­a­tive research has been ques­tioned because it doesn’t match how peo­ple actu­al­ly use the product. 

Ques­tions con­cern­ing hydro­quinone, in terms of it being a car­cino­gen, have also been addressed in research. Prob­lem­at­ic inci­dences have occurred when hydro­quinone was fed or inject­ed into rats in large dos­es, though when admin­is­tered top­i­cal­ly there has been no research show­ing it to be muta­genic on humans or ani­mals. What should be not­ed is that there is abun­dant research show­ing hydro­quinone to be safe and extreme­ly effec­tive. To show how there are two sides to every sto­ry, there is also research illus­trat­ing that work­ers who han­dle pure hydro­quinone actu­al­ly have low­er inci­dences of can­cer than the pop­u­la­tion as a whole. 

What is abun­dant­ly clear is that hydro­quinone is a well-researched ingre­di­ent, incred­i­bly effec­tive for its intend­ed pur­pose, and that no oth­er skin light­en­ing ingre­di­ent com­pares to its effectiveness. 

That being said, some com­pa­nies, such as Proc­ter & Gam­ble (P&G, own­er of brands such as Olay and DDF) are work­ing hard to come up with skin light­en­ing ingre­di­ents that rival the effec­tive­ness of hydro­quinone. In the future, patients may have more choic­es when it comes to skin lightening.

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