What is Hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a phenol (a compound  produced by plants and microorganisms) that's frequently used for skin lightening and bleaching. Hydroquinone inhibits the formation of melanin in the skin, allowing the skin to gradually lighten. Contrary to popular belief, hydroquinone is not “skin bleach.” Hydroquinone works by slowing and/or inhibiting melanin production. Available in over-the-counter formulations containing up to 2 percent hydroquinone, and prescription formulas containing up to 4 percent hydroquinone, this aromatic organic compound has long remained a popular choice for people looking to lighten freckles, repair sun damage and  treat melasma. It's recommended, however, that a person use hydroquinone for no longer than six months. Extended use could increase certain risks associated with hydroquinone and prove to be counterproductive.

Multiple studies conducted in South Africa and reported by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that extended use of hydroquinone and/or use of hydroquinone in high concentrations can cause a disfiguring condition known as ochronosis. Ochronosis is a hyperpigmentation disorder resulting in blue or gray discoloration of the skin. Separate studies conducted in the United Kingdom, however, showed incidences of ochronosis in patients whose hydroquinone use was short-term and of relatively low concentration.

In 2006, the FDA proposed banning hydroquinone following repeated incidences of cancer in lab rats after ingesting and being injected with it. Although such results haven't been associated with topical use of hydroquinone in humans, the FDA cannot effectively rule out hydroquinone as a carcinogen – a substance capable of causing cancer. As a result of the FDA’s proposition, any new products containing hydroquinone must be approved by the agency before being made available to American consumers. The aforementioned studies led to the total banishment of hydroquinone in the European Union, Japan and Australia.

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