8 Hydroquinone Alternatives for Skin Brightening

They say “pain is beauty,” but beauty should never = unsafe!
BY Sarah Lim
| September, 2021
Hydroquinone Alternatives

If you’re feeling like all the poolside piña coladas and subsequent vacation tan came with the unwanted side effect of dark spots, you’ve probably already consulted Dr. Google—then discovered hydroquinone, a controversial skincare ingredient that’s banned in the European Union and is regulated in other countries due to potentially toxic side effects. And so, you need to look out for some hydroquinone alternatives.

Although hydroquinone helps reduce the appearance of dark spots on the skin, it’s good news that there are several alternatives to hydroquinone for you to consider. So, you’ll be able to even out your skin tone while playing it safe.

Here, we look at eight different hydroquinone alternatives, many of them are natural and plant-based, that you can check out for skin brightening!

Why Skin Brightening?

Why Skin Brightening

People generally want to lighten their skin due to different forms of hyperpigmentation. Hyperpigmentation can cause dark areas, or patches, on the skin. It can happen for many reasons, including hormonal changes in the body, sun exposure, scarring and skin inflammation.

Typically, hyperpigmentation can include melasma as well as age spots and sunspots. It can range from being mild in appearance to more severe, and it can absolutely affect your confidence in your skin. If you have any type of hyperpigmentation, it’s always worth getting it checked out by a dermatologist to screen for skin cancer before attempting to use brightening agents.

Fortunately, whether you’re considering a prescription hydroquinone cream or a hydroquinone alternative, you have options when it comes to brightening discolored areas on your skin!

The Most Popular Hydroquinone Alternatives

Looking for a hydroquinone alternative? The following eight skincare ingredients are some of the most popular alternatives to hydroquinone in skincare products, from masks to serums to spot treatments and even sunscreen.

1. Arbutin

When it comes to arbutin vs. hydroquinone, it’s essential to know that arbutin is actually a derivative of hydroquinone. However, it doesn’t come with the risks that hydroquinone does and has been shown to be less toxic. People also consider arbutin as safe for all skin types, giving it an added bonus as a hydroquinone alternative.

Arbutin is naturally occurring and plant-derived. Like many hydroquinone alternatives, it works by inhibiting an enzyme called tyrosinase. This enzyme plays a vital role in melanin production in the skin. The best version of arbutin to look for on a skincare label is alpha-arbutin.

2. Azelaic Acid

Another natural alternative to hydroquinone is azelaic acid, which you can find in wheat, barley and rye. Since all these grains contain gluten, be sure to check with your product’s manufacturer before using if you’re allergic to gluten.

Azelaic acid helps treat hyperpigmentation successfully. It isn’t just beneficial for hyperpigmentation but may also help to scar and is actually a natural exfoliator.

Like many hydroquinone alternatives, you shouldn’t use azelaic acid on broken skin or active inflammation, and people with sensitive skin may be more reactive to it. However, azelaic acid may also be beneficial for acne and rosacea in some individuals, making it a versatile skincare ingredient.

3. Glycolic Acid

Glycolic is a type of alpha hydroxy acid (AHA) and you can use it for hyperpigmentation, especially hyperpigmentation that occurs after a skin injury or inflammation. It’s usually plant-derived from sugarcane or even beets.

Dermatologists can use glycolic acid in a product or on its own as a chemical peel, although people who have sensitive skin may not tolerate glycolic peels. Always know your skin type before introducing a new ingredient or product into your routine to be safe!

4. Kojic Acid

Kojic acid is actually a type of fungus that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and inhibits tyrosinase, the enzyme involved in the production of melanin. You can use kojic acid on its own or in combination with other ingredients to help improve hyperpigmentation.

Not only you can use it with niacinamide and vitamin C, but also with hydroquinone. People with sensitive skin may react to stronger concentrations of kojic acid, but generally, people consider this ingredient to be safe for most skin types.

5. Licorice Extract

Surprisingly enough, licorice extract is effective against hyperpigmentation. And no, we’re not talking about licorice candy!

Glabridin, the main component in licorice extract—is actually a flavonoid with anti-inflammatory effects. It helps inhibit melanin production, which can prevent hyperpigmentation and prevent existing discolored areas on the skin from getting worse.

6. Mequinol

Mequinol is another alternative to hydroquinone. Yet, mequinol is considered to be less irritating than hydroquinone. You can use this compound with retinol to help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

While it may reduce tyrosinase to inhibit the production of melanin, people don’t precisely know how this compound works to improve discolored areas on the skin. Generally, you’ll find mequinol in skin creams as a skin brightening agent.

7. Retinoids

Retinol increases cellular turnover and may help lighten existing areas of hyperpigmentation. Tretinoin, the most potent form of retinol that’s only available as a prescription, “significantly” lightens hyperpigmentation.

However, as an extra bonus, bakuchiol, a plant-based alternative to retinol, is just as effective as retinol at decreasing hyperpigmentation. So if you’re looking for a retinol alternative for hyperpigmentation, you’re in luck!

8. Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an effective hydroquinone alternative that has a twofold effect on hyperpigmentation. Not only does it help prevent hyperpigmentation from forming in the first place, thanks to its photoprotective properties, but it also helps lighten existing dark areas.

Although ascorbic acid has been considered the most effective, biologically active and well-studied, there are many different forms of vitamin C. However, ascorbic acid is also the harshest form of vitamin C. So, if you have sensitive skin, you may need to consider a different form, such as magnesium ascorbyl phosphate.

You can typically find vitamin C in serum. But you can also find it in other skincare products such as masks and creams.

Have You Tried Any Alternatives To Hydroquinone?

Have you tried any of these hydroquinone alternatives, or are there some that you haven’t heard of before? Which is your fave? Which ones do you want to try? Let us know in the comments below!

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