Ok, so this might be something some of you don’t want to hear… but hydroquinone is not a solution to your pigment problems. I know… I know… it works so well! And doctors hand it out like candy! But guys…. It’s not solving your problems, it’s actually making them worse… I’ll explain:

Hydroquinone is a bleaching agent.  So what does that mean?  A bleaching agent works because it kills off your melanocytes (the cells that produce pigment in your skin), in order to get rid of the excess pigment in your skin.  Now understand, your melanocytes are your skins first line of defense. When exposure to too much sun or a wound happens, your melanocytes run to help protect the affected area. It’s your skins way of protecting itself, which I know…annoying!! But your skin wants to help protect the wound (be it sunburn or acne)  from all this damage, it’s the reason why we get a tan when we get too much sun. But over time, some of those cells, with the aid of hormones or just too much exposure, can stick around and leave lovely brown marks/spots all over the face. And of course we want our even, glowing, beautiful skin back! So we go to the Derm, and he gives us a product with hydroquinone to bleach away those spots.

So here’s the hydroquinone cycle:

  1. You have pigment issues, so you start on a hydroquinone
  2. Your spots clear up!
  3. You have a bad day in the sun where you forget to apply/reapply SPF and you get a burn… this could happen a few times, especially after a tropical vacation
  4. You start to notice that you’re getting some pigment back…oh no!
  5. You decide to go back on the hydroquinone
  6. Your spots clear up!
  7. and so on and so on…..

So when hydroquinone kills off those melanocytes, you have fewer of them left to actually help protect your skin. So let’s say you go on vacation, or your kid is in little league and you forget to reapply or even apply SPF/wear a hat, and you get too much sun over the course of a few days.  Your melanocytes are activated and told to go rescue the damaged cells, well because you have killed off enough of them, the melanocytes you have left have to then work harder, and spread darker and wider, in order to protect your skin. Hence the pigment coming back… wuh wuh 😦 So now you’re upset, all those spots that you finally got rid of are back!! So now you want to go back on the bleach to get rid of them. The problem being that you have officially started the hydroquinone cycle listed above. Eventually, you have hardly any melanocytes left, and are left with worse/darker pigment then you had when you started. Hydroquinone literally causes your pigment to be darker, and cover more area than before you started, which for sure is not the goal you had in mind. I’ve seen this cycle numerous times in my career, mainly with the aid of Obagi products, that really start people on the hydroquinone train with their ‘Blender’ product. Once people start, they have a hard time stopping because to was SO effective the first time they used it, they just keep going back for more.

So now you ask: Well Jennifer, if hydroquinone isn’t the answer, what is?? The answer: Melanin suppressants. The difference with a melanin suppressant is instead of killing off those helpful little cells, it just tells tells them to stop producing color. So they are still there to help your skin, but overall they won’t be pumping out color, which is what we want! My favorite is Simply Brilliant from Cosmedix,  used morning and night, it will slowly fade your pigment, and stop new pigment from forming. This is a serum, and is a light texture, so first thing on clean skin and then layer all your other normal products after, especially SPF!!!!  There are a few other non-hydroquinone lighteners out there, like this one from Rhona Allison, or this one on Amazon that both seem to have a nice blend of appropriate ingredients to help naturally lighten the skin without hydroquinone. Now, I have personally only used the one from Cosmedix, so I’m not sure how the other 2 perform, so please don’t hold me accountable!!! Just wanted to offer up a few other products at different price points.

The other issue that people have with hydroquinone is that it is also a known carcinogen, meaning it has the possibility of  causing  cancer. Now, here’s the deal, a LOT of things can be carcinogenic, that’s not my main problem with this ingredient. But it should be noted that all of Europe and Japan no longer formulate with this ingredient. And I feel we in the US will be following suit, as we usually do.  The European and Japanese markets are always the first on the scene with awesome formulations, and skincare breakthroughs, and we in the US tend to follow their lead. And FYI, Cosmedix formulates following the European standard, so its good stuff!

Another thing to note: pigment is pigment. It can occur from too much sun, from pregnancy (pregnancy mask) or hormones (melasma) or acne, and it can and does live in all layers of your skin. That’s why its SO hard to treat! You could have pigment living in bottom layer of your skin, but you’re seeing it at the surface.  Now pigment that is on the surface is much easier to treat and peel away with a mid-level peel or daily product, but that’s not always the case. The lower level pigment is really hard to treat, and takes time to minimize its effects. So time is what you need to invest to see long-term results in your skin. Read this post for a little more info on that topic.  Lasers, in my opinion, do the same thing as hydroquinone. Maybe only one or two treatments will help with pigment and not cause a backlash, but doing it too often can have the same effect. Plus Docs usually want you on a hydroquinone before doing a laser treatment anyway, so hence the cycle beginning.

I hope this helps you all with the mysteries of this ingredient.  There’s lots info out there about it, and people are either really pro or really anti… It’s just that kind of ingredient.  But take it from an esthetician who sees skin everyday, I would never tell my clients to use this ingredient, it causes too many problems that can become too hard to fix.

I hope this helps! XO~ Jennifer

4 thoughts on “What’s the deal with hydroquinone?

  1. Enjoying your blog 🙂 Why would dermatologists not fill you in on this cycle? It seems like they would understand the long-term outcomes and recommend the suppressant instead?


    1. This is the age old question from all of us in the skincare community… because the FDA still hasn’t taken hydraquinone off their approved list Docs still use it. It does work and gives patients a quick fix, plus it allows for more follow up and more treatments later on because of the backlash… I hate to say it comes down to the mighty dollar and drug companies pushing it to Derms (hence why they still use the ancient Retin-A when there are SO many better formulations out there), but unfortunately it does 😦


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