What Is Hydroquinone? Is Hydroquinone Safe?

With more research comes more wisdom (and gentler skin practices).
BY Sarah Lim
| Last updated Apr, 2023
What is Hydroquinone

Low-rider jeans that sit right above your butt crack might no longer be in fashion, but hydroquinone, another early-00s trend, has managed to stick around. You may have seen it listed on the label of one of your skincare products, but what is hydroquinone, exactly? People have been using this compound to help lighten skin for decades.

It’s been ruled safe by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite the fact that the FDA proposed not to ban hydroquinone in 2006, other countries and agencies say this cosmetics ingredient isn’t safe.

In the United States, hydroquinone is available for purchase over-the-counter (OTC) in concentrations of up to two percent. Some experts say it’s safer in lower concentrations, such as below one percent. But others call for the ingredient to be banned outright.

So is hydroquinone safe? Let’s have a closer look at this ingredient, its alternatives and how to know if it’s safe to use on your skin.

What Is Hydroquinone Used for?


People use hydroquinone explicitly for brightening the skin. Generally, people use it to treat hyperpigmentation such as melasma and liver spots. But you can also use it to help improve the appearance of scars.

This ingredient works by inhibiting enzymes necessary in the skin to make melanin, the component that influences the pigment of your skin. As a result of this process, hydroquinone can take a few weeks to work. And it generally isn’t designed to be used long-term on the skin.

It’s important to note that hydroquinone isn’t meant to nor will it decrease any scarring or inflammation in cases of an active infection. You should heal & keep your skin unbroken after applying this ingredient.

Where to Find Hydroquinone

You can find hydroquinone in both prescription and OTC skincare products.

Also, you can find it in lotions, serums, moisturizers and even products that have sunscreen. You may also see hydroquinone as an ingredient in products that are “corrective,” such as spot treatments, especially dark spot correctors.

Hydroquinone is used as an active ingredient on its own. And you can also combine it with other ingredients such as retinol and antioxidants to improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation.

Is Hydroquinone Safe?

So we know that hydroquinone can be effective against hyperpigmentation—but is hydroquinone safe?

Like many other skincare ingredients, hydroquinone isn’t without its side effects. These adverse effects can include contact dermatitis, skin irritation and inflammation, stinging. And more rarely, ochronosis, a skin discoloration that can occur when using a higher concentration of hydroquinone for a more extended period.

Although hydroquinone is approved for use in the United States, European Union banned it since it’s toxic to aquatic life, suspected of causing genetic defects, cancer and allergic skin reactions. In some other countries, such as New Zealand, people can only sell this ingredient in prescription form.

Hydroquinone may not be appropriate for more sensitive or reactive skin types, including people who have dry skin. Dermatologists use hydroquinone for people of all Fitzpatrick skin types.

Whether or not it’s safe for your particular skin, you’ll need to discuss the risks with your doctor. Using any type of skincare product is a personal choice, and although hydroquinone is effective, it’s not without its drawbacks. There are also alternatives to consider that may help reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation when asking yourself, “is hydroquinone safe for me?”

Alternatives to Hydroquinone

Many alternatives to hydroquinone are available, many of which are more natural and available over-the-counter for purchase in skincare products. These include:

• Vitamin A

Different types of vitamin A derivatives, especially retinol, are effective for treating hyperpigmentation, including melasma.

• Vitamin C

Vitamin C can help brighten existing areas of hyperpigmentation and prevent additional dark spots from forming on the skin.

• Kojic Acid

This antioxidant effectively treats hyperpigmentation, mainly when used with other ingredients such as glycolic acid and vitamin C.

Azelaic Acid

This ingredient is just as effective as 4% concentrations of hydroquinone and you can combine it with other ingredients such as retinol for an enhanced effect.


Niacinamide, a form of vitamin B, is effective on its own for treating hyperpigmentation.


Religiously using sunscreen can not only prevent hyperpigmentation in the first place, but it can also help with skin lightening in the existing areas to prevent them from getting darker.

As you can see, there are many other options besides hydroquinone to try based on your skin type, comfort level and goals for your hyperpigmentation!

Products to Try

Here are a few hydroquinone alternatives to try to improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation on the skin.

Specific Beauty Intensive Skin Brightening Serum

This serum uses licorice extract, which helps to brighten skin. Along with retinol and niacinamide, you can improve skin tone and reduce the appearance of hyperpigmentation. Ginger and linoleic acid also appear in this serum, which you can use twice a day after cleansing.

Bolden Nightime Repair Serum

With 10% glycolic acid, aloe, vitamin E and other antioxidants, this serum helps lighten dark spots on the skin. Glycolic acid is a chemical exfoliator that increases cellular turnover and can help improve the appearance of wrinkles. Use twice weekly before working up to daily use. 

PCA Skin Pigment Gel® HQ Free

Azelaic and kojic acid both are great ingredients for improving hyperpigmentation. They make an appearance alongside antioxidants, lactic acid and fruit extracts in this gel. These ingredients help to do the spot treatment for dark areas of the skin. 

Mele EVEN Dark Spot Control Serum

Niacinamide, vitamin E and retinol blend together in this serum, which you can apply both morning and night after cleansing and toning skin to help improve the appearance of melasma and other types of hyperpigmentation on the skin.

skinbetter science® Alto Defense Serum™

Vitamin C, E and other antioxidants mingle in this serum, which also contains hyaluronic acid, licorice and turmeric extract and ceramides to help protect skin from developing dark spots and improve the appearance of existing dark spots. Use this Alto Defense Serum morning and night after cleansing for best results.

Have You Used Hydroquinone Before?

If you’ve used hydroquinone before, let us know your experience in the comments below! And in the meantime, find out what your skin type is by taking our free quiz to learn what products would most benefit your complexion!

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Gain insight into your skin type for your clearest complexion yet! Get ready to sparkle like there’s no tomorrow.

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