The Lowdown on Hydroquinone

Text by: Mina Loyola

Hydro-what? Here are some facts that you need to know about this powerful component and if products with this chemical agent are the right ones for your skin care needs.

What is Hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone or HQ is a chemical compound that has been proven to aid in skin depigmentation or whitening. For more than 50 years, HQ has been incorporated in over-the-counter whitening products like creams and soaps, being marketed primarily to women of color and to those with skin disorders like discoloration, facial spots, and skin patches.

While hydroquinone is more often produced in the laboratory, it also occurs naturally in coffee, berries, mushrooms, and even in beetles and in bee propolis.