Hydroquinone is the one of the world’s most famous whitening agents. It is a hydroxy-phenolic compound that has been widely used for skin lightening for 50 years. It is the only FDA-approved product for skin bleaching on the market. It is the most studied and found to be very effective whitening agent, but it can also cause serious side effects when overused, that is why it is heavily restricted for distribution and use in some countries.
Long term use of hydroquinone, especially with concentrations higher than 4%, can lead to the development of a permanent condition known as exogenous ochronosis. The agent is very difficult to stabilize and will oxidize quickly if exposed to light and air. If a product containing it has darkened from an off-white or a creamy, pale yellow to a gold or brown color, it is no longer effective and should be discarded.
What’s the use of Hydroquinone?
The most common use for the hydroquinone is as a topical treatment for treating hyperpigmentation.However, it is quite irritating to the skin. Therefore a lot of people turn to alternative whitening agents. Although many of these haven’t been studied extensively, they appear in many products and appear to be quite safe. Clinical studies for this type of products are usually done on patients who have severe hyperpigmentation, such as melasmas and dyschromias.
Hydroquinone, like any other whitening agents, works in a number of different ways, and some work in more than one way. Lightening products generally slow down melanin production.
Some other ways the in product reverse or slow down hyperpigmentation are:
- slowing down the production of tyrosinase enzyme
- undoing the reaction that ascorbic acid
- slowing down maturation of melanosomes, the pigment producing organelles
- preventing melanin pigment from traveling from the melanocytes where it’s made, to the keratinocyte skin cells
- dispersing pigment
- increasing skin turnover, meaning there are more skin cells being produced, and less pigment to go around
Note that the more effective the product is, the higher the risk of side effects.
WHAT CAN BE USED AS A SUBSTITUTE?
Chemical brightening agents like hydroquinone work by blocking key enzymes along the pigment producing pathway in the body. But researchers have begun questioning the safety of hydroquinone because users were at risk for developing illness like ochronosis, which ironically darkens the skin. Because of this, medical experts recommend the use of a natural approach to skin lightening. Here are some natural agents used as an alternative for the hydroquinone (Note: Natural does not always equate safety, precaution is advised, check out our natural products at the bottom of this page):
1. Kojic Acid
Kojic acid is an agent derived from mushroom-like fungi during fermentation, and the second most common natural lightening agent. It prohibits the production of melanin and penetrates the upper layers of the skin causing a lightening effect.
Licorice root contains two ingredients that help with pigmentation: glabridin and liquiritin. Glabridin helps to retrain the enzyme that produces melanin which leads to pigmentation and Liquiritin helps to break up and remove melanin and pigmentation in the skin.
Aside from helping with dark spots, licorice can be soothing and help even out your skin tone.
3. Vitamin C
Vitamin C is another popular brightening alternative found in many brightening serums because of its amazing antioxidant that is beneficial for hyperpigmentation. It works by brightening hyperpigmented spots on the skin, but not lightening normal skin.
Arbutin is a natural form of hydroquinone derived from the bearberry plant. It is a safer and effective alternative to hydroquinone and is less cytotoxic to the melanocytes.
And even though it’s considered natural, arbutin must be avoided if you are pregnant because it is a derivative of hydroquinone.