A program of Breast Cancer Prevention Partners

Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone

Hydroquinone is most commonly used in skin lighteners, products heavily marketed towards women of color. It is linked to cancer and organ-system toxicity.

WHAT IS HYDROQUINONE?

Hydroquinone is marketed most aggressively to women of color for its whitening ability in skin creams. The chemical is allowed in personal care products in the United States in concentrations up to two percent. Although banned in the European Union, a UK news report found that products containing hydroquinone were relatively easy to procure.[1]

In addition to its use in skin lighteners, hydroquinone is a possible impurity of tocopheryl acetate[2] (synthetic Vitamin E) which is very common in facial and skin cleansers, facial moisturizers and hair conditioners.

Found In

  • Skin lighteners
  • Facial and skin cleansers
  • Facial moisturizers
  • Hair conditioners
  • Finger nail coating products.

What to look for on the label

  • Hydroquinone
  • Tocopheryl acetate

Health Concerns

Cancer: Hydroquinone works by decreasing the production and increasing the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This increases the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays, increasing the risk of skin cancer.[3]

Organ-system toxicity: Hydroquinone is linked to a skin condition called ochronosis in which the skin (our largest organ) thickens and turns bluish-grey.[4] Exposure of the eye can cause pigmentation and permanent corneal damage.[5]

Respiratory Tract Irritation: Hydroquinone may be harmful if inhaled, causing irritation of the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract. A study on occupational exposure of hydroquinone showed that subjects exposed to hydroquinone had a higher prevalence of a cough and decreased lung capacity compared to their unexposed counterparts.[6]

Vulnerable Populations

Regulations

Banned from cosmetics in the European Union; restricted use in Canadian cosmetics. The U.S. Cosmetics Ingredients Review Panel indicates that hydroquinone is unsafe for use in products that are left on the skin, but because of lax enforcement, directions for skin-lightening products containing hydroquinone encourage frequent and consistent use on the skin.[7][8][9] It has been recommended to the National Toxicology Program (NTP) for further studies. The FDA continues to allow the availability of products containing hydroquinone in OTC drugs.

How to Avoid?

Consumers should avoid products that list hydroquinone. Consumers should check with companies to confirm the purity of tocopheryl acetate, due to concerns about hydroquinone contamination.

FAQs

Hydroquinone is a topical medication used to treat certain skin conditions that involve local hyperpigmentation of the skin, such as melasma, lentigines, age spots and even acne scars (deposition of fibrous tissue leads to a poor melanin production in the area).

Skin pigmentation is caused by melanin deposition in the skin, produced by specialized cells known as melanocytes, located in the stratum basale, the deepest layer of the epidermis (the outermost part of the skin).

Melanocytes synthesize melanin from an important amino acid, tyrosine. The conversion of tyrosine to skin pigmentation requires several enzymatic steps; hydroquinone targets tyrosine hydroxilase, which converts tyrosine to dihydroxyphenylalanine, the most immediate melanin precursor.[10][11]

No. Steroids are anti-inflammatory that act on a genetic level, inhibiting the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, leukocytes, neutrophils, etc. Hydroquinone, on the other hand, is a tyrosine hydroxylase blocker, leading to lower melanin synthesis.

Yes. Due to rising concerns among the medical community and the publication of research that linked hydroquinone to higher cancer risks in animals, the FDA banned the product for over-the-counter sale in 2020.[12]

Medical concern about the potential short- and long-term consequences of prolonged skin contact with these cosmetic agents prompted a series of investigations. Research has shown that, hydroquinone has many serious side effects. Hydroquinone works by decreasing the production and increasing the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This increases the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays, increasing the risk of skin cancer.[13]

In terms of short-term effects, hydroquinone may cause a series of irritative and allergic reactions, such as dermatitis. This inflammation may lead to an altered balance of melanin deposition in the skin, causing hypo- or hyperpigmented areas in the skin (in other words, a post inflammatory hyperpigmentation).[14]

Hydroquinone works by decreasing the production and increasing the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This increases the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays, increasing the risk of skin cancer.[15] Regulatory agencies in the U.S., Europe, Japan and other countries restrict the product use.

Hydroquinone works by decreasing the production and increasing the degradation of melanin pigments in the skin. This increases the skin’s exposure to UVA and UVB rays, increasing the risk of skin cancer.

Hydroquinone has been found to cause organ-system toxicity and respiratory tract irritation.

Organ-system toxicity: Hydroquinone is linked to a skin condition called ochronosis in which the skin (our largest organ) thickens and turns bluish-grey.[16] Exposure of the eye can cause pigmentation and permanent corneal damage.[17]

Respiratory Tract Irritation: Hydroquinone may be harmful if inhaled, causing irritation of the nose, throat and upper respiratory tract. A study on occupational exposure of hydroquinone showed that subjects exposed to hydroquinone had a higher prevalence of a cough and decreased lung capacity compared to their unexposed counterparts.[18]

Not necessarily. You can easily protect your skin through preventive skin protection measures:

  • Avoid prolonged sun exposure, particularly during the afternoon.
  • Adequate use of mineral sunscreen lotions if needed.
  • Avoid utilizing cosmetic products whose components you aren’t familiar with, as they may induce mild to severe irritative and allergic contact dermatitis symptoms.

