Are Hydroquinone Creams Safe?

Hydroquinone is a skin lightening ingredient that has been making headlines recently, especially in the health and beauty industry. If you pay attention to industry news, chances are you’ve read a thing or two about it yourself.

For something that has been around, and in use, as long as Hydroquinone, there’s still quite a bit of controversy that surrounds it. Given that there seems to be two extreme points of view on the safety and risks of using Hydroquinone, it’s logical – and smart – to have questions and demand answers before trusting any product that contains it.

Here, we’ll try to answer the most common questions and address your biggest concerns about using Hydroquinone as a skin lightening agent.

Hydroquinone – Is It Safe?

Hydroquinone is an ingredient that’s been clinically proven to treat various types of hyperpigmentation and is considered safe to be used legally in the United States. Other countries, many in Europe, are more restricted in their use of the ingredient and have banned it from being sold over the counter. This naturally has raised some eyebrows over on this side of the ocean regarding Hydroquinone toxicity in skin care products.

Needless to say, these concerns have prompted some pretty significant research. Here’s a synopsis of what they’ve found.

Will Hydroquinone Cause Cancer?

Let’s start with what’s arguably the most significant concern regarding the skin lightening ingredient - the relationship between Hydroquinone risks and cancer.

According to the FDA, Hydroquinone was found to increase the incidence of neoplasm – the new or abnormal growth of tissue that’s characteristic of cancer – in rats. This is a significant finding, so why is it that Hydroquinone is still used so widely in treating conditions of hyperpigmentation?

The reason is that when properly formulated, Hydroquinone hasn’t been shown to produce such an increase of neoplasm in human subjects. We know that while rats are commonly used to determine the safety of chemicals and ingredients, that our physiology is quite different. Also, a key differentiating factor between what has been shown to happen in rats and humans is saturation.

A rat’s body is obviously smaller, and the amount of Hydroquinone used in the research far exceeds what any person would encounter during cosmetic use. In addition, we also look at the methodology of use. Hydroquinone works best when used cyclically, with a break of several weeks to a couple of months between treatment. When used properly, at the concentrations approved by the FDA, Hydroquinone has been shown to be safe and effective for the treatment of hyperpigmentation.

What About Hydroquinone and Skin Cancer?

Aside from the concern that Hydroquinone is generally carcinogenic, there’s also the concern that it may cause skin cancer. While Hydroquinone use itself does not increase your overall risk of skin cancer, certain behaviors while using Hydroquinone can.

Allow me to explain a little further.

Hydroquinone works on a cellular level by interrupting the life cycle of pigment cells in the skin called melanocytes. These cells contain melanin – a term you may be more familiar with. Hydroquinone basically kills melanocytes and prevents regeneration, reducing the amount of melanin in the affected area of your skin.

The less melanin you have in your skin, the more vulnerable you are to damage from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. This is why fair skinned people burn more easily and have a higher overall risk of developing skin cancer if they aren’t proactive about protecting themselves.

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The same applies to skin that’s been treated with Hydroquinone. Treatment induces increased photosensitivity, which means that it’s also more vulnerable to oxidative stress and eventually abnormal cell growth with excessive, unprotected exposure to the sun.

There is a simple solution to protecting your skin when using Hydroquinone, and that’s to avoid direct sunlight and become extra diligent about applying sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 before periods of sun exposure.

Hydroquinone Side Effects – What You Need to Know

Hydroquinone has been shown to be safe in both over the counter strength preparations and the slightly higher concentration allowed in prescription strength products. Still, as with anything that you apply to your skin, there are potential side effects to be aware of.

With Hydroquinone, most of the side effects are a very mild and not present in each person who uses it. Hydroquinone side effects include possible irritation, redness and flakiness, all of which are generally mild and short lasting.

Hydroquinone has also been connected to a condition called Ochronosis. Ochronosis is a skin conditioned characterized by brown or bluish black discoloration. There is a concern that overuse of Hydroquinone can contribute to this condition.

Ochronosis generally occurs only in darker complexions where skin cells contain more melanin. It is possible that if someone with darker skin is using Hydroquinone to lighten their skin for long periods of time, that Ochronosis may occur, although at this time it’s difficult to find any scientific evidence to support the validity of this concern.

Hydroquinone – A Safe Option for Treating Hyperpigmentation

Hydroquinone has been proven to be safe and effective in treating multiple types of hyperpigmentation conditions when used as directed. As always if you have questions or concerns about Hydroquinone safety, it’s best to speak with a dermatologist who can answer your questions and put to rest your worries about one of the most respected treatments for hyperpigmentation.

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