Hydroquinone

What does it do?
Reduces pigment production in the skin

What’s it used for?
Hyperpigmentation, such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

How do I use it?
Apply at night, to affected areas only
Always wear sunscreen during the day
Use for a maximum of three to four months at a time

Potential drawbacks
Increased sun sensitivity
May be irritating

Evidence rating
Strong

Hyperpigmentation, or dark patches of skin, is an issue for many of us, and can be a real challenge to treat. A good place to start is with diligent sunscreen and gentle pigment fading ingredients such as Vitamin C, but if that isn’t working, you may look to hydroquinone – a superstar of the pigment lightening world. 

What does hydroquinone do?

Hydroquinone helps fade dark spots and hyperpigmentation, by reducing how much melanin (pigment) is made by the skin. It’s also an antioxidant

Why should I use it?

To lighten dark patches of skin, such as melasma and post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation

How should I use it?

Hydroquinone is best applied at night to the affected areas of skin only, followed by moisturiser if needed. Sunscreen should always be applied during the day. Hydroquinone shouldn’t be used long term – it should only be used for three to four months at a time. Sometimes a ‘rotational’ or ‘pulsed’ treatment regime is recommended. In these regimes, hydroquinone is used for several months, then stopped and replaced with other pigment correctors such as azelaic acid or kojic acid for a few months, then hydroquinone is recommenced if required. 

What do I need to be careful of when using hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone may cause increased sun sensitivity and skin irritation. A rare risk of using hydroquinone for too long or at too high concentrations is ochronosis, the development of blue-black skin pigmentation. Hydroquinone is not safe to use in pregnancy, and shouldn’t be used long-term.

What should I look for in a product, and where can I find it?

Hydroquinone is available over the counter in Australia in concentrations up to 2%, or via prescription in higher concentrations – usually 4% initially, but this can be increased to as high as 8%. Hydroquinone is often prescribed in combination with a topical retinoid and corticosteroid, to improve efficacy and reduce irritation, or with other ingredients such as kojic acid to improve efficacy. Hydroquinone can become unstable and ineffective if exposed to light (you’ll know if this happens as it turns yellow), so store it in the dark. 

How long will it take before I see a result?

It can take six to eight weeks to see any improvement, and twelve weeks to see the most results.

References

 

Bandyopadhyay D. Topical treatment of melasma. Indian J Dermatol. 2009;54(4):303-309. 

 

Nordlund JJ, Grimes PE, Ortonne JP. The safety of hydroquinone. J Eur Acad Dermatol Venereol. 2006 Aug;20(7):781-7.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr-Julia-Rhodes

Spotlight on Skin was created by award-winning Melbourne-based dermatologist, Dr Julia Rhodes.

Julia knows first-hand how overwhelming the skincare world can be, and that’s with over 10 years of experience practicing dermatology. Given that even she gets overwhelmed, she appreciates how hard it can be for those of you without a scientific background to make sense of all the information available, and choose products that are right for your skin…