Explore other Chemicals

Looking for a Safer Alternative?​

Use Clearya’s app to find non-toxic products! Clearya alerts you to toxics and helps you find safe products.

clearya

Visit Clearya >

FILTER BY:

References

[1] Bracchi, P. (2007, January 12). Dying to be whiter: The black women who risk their lives for lighter skin. Retrieved July 23, 2008. Available online: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-428541/Dying-whiter-The-black-women-risk-lives-lighter-skin.html. Accessed April 26, 2022.

[2] Zondlo, F. M. (2002). Final report on the safety assessment of Tocopherol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Tocopheryl Linoleate, Tocopheryl Linoleate/Oleate, Tocopheryl Nicotinate, Tocopheryl Succinate, Dioleyl Tocopheryl Methylsilanol, Potassium Ascorbyl Tocopheryl Phosphate, and Tocophersolan. International journal of toxicology, 21, 51.

[3] Jimbow, K., Obata, H., Pathak, M. A. and Fitzpatrick, T. B., 1974. Mechanisms of depigmentation by hydroquinone. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 62, pp. 436–449.

[4] Findlay, G. H., Morrison, J. G. L., & Simson, I. W. (1975). Exogenous ochronosis and pigmented colloid milium from hydroquinone bleaching creams.British Journal of Dermatology, 93(6), 613-622.

[5] NAUMANN, G. (1966). Corneal damage in hydroquinone workers: a clinicopathologic study. Archives of ophthalmology, 76(2), 189-194.

[6] Choudat, D., Neukirch, F., Brochard, P., Barrat, G., Marsac, J., Conso, F., & Philbert, M. (1988). Allergy and occupational exposure to hydroquinone and to methionine. British journal of industrial medicine, 45(6), 376-380.

[7] CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel) Final report on the safety assessment of t-butyl hydroquinone. 1986.Journal of the American College of Toxicology 5, pp. 329–351.

[8] CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel) Final report on the safety assessment of t-butyl hydroquinone, 1991. Journal of the American College of Toxicology 10, pp. 1–7.

[9] Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep. Product search for Physicians Complex 6% Skin Bleaching Cream owned by CosMed. Online at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. Accessed July 23, 2008.

[10] National Center for Biotechnology Information (2022). PubChem Pathway Summary for Pathway SMP0000006, Tyrosine Metabolism, Source: PathBank. Retrieved February 11, 2022 from https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pathway/PathBank:SMP0000006. Accessed April 26, 2022.

[11] Congress Enacts OTC Monograph Reform. https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/congress-enacts-otc-monograph-reform-96907/. Accessed April 26, 2022.

[12] Douglas McGregor (2007) Hydroquinone: An Evaluation of the Human Risks from its Carcinogenic and Mutagenic Properties, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 37:10, 887-914, DOI: 10.1080/10408440701638970.

[13] Anthony P. DeCaprio (1999) The Toxicology of Hydroquinone — Relevance to Occupational and Environmental Exposure, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 29:3, 283-330, DOI: 10.1080/10408449991349221.

[14] Nordlund, J., Grimes, P. and Ortonne, J. (2006), The safety of hydroquinone. Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, 20: 781-787. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-3083.2006.01670.x 6. Accessed April 26, 2022.

[15] Jimbow, K., Obata, H., Pathak, M. A. and Fitzpatrick, T. B., 1974. Mechanisms of depigmentation by hydroquinone. Journal of Investigative Dermatology 62, pp. 436–449.

[16] Findlay, G. H., Morrison, J. G. L., & Simson, I. W. (1975). Exogenous ochronosis and pigmented colloid milium from hydroquinone bleaching creams.British Journal of Dermatology, 93(6), 613-622.

[17] NAUMANN, G. (1966). Corneal damage in hydroquinone workers: a clinicopathologic study. Archives of ophthalmology, 76(2), 189-194.

[18] Choudat, D., Neukirch, F., Brochard, P., Barrat, G., Marsac, J., Conso, F., & Philbert, M. (1988). Allergy and occupational exposure to hydroquinone and to methionine. British journal of industrial medicine, 45(6), 376-380.

Get the Top 20 Toxic Ingredients to Avoid PDF FREE!

Get the Top Toxic Chemicals Found in Black Beauty Products PDF!

Get the Top Toxic Chemicals by Black Beauty Product Category PDF!

spreadsheet icon

Get the Full Red List Spreadsheet!

PDF document icon

Get the Full Red List PDF!

Get the Asthmagens, Allergens, & Irritants PDF!

Get the Emerging & Harmful to the Environment PDF!

Get the Ortho-Phthalates PDF!

Get the Formaldehyde Releaseing Preservative PDF!

Get the PFAS PDF!

Get the Do Not Use Chemicals Linked to Health Outcomes of Greater Concern to Black Women PDF!

Get the Do Not Use Chemicals of Concern for Everone PDF!

user guide icon

Get the User Guide PDF!