Hydroquinone is a chemical that a person can use to lighten their skin tone. It is available as a cream, gel, lotion, or emulsion. Hydroquinone is generally safe to use, but some people may experience side effects, such as dry skin.

This article examines the various uses of hydroquinone, its safety, and whether or not there is any risk to using it.

It also looks at alternatives and tips for protecting the skin from damage.

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Dry skin is a possible side effect of using hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone is a chemical that bleaches the skin. It can come as a cream, emulsion, gel, or lotion. A person can apply these products directly to the skin.

Creams that contain 2% hydroquinone are available to buy over the counter in most drugstores. Stronger creams are available with a prescription from a doctor.

People may use hydroquinone as a form of treatment for hyperpigmentation skin conditions, wherein some areas of skin grow darker than surrounding areas.

Some conditions that people may use hydroquinone for include:

Melasma

People with melasma have brown or gray-brown patches on their skin. These patches tend to develop on the face, such as the cheeks or nose. They can also appear on areas of skin with high sun exposure, such as the forearms and neck.

Freckles

Freckles are darker spots or patches that usually occur in fair skin. They can become more noticeable with exposure to sunlight.

Lentigines

Lentigines, or age spots, develop on areas of skin with the highest sun exposure. For example, they can appear on the face or the backs of the hands.

They tend to be flat, dark, and between 0.2 centimeters (cm) and 2 cm in width.

Acne scars

Excess oil, dead skin cells, and bacteria can build up in skin pores and cause acne. The body tries to repair the damage, but sometimes, it leaves scars.

Other uses

Some people may want to lighten their skin for cosmetic reasons. This can have benefits for confidence and self-esteem.

However, it is important to note that the above conditions are all harmless.

Melanin is a pigment that gives the skin and hair their color. It is responsible for freckles and other dark patches on the skin. Melanin is made by melanocytes, which are cells present in the skin and other parts of the body.

When a person applies hydroquinone to the skin, it reduces the number of melanocytes. Fewer melanocytes means that the body produces less melanin in the treated area. The skin usually appears lighter within about 4 weeks.

Exposure to sunlight reverses the effects of hydroquinone. Doctors recommend that people who use this product also use a strong sunscreen.

Hydroquinone is generally safe. As with all medications, however, some people may experience side effects.

Some possible side effects include:

  • skin dryness
  • irritation
  • itching
  • redness
  • mild contact dermatitis or allergic reactions

The American Osteopathic College of Dermatology (AOCD) suggest that people avoid getting the product in their eyes and only use small amounts on the face.

Long-term use of hydroquinone could give rise to ochronosis. Ochronosis causes a blue-black pigmentation and caviar-like spots to develop on the skin.

A person should check to see if they are at risk of side effects before they start to use a hydroquinone cream, gel, or lotion regularly. They can do this by applying a small amount of the product to the affected area of skin.

Check for signs of irritation, such as itching or redness. If there is no reaction, it is usually safe to start treatment.

First, make sure that the area is clean and dry. Apply a thin layer of product to the affected skin and rub it in well. Lastly, wash the hands thoroughly. This will stop the hydroquinone from lightening the skin on the fingers.

Repeat this process as often as the product label advises. It is important to protect the affected areas of skin from sunlight. This will stop the sun from reversing the effects of the cream.

According to the AOCD, people should start to notice that they have lighter skin within about 4 weeks of using the product. If there are no changes after 3 months, a person can speak to a doctor or skin specialist.

Hydroquinone is not the only skin-lightening product available over the counter.

The American Academy of Dermatology urge people to choose skin-lightening products carefully. For example, some contain steroids that can cause pimples and rashes. Long-term use can even make the skin thin and fragile.

They recommended that people look for a product containing one of the following ingredients:

  • azelaic acid
  • glycolic acid
  • kojic acid
  • retinoid, which includes retinol, tretinoin, adapalene gel, and tazarotene
  • vitamin C

There are several things a person can do to look after their skin. These include:

  • Using sunscreen daily: This can help prevent skin cancer, slow down skin aging, and help prevent age spots. Experts recommend using a product that is water resistant, offers broad-spectrum protection, and has a sun protection factor of 30 or higher.
  • Avoiding smoking: Smoking speeds up skin aging and slows down the body’s healing process.
  • Washing gently: People should wash their skin gently. Scrubbing can irritate skin conditions such as acne and make scarring more likely.
  • Avoiding stress: Stress can lead to flare-ups of skin conditions such as acne.

Hydroquinone is a chemical that bleaches the skin. People may use it if they have a hyperpigmentation skin condition, such as melasma, freckles, or lentigines. Those with acne scars may also use hydroquinone-based skin-lightening creams.

Products containing 2% hydroquinone are available over the counter at most drugstores. Stronger concentrations are available with a prescription.

These products are generally safe, but long-term use can cause issues, such as ochronosis.