Hydroquinone: Is It Your Skin Lightening Friend or Foe?

There are many skin products which contain a number of different ingredients that help improve skin health and heal any blemishes or deformities. Hydroquinone is a component of some of these skin creams, and is believed to help lighten darkened areas of skin, promoting a ‘fairer’ appearance. In other words, it forms part of skin bleach products.

From a chemical point of view, hydroquinone is a form of phenol. Its chemical uses are many, but a discussion on this is out of the scope of this article. Instead, we shall discuss the health aspects of hydroquinone, and the controversies that surround it.

Uses of Hydroquinone

The skin can be affected by a variety of different conditions that change its color. Darkening of the skin is called hyperpigmentation, and can be seen in a number of different clinical conditions.

Other types of skin conditions that can change the pigmentation of the skin include ‘liver spots’ and freckles. Women tend to notice skin hyperpigmentation due to pregnancy and the use of oral contraceptive pills.

Hydroquinone helps reduce skin pigmentation and promotes the development of lighter skin. It needs to be used as prescribed, as excessive use can result in excessive lightening of skin.

This can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, and individuals who use this product need to be careful when they venture out in the sunlight. Wearing skin protection such as sunblock is important to protect the skin from sunlight induced damage.

Side Effects

While not too common, side effects from hydroquinone still occur. Common side effects include burning sensation of the skin along with mild redness and drying of the skin. Always seek medical advice before applying this to the skin, making sure that you only use what is recommended or prescribed.

In the event of development of side effects, discontinue the treatment and see a doctor immediately. If allergic reactions occur, then patients may need to be hospitalized for emergency treatment.


FDAThe use of hydroquinone in over the counter preparations has been controversial. Recently, the FDA withdrew its approval of hydroquinone in these creams as it is believed to encourage the development of skin cancer.

While this evidence has not been seen in humans, the findings have emerged from studies in rats. However, it appears that in a controlled amount, hydroquinone can have beneficial effects on the skin.

Skin cream preparations with 2-4% hydroquinone are available, and are safe to use as long as it is within the recommended dosage.

In addition to this rather worrying side effect, hydroquinone can also result in a condition characterised by thickening and darkening of the skin. This is called ochronosis. This effect is seen with oral hydroquinone rather than with topical preparations.


Hydroquinone is a useful skin lightening product that is present in a number of skin creams. While riddled with controversy and a ban on certain applications, it is still actively used as a skin lightening agent in creams that must be used in recommended doses.