Safe And Natural Alternatives To Hydroquinone
by Heather Smith on Apr 02, 2023
I like to write about effective and natural alternatives to various "traditional" ingredients that often come with a high risk of irritation, a need for medical supervision, or other potential health or pregnancy concerns.
For decades, hydroquinone has been a reliable option for those looking to achieve lighter skin tones. However, concerns are now associated with its use due to excessive irritation and other potential side effects. Fortunately, safe and natural alternatives can provide results without the risks associated with hydroquinone.
Hydroquinone has powerful skin-bleaching effects but comes with health and safety concerns and requires medical monitoring.
Taking a natural approach could be less powerful, but the risks are lower (and the effects are still visible) - so it's up to you where your shopping preferences lie.
In this article, I'll discuss why you should consider natural hydroquinone alternatives, the options, how they work, and which ones may be right for you.
Overview of Hydroquinone
Hydroquinone is a topical skin-lightening agent that treats hyperpigmentation, melasma, and other skin conditions characterized by the overproduction of melanin.
The scientific mechanisms by which hydroquinone lightens the skin involve several biochemical processes, primarily centred around reducing the production of the skin pigment, melanin.
Melanin is responsible for the colour of our skin, hair, and eyes. It's synthesized by melanocytes (special cells) found in the basal layer of the epidermis (skin).
Hydroquinone works through the following mechanisms:
- Reduce Melanin Production: Within the melanin-producing cell (melanocyte), an enzyme called tyrosinase causes a reaction which causes tyrosine (an amino acid) to be converted into melanin (the pigment). When present, hydroquinone blocks the chemical conversion from occurring. As a result, the overall pigmentation of the skin becomes lighter because melanin production is reduced.
- Interfere with Melanin Distribution: From within the melanocyte, little packages of melanin (melanosomes) are transferred out into other skin cells (keratinocytes). Hydroquinone has been shown to interfere with the transfer of melanosomes to keratinocytes, which limits the distribution of melanin throughout the skin.
- Increase Melanin Degradation: Hydroquinone also contributes to the increased degradation of melanin. It increases the rate of melanosome degradation within keratinocytes, causing a reduction in the amount of melanin present in the skin.
- Reduce Oxidative Stress: Hydroquinone also has antioxidant properties, which can help counteract oxidative stress in the skin. Oxidative stress has been linked to increased melanin production.
In summary, hydroquinone lightens the skin by inhibiting melanin synthesis, interfering with melanin distribution throughout the epidermis, increasing melanin degradation, and acting as an antioxidant.
It is essential to use hydroquinone under the guidance of a dermatologist or other qualified healthcare professional. In most countries it is a prescription drug, however it can be found over the counter which can make self-treatment a dangerous option.
Overuse or misuse leads to potential side effects, such as skin irritation, contact dermatitis, or ochronosis (a rare condition that results in blue-black pigmentation). Contact with the eyes can lead to cornea damage as well.
Safety Issues And Problems With Hydroquinone
While hydroquinone has been a popular choice for treating hyperpigmentation, there are many potential safety issues and problems associated with it.
- Skin irritation: Hydroquinone can cause skin irritation, redness, and itching, particularly in individuals with sensitive skin or when used in higher concentrations.
- Allergic reactions: Some individuals may develop an allergic reaction to hydroquinone, which can manifest as contact dermatitis.
- Ochronosis: Prolonged use of high concentrations of hydroquinone (above 4%) can lead to a rare condition called exogenous ochronosis. This condition is characterized by development of blue-black pigmentation, particularly in individuals with darker skin tones. To reduce the risk of ochronosis, following the recommended usage guidelines and avoiding using hydroquinone for extended periods is crucial.
- Photosensitivity: Hydroquinone can make the skin more sensitive to sunlight, increasing the risk of sunburn and skin damage.
- Potential carcinogenicity: Some animal studies have suggested hydroquinone may be carcinogenic, particularly when ingested or used on broken skin. However, human evidence is inconclusive, and more research is needed.
