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What is Hydroquinone?

By A. Gabrenas
Updated May 21, 2024
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Hydroquinone is a medication that is generally applied to the skin to help bleach areas of brown discoloration. Depending on the country a person lives in, he or she may have access to both prescription and non-prescription versions. No matter what the prescription status, however, hydroquinone can have some side effects and health-care providers typically recommend against its use in certain people.

Melanin is the brown pigment found in skin. Certain things, such as pregnancy and sun exposure, can cause melanin to be overproduced, leading to freckles, sun spots or large areas of discoloration. While not harmful to a person’s health, some people may find this skin darkening to be cosmetically unappealing and seek medical help. Hydroquinone is one of the medications health-care providers may prescribe for overpigmentation because it typically reduces the amount of melanin in the skin, helping bleach out dark spots that may have formed.

In the U.S., hydroquinone is typically available as both a prescription and non-prescription topical medication. The prescription versions contain higher amounts of the active ingredient, often up to 4 percent hydroquinone. Dermatologists and other skin care experts generally agree these stronger prescription versions help bleach skin more quickly. Over-the-counter versions are required by law to contain 2 percent or less of the active ingredient, and therefore often take longer to work. In some other areas, such as countries in the European union, all strengths of the medication require a prescription.

Regardless of the strength, hydroquinone can have some side effects. Common side effects that are generally considered mild may include temporary redness, itching or burning of the skin where the medication is applied. In rare cases, hydroquinone may actually cause further darkening of the skin where it is applied. This may be more likely to happen in people with naturally darker skin tones and those who don’t use sunscreen properly on the treatment areas. An allergic reaction, such as hives, swelling and trouble breathing, may also result in some cases.

Health-care providers generally warn against the use of hydroquinone in certain people. These typically include people with liver or kidney disease and women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant. For people with liver and kidney disease, some studies have shown that hydroquinone may cause a worsening of the underlying condition. Other studies have shown that the medication may cause birth defects in developing animal fetuses, which is why it is generally contraindicated during pregnancy.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon318058 — On Feb 05, 2013

Hydroquinone is safe and effective if used properly and under a Dermatologists supervision. I had hyperpigmentation on my forehead, cheeks and a wee bit on the chin. I am on my sixth month of a 9mth course (cocktail of 4 percent along with Kojic Acid as per my dermatologist). The results were great! I use my sunscreen religiously every day and keep my skin clean and hydrated.

This will be my final three months of treatment and I will only go back for a checkup come summer. Anything abused can have bad side effects. You just have to be responsible about what you do and do your homework. From here on in for me, I'm quite happy with the results and will continue to take care of my skin as it looks great now!

By Perdido — On Aug 19, 2011

I generally don’t read precautions and side effects on labels too closely, because I have never had adverse effects from taking any medication. Since I don’t take any drugs on a regular basis, I don’t have to worry about drug interactions.

So, I did not know that I should not use hydroquinone and hydrogen peroxide together on the same area. I had been applying the cream to a patch of freckles on my face. I ran into the sharp corner of an open cabinet door and cut the area I had been bleaching.

I always put hydrogen peroxide on my wounds to bubble out germs. I applied it to my wounded freckles, and the skin suddenly turned dark. I thought I was having some sort of horrible reaction and my skin was dying!

I grabbed the cream and read the label. It said not to use it with peroxide products because doing so could cause a dark stain to develop. It also said that all I had to do to remove the stain was wash it with soap and rinse it with water. I was so glad it was nothing serious!

By OeKc05 — On Aug 18, 2011

I was so happy when I first learned of the existence of hydroquinone products. I had a brown oval birthmark on my face that had caused me much grief while growing up, and I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to remove it without surgery.

To avoid the cost of seeing a dermatologist, I got a cream from my local pharmacy and rubbed it on the area. Within a few minutes, it started burning and itching. I thought that meant it was working.

The next day, the spot had crusted over. I assumed that it was about to peel off, so I waited patiently. By that night, it had swollen, and it itched more than ever. I had experienced an allergic reaction, and I had to see a dermatologist after all.

By lighth0se33 — On Aug 17, 2011

I used to use hydroquinone cream on my large age spots, but I stopped back in 2001. That was when researchers banned its use in cosmetics because they found that it caused leukemia in animals.

They never found evidence of it causing human cancer, but even the chance of that is enough to make me avoid it. Having age spots that show how old I am sure beats not making it to old age!

I know that people say I shouldn’t worry because it hasn’t been proven to affect people. To them, my reply is that the whole reason for testing products on animals in the first place is to get an idea of how they will affect humans!

By shell4life — On Aug 17, 2011

Two years after I got a swimming pool in my backyard, I started noticing brown spots on the highest part of both of my cheeks. They look just like age spots that older people get.

I was out in the sun, lying on a float for hours. I wore sunscreen, but I exposed myself to a lot more UV rays than I had previously absorbed.

I wanted to get rid of these unsightly spots, so I tried over the counter hydroquinone. It took about a month of daily application, but they started to fade noticeably. I will probably have to use it every year, because I don’t intend to stay out of the pool.

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