Colin Solves Your Problems 24 – What Are The Risks of Hydroquinone

Should you risk hydroquinone on your freckles?

An interesting enquiry from Tracy, who uses hydroquinone and gets good results.

Hi Colin, I have had freckles ever since I was a child and have always detested them. I now use a Hydroquinone 4% cream which gives excellent results. The only trouble is, as soon as you stop using it, back come the freckles (and I am very careful with sunscreen). Is it very risky to use HQ off and on for long periods? The only side effect I have ever noticed is occasional dermatitis-type redness around my nose. Once I stop using the HQ for a while it goes away, and it doesn’t happen every time I use it by any means. Why is there such concern about this ingredient? Thanks!

Tracy doesn’t say where she is from, but you would have a hard job finding a 4% hydroquinone cream in Europe, so I am guessing either America or Asia.  It is generally frowned upon everywhere, but lots of people really like the results they get with it.  So how bad is it?

First of all, there is a possibility that it could cause cancer.  It has been shown to be carcinogenic in some animal testing.   This doesn’t necessarily mean it will do the same in humans, but it is something to bear in mind.  It is hard to be rational about this kind of risk and at the end of the day it comes down to your own attitude to risk.  But I think it is fair to say that if you are worried about cancer, far and away the two biggest risks are tobacco and diet.  If you are a bit overweight or a regular smoker, you have increased your chance of getting cancer quite a bit.  Using a hydroquinone cream is a tiny risk factor compared with those.

Hydroquinone works by interfering with the skins production of the melanin pigment.  There is a condition called ochronosis which is basically a disorder where piment production goes out of control.  The result is an uneven skin tone, and spots where melanin accumulates.  This condition is not life threatening but is hardly desirable.  In extreme cases it can also lead to discomfort on exposure to sunlight.  I have often wondered if Michael Jackson suffered from something similar.  He may well have been a heavy user of hydroquinone.  If so the face masks and wide brimmed hats he sometimes sported would make sense.  (Warning – that is pure speculation on my part.)

Ochronosis seems to affect black skinned people more, presumably because they have more melanin production to interfere with.  It also occurs on parts of the skin most exposed to the sun, suggesting that light plays a part in triggering it off, which sort of makes sense.

So hydroquinone is certainly a risky material to use.  But millions of people around the world do use it regularly with no ill effects.  My advice is to carry on using it, but be as sparing with it as you can.  Also use it in combination with a sunscreen.  I think most US 4% formulations already include a sunscreen.  If the one you like doesn’t then find a sunscreen to use with it with it.

You also might find a post I wrote about skin lightening products in general interesting.

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2 thoughts on “Colin Solves Your Problems 24 – What Are The Risks of Hydroquinone”

  1. Gibson Girl Beauty

    I think in the US only 2% is available over the counter, but higher is available by prescription. I’m a US user myself.

  2. The risk of cancer has not been proven yet but worries many people, it is hard to definitively say with these things. For context, exogenous ochronosis has been reported 22 times in the US and 750+ in South Africa according to Levitt (2007). The higher frequency in S. Africa is likely due to greater use of skin bleaching creams, additives, sunny climate and less sunscreen usage. I’ve summarized the medical data on hydroquinone safety, including the FDA’s main concerns, here:

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