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Is Hydroquinone Safe And What Are Natural Alternatives?

We all covet flawless skin, but dark spots aren't an easy issue to treat. Caused by an array of reasons - from sun damage and stress to hormones and inflammation - hyperpigmentation is a common problem because it’s your body’s way of protecting itself against everyday environmental stressors. It’s no wonder that many turn to hydroquinone, a powerful skin care ingredient, to eliminate this frequent frustration. Before reaching for this product, however, you’ll want to find out what it is and whether hydroquinone is safe.

What Is Hydroquinone?

Basically, hydroquinone is a chemical compound used to target dark spots. Byrdie tell us that it was discovered in the early 1800s and was used for everything from “skin care to photo developing.” Nowadays, hydroquinone is used for skin conditions related to hyperpigmentation including acne scars, dark spots, melasma and post-inflammatory marks. Classified as a drug in the US, it is only available by prescription in four percent concentrations and over the counter in two percent doses.

Where Does Hyperpigmentation Come From?

When dark spots show up, your skin has gone into overdrive in producing melanin, a type of pigment created by cells called melanocytes. Triggered by stresses such as UV rays or hormonal imbalances, the skin reacts by creating a protective defense and producing additional melanin. Our Lead Skin Care Trainer, Natalie Pergar explains that an enzyme called tyrosinase sets off this process, “signaling the production of melanin in the skin’s melanocytes.” With more melanin being produced, the skin develops spots and uneven skin tone.

How Does Hydroquinone Work?

Hydroquinone works by inhibiting the function of tyrosinase and decreasing the number of melanocytes. By controlling these cells, it reduces the production of melanin and fades hyperpigmentation and other skin discoloration issues. Cosmetic and plastic surgeon Dr. David Shafer tells Byrdie that the effect is temporary and discontinued use and exposure to the sun can lead to "renewed production of pigment and the return of dark spots."  Infographic asking: Is hydroquinone safe?

Is Hydroquinone Safe?

Although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognized hydroquinone as safe and effective in 1982, it withdrew the ruling in 2006 because of concerns.

The FDA stated that “there is a potential for hydroquinone to be a carcinogen in humans.”

The FDA stated that “there is a potential for hydroquinone to be a carcinogen in humans.” Referring to studies from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Toxicology Program, the FDA found that there was some evidence of carcinogenic action in tested rats and mice, including the development of leukemia and liver lesions. However, there is no evidence that hydroquinone has caused cancer in any humans.

In addition to its potential carcinogenic properties, hydroquinone has been linked to contaminants such as mercury. The LA Times stated that early studies found high levels in mercury in women who used hydroquinone products. Because of these findings, hydroquinone is banned in Europe, Japan and Australia. The World Health Organization has also weighed in on the unsupervised use of hydroquinone, saying, “It is recommended that over-the-counter sales of creams containing hydroquinone be restricted.”

Even when used under supervision, hydroquinone can potentially cause minor side effects and skin irritation. Dermatologist Dr. Lily Talakoub lists the most common side effects as “redness, irritation and peeling, although allergic reactions can happen with any topical preparation.” People with dry or sensitive skin may also find that hydroquinone temporarily increases dryness or irritation. Along with increased sensitivity, hydroquinone can also cause the skin to be more sensitive to the sun. Sun protection is essential at all times, but especially necessary when using this drug.

Hydroquinone may not only cause minor skin irritations but also pigmentation issues, although these are usually rare. Since hydroquinone lightens dark spots, often the hydroquinone will lighten the areas around it as well, leaving what’s called a “halo spot.” Dr. Shafer describes this problem to Byrdie as a “light depigmented halo around the spot being treated.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the skin can react to hydroquinone by actually darkening in a condition called ochronisis. Dr. Talakoub describes this very rare reaction as one where “black deposits form in the deeper layers of the skin.” The skin can darken and thicken, causing dome-shaped yellowish bumps and grayish-brown spots.

Natural Hydroquinone Alternatives

Although an effective drug, hydroquinone is still surrounded by question marks on its safety and side effects. If you’re looking for safer solutions, you’ll want to explore Natural Hydroquinone Alternatives as options for targeting hyperpigmentation. These alternatives not only even out the look of your complexion in a natural way, they can also add antioxidant benefits for protection and prevention. Here are a few natural alternatives for your skin care routine:Closeup of bearberry

Bearberry Extract

This botanical ingredient contains a natural form of hydroquinone and arbutin as melanin inhibiting agents. Derived from the uva ursi plant, bearberry extract contains potent antioxidant properties which help with hyperpigmentation.

Licorice Extract

This extract contains liquiritin and glabridin which disrupt melanin creation in the skin and help with the look of uneven skin tone. Since inflammation is a factor in hyperpigmentation, the anti-inflammatory properties of licorice are also helpful.Closeup of tara tree

Tara Tree & African Potato

Like hydroquinone, these two ingredients work on the tyrosinase enzyme - reducing tyrosinase activity and hindering its development. These actions reduce the production of melanin and works against hyperpigmentation.

Swiss Alpine Plant Extracts 

This formulation is made up of seven organically grown Swiss alpine plants, including mallow flower, peppermint, lady’s mantle, eurasian primrose, speedwell, lemon balm and yarrow. These extracts inhibit tyrosinase, and blended all together, this formulation works powerfully on dark spots.

If you’re not sure about whether hydroquinone is safe, look into natural alternatives for tackling your dark spots. You can find out more about the Natural Hydroquinone Alternatives in the Eminence Organics Bright Skin line, including our Bright Skin Moisturizer SPF 40, Bright Skin MasqueBright Skin Licorice Root Booster-Serum and Bright Skin Targeted Treatment. Or, talk to your esthetician at your nearest Eminence Organics Spa Partner and find out whether a natural alternative is right for you. Given current events, we’d also like to recommend that you follow the latest guidance from local government health authorities before you plan a visit.

Product Picks

Bright Skin Targeted Treatment

Bright Skin Targeted Treatment 


Also consider these products: Bright Skin Moisturizer SPF 40Bright Skin Masque, and our Bright Skin Licorice Root Booster-Serum


Do you suffer from dark spots? Let us know how you target your issue in the comments below, or share with us on social media.

This article was originally written in February 2019.