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding: The safety of hydroquinone during pregnancy and breastfeeding is not well-established. However, dermal absorption is substantial, so hydroquinone alternatives are the best approach in pregnancy.
- Corneal damage is known to occur in high dose exposures (usually occupational, not cosmetic).
A note about dermal absorption of hydroquinone: with the potential concerns for carcinogenicity and pregnancy complications, it's important to know that dermal absorption of hydroquinone is up to 45%.
It's highly uncommon for skincare ingredients to be absorbed into the bloodstream at all (let alone that much). If you're using a 4% solution of hydroquinone and 45% gets absorbed, it's still a very tiny amount that would be considered non-significant by toxicologists.
As a physician, I understand the argument that using topical hydroquinone properly and as prescribed should be safe. However, as a clean beauty advocate, I prefer to stick with ingredients closer to nature and with less controversy.
Benefits Of Natural Alternatives to Hydroquinone
The use of natural hydroquinone alternatives is becoming increasingly popular as people become more conscious and aware of the potential dangers.
Natural alternatives are growing in popularity because they provide safer solutions that remain effective. By offering formulations free from harsh irritants, these ingredients help ensure results while minimizing any potential harm done to one's health or well-being.
Natural Hydroquinone Alternatives
Multiple different natural and synthetic skincare ingredients are known to affect the four mechanisms of skin lightening. In future articles, I'll take a deeper dive into each of these individual ingredients because they each have advantages and potential downsides of their own.
Reduce the Production of Melanin (tyrosinase inhibition)
Kojic Acid: Derived from fungi, kojic acid is a well-known natural tyrosinase inhibitor that helps lighten skin by preventing melanin synthesis.
Arbutin: Found in bearberry, cranberry, and blueberry plants, arbutin is a natural derivative of hydroquinone and also acts as a tyrosinase inhibitor.
Azelaic Acid: A naturally occurring dicarboxylic acid found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley, azelaic acid inhibits tyrosinase and also possesses anti-inflammatory properties.
Licorice Extract (glabridin): Derived from the root of the licorice plant, glabridin is a natural tyrosinase inhibitor that also has anti-inflammatory effects.
Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant, Vitamin C can inhibit tyrosinase and reduce melanin synthesis, in addition to providing other skin benefits.
And some lesser-known options: are mulberry extract, pycnogenol, N-Acetyl Glucosamine, and Pterocarpus marsupium bark extract.
Interfere with Melanin Distribution (melanosome transfer inhibitors)
Niacinamide: A form of vitamin B3, niacinamide inhibits melanosome transfer to keratinocytes and has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Soybean Extract: Rich in proteins and isoflavones, soybean extract can inhibit melanosome transfer and improve skin tone.
Centella Asiatica (Gotu Kola) Extract: Derived from a plant native to Asia, Centella asiatica extract has been shown to inhibit melanosome transfer, in addition to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Increase Melanin Degradation
Glycolic Acid: An alpha-hydroxy acid (AHA) derived from sugar cane, glycolic acid promotes skin exfoliation and cell turnover, which can accelerate the degradation of melanin in the skin.
Lactic Acid: Another AHA, lactic acid, is derived from milk and has similar effects as glycolic acid in promoting skin exfoliation and accelerating melanin degradation.
Salicylic Acid: A beta-hydroxy acid (BHA), salicylic acid encourages skin exfoliation and can help increase melanin degradation.
The 4th category (antioxidant) is not unique to hydroquinone, and the effects can easily be replaced by many other natural skincare ingredients.
While the above is not an exhaustive list, many of these ingredients can be found in various skin-lightening products, often in combination to enhance their efficacy.
What About Retinoids
Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A and have been widely used in skincare for their multiple benefits, including skin-lightening effects. Retinoids have been shown to have a mild inhibitory effect on tyrosinase, which can contribute to their skin-lightening properties. However, their primary effect on skin lightening is through melanosome inhibition and increased melanin degradation.
It's no secret I prefer Bakuchiol as a natural alternative over retinol. While its primary use is for anti-aging, it has some tyrosinase inhibitory effect and promotes cell turnover, contributing to skin-lightening properties. Taking an alternative approach to retinoids at the same time as ditching the hydroquinone will help your skin barrier for sure!
