Does Hydroquinone Cause Cancer?

Each time I do a post on  skin lightening and mention hydroquinone, I get a flurry of concerned emails warning  me against using it.  Often  they point  out that hydroquinone can cause cancer and was banned in Europe.  Yet  the usually  quick to pull the recall trigger FDA still permits hydroquinone to be sold here– both in over the counter  formulations and in prescription only preparations.    I was both confused and worried.  Digging into the literature and talking  to a few trusted experts, here is the current  take on hydroquinone.

Hydroquinone is considered the most effective skin lightenens currently available and is one of  the very few on that acts by preventing melanin formation. There are three problems associated with hydroquinone:

1)  Tthe British Cancer Journal published  a study that linked  very high doses of hydroquinine to cancers in mice.  A second similar study found similar results.  Subsequently, hydroquinone was banned in Europe ,Australia and parts of Asia and Africa.    In 2006, the FDA  issued a four month moratorium on hydroquinone to review the data, but then allowed it to be used for”severe melasma for a short period of time”.   Animal studies linking something to cancer is certainly a big, ugly, red flag, but to date there are no studies that  show  it affects people the same way.

There is also concern that hydroquinone is linked to increased risk of skin cancer, because it  makes the skin more vulnerable to UV rays.  For this reason its important to use an SPF50   when treating the skin with hydroquinone based products.

2) Hydroquinine is thought to cause a condition called  ochronosis  which provokes the appearance of dark blue/black pigment in the skin.  If you pick up almost any article on hydroquinone  you will read about this problem.  However current wisdom now believes that  this problem is actually due to  the illegal presence of mercury in hydroquinone preparations, a common practice overseas including products from  South Asia,  and Africa.  It was interesting that at a national dermatology meeting this summer, the speaker  pointed out that  most dermatologists  had never seen a case of  ochronosis from hydroquinone in this country.  She asked the audience of 500 dermatologists to raise their hand  if they had seen the problem in any patient.  Only 2 out of the 500  raised their hands and both  had seen these patients  outside of the US– one in Africa and the other in Jamacia.  Interesting.

3) Hydroquinone  has been known to cause irritation and redness  which in women of color can lead to increased  patches of irregular pigmentation.  I personally experienced  the mother of all  reactions when I did a patch test of popular skin lightening product when I was still in high school.  A small dab in the crook of my arm produced  a five inch patch of red, itchy skin.  However, I was able to use Triluma without any problems, and I wonder what else was in that  old time skin bleach.  Because of its itrritation potential, doctors  agree that  it should not  be used on skin that is already sunburned, dry, chapped or inflamed.

So to bottom line it, hydroquinone is strong stuff  and certainly has some baggage.  But its still the most effective skin lightening  we have in out tool kit.   It seems to work beautifully with other ingredients like vitamin C, retin A and alpha hydroxy acids.  You can use lower concertrations and get addtional benefits from complementary ingredients.  Always keep the concentration of hydroquinone as low as possible.  Over the counter preparations can have up to 2% while those available by prescriptions usually have around 4% hydroquinone.  And only  buy skin lightening products made in the US.  Mercury has been  banned  for decades  and this seems to be a  major source of problems in skin bleaching  preparations from other countries

19 thoughts on “Does Hydroquinone Cause Cancer?

  1. Palmers Skin Success Uneven Skintone Fade Cream. I actually bought a similar product for body yesterday, and am thinking twice about using it. Sounds good and scary at the same time. We sure need more official and scientific information on the link between hydroquinone and cancer to reassure us before trying it out.

    • In principal, Retin A and hydroquinone is safe to be used toget and they are in a product called Teiluma However, steroid re also added to reduce inflammation from two potentially irritating substances. If you want or need the action of both you can et aprescription for Triluma. Another aproach would be to use Retin A and the hydroquinone on alernate days. If you have sensitive skin or darker skin tones it would probably not be a good idea, since the increased activity may actually lead to more dark patches.

  2. pls so if i understood you well skin lotions produced in usa does not contain mercury and hence I do not need to worry about darkening of my skin later or when i stop? i have been using clear essence skin beautifying milk for ages.it contains hydroquinone bt i always purchase it from usa..im so scared wen i stop ill get very dark n people know me to be fair due to the use of d lotion bt m scared of skin cancer.pls advice me.thanks

    • Most doctors do not reccomend using hyrdoquinone longer than three months at a time. To keep your skin clear, you should use a 50SPF sunscreen everyday and apply other skin brighteners like licorice root, arbutin and Kojic acid.

        • All of the doctors I have interviewed recommend a three month time limit on hydroquinone. Then you need to take three months off before using it again for another three months. Products with kojic Acid, arbutin and licorice root use a more natural approach and can be used in every day products. Clear Essence is a really excellent line of products, but many do contain hydroquinone. Would it be helpful if I supplied a list of skin brightening products without hydroquinone?

          • yes please i will be greatful for those products if you have any.One that wont cause darkening of my face or body when i take a break.i have been using clear essence for the past 14years.my mother used clear essence n stoped, now her face has become darkblue.very terrible.please any suggestion willbe very much appreciated.Happy easter

  3. dear mam,
    i have been using hydroquinone for like 3-4 month but not continously and i finally quit it coz of it carcinogenic effect that i read on net.But now i m dark again and i am very tempted to use it. So can i use it again>? and is it safe?
    And also I am from india here i use the brands eukroma and skinlite.
    so are they safe ?

    • I would wait 3 months before using hydroquinone again. In the meantime I would get a few glycolic peels and wear a 50 sunscreen each and every day. I will try to research the products available in India.

  4. Hi I just came across this post and am interested. Can you please help by providing a list of safe lightening products with no hydroquinone.
    I have been using clear essence and want to stop by I’m scared that my skin will turn darker (face and body)
    Thanks

  5. Hi I just came across this post and am interested. Can you please help by providing a list of safe lightening products with no hydroquinone.
    I have been using clear essence and want to stop by I’m scared that my skin will turn darker (face and body)
    Thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

    • Hi Nicki,
      I am putting together a guide to skin lightening and brightening that will include a list of recommended products– including a few that you can make at home. Until then make sure you use a 50SPF sunscreen every day.

  6. I am wondering if Retin A contains mercury or lead. I have a high level in my system and cannot locate the cause.

    Thank you.

    • Where did you buy the Retin A? I have heard that Retin A made in the Far East and Mexico may contain mercury or lead. Both these ingredients are dangerous and illegal in the US but can lighten the skin. I never had much success buying good quality Retin A online and this may be the source of the problem.

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