Best Face Oils for Hyperpigmentation
Plant-based oils contain essential fatty acids and vitamins that can help improve the appearance of hyperpigmentation without irritating your skin. Some carrier oils are touted as being better than others for helping to even out skin tone.
Although I'm madly in love with face oils in general, I've previously written a lot about how individual carrier oils might not have substantial enough differences to visibly differentiate themselves from one another. It's hard to know because there will never be research studies done comparing 2 carrier oils. If you have a favourite face oil, your skin will love it, and your tone will be more even, regardless of which you choose.
With that said, some of my favourite carrier oils for hyperpigmentation include rosehip seed oil, sea buckthorn oil, prickly pear oil, carrot seed oil, and buriti. These are powerful antioxidants that contain high levels of carotenoids, vitamins A and E, antioxidants and linoleic acid, which all work together to reduce inflammation while nourishing skin cells with vital nutrients needed for healthy cell turnover. They are anti-inflammatory, nourishing, and reparative.
How To Design An Effective Skincare Ritual Against Hyperpigmentation
Targeting hyperpigmentation requires more than one method, even if you are using hydroquinone. If you've chosen to replace it with safer and more natural alternatives, here are some tips to consider:
- Choose the right active ingredients: Vitamin C is the gold standard in this category. Complementing it with other active extracts like licorice, arbutin, and others is also a good idea. Antioxidants are also important.
- Use regularly: Consistent use is key – many users will see initial improvement after only a few applications, but long-term maintenance requires regular application over time to get lasting results. Vitamin C takes a minimum of 3 weeks to start seeing effects, and much longer for the full results. Retinoids can take up to a full year to see full results.
- Moisturize: Skin hydration is essential for any successful skincare regimen; moisturizers help protect from environmental damage while nourishing the cells beneath the surface of your skin, allowing them to heal faster, which helps even out pigmentation more quickly than trying to target problem areas alone. Be sure to select products specifically suited to your particular needs and avoid anything too harsh or strong as this could aggravate existing issues instead of helping them!
- SUNSCREEN (need I say more?)
- Exfoliation: Chemical exfoliants like AHA and BHA have brightening effects, not just the removal of dull cells.
Hydroquinone is an overly irritating ingredient with safety concerns. However, there are numerous natural ingredients and products that can be used as hydroquinone alternatives to help reduce hyperpigmentation over time.
Consistently incorporating these into your daily skincare routine will make a huge difference in evening out skin tone and fighting off dark spots. Overall, there are plenty of effective and safe alternatives to hydroquinone – so why not give natural options a try!
If you're shopping for a natural and gentle skin brightening serum, check out bareLUXE Skincare's Radiant Glow Elevated Brightening Oil. Pair with our Natural Exfoliating Face Scrub and you've got combination that can lighten and brighten!
McGregor D. Hydroquinone: an evaluation of the human risks from its carcinogenic and mutagenic properties. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2007;37(10):887-914.
Enguita FJ, Leitão AL. Hydroquinone: environmental pollution, toxicity, and microbial answers. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:542168. doi: 10.1155/2013/542168. Epub 2013 Jul 15.
National Toxicology Program. NTP Toxicology and Carcinogenesis Studies of Hydroquinone (CAS No. 123-31-9) in F344/N Rats and B6C3F1 Mice (Gavage Studies). Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser. 1989 Oct;366:1-248.
Joseph P, Klein-Szanto AJ, Jaiswal AK. Hydroquinones cause specific mutations and lead to cellular transformation and in vivo tumorigenesis. Br J Cancer. 1998 Aug;78(3):312-20.
Westerhof W, Kooyers TJ. Hydroquinone and its analogues in dermatology - a potential health risk. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2005 Jun;4(2):55-9.
Sarkar R, Arora P, Garg KV. Cosmeceuticals for Hyperpigmentation: What is Available? J Cutan Aesthet Surg. 2013 Jan;6(1):4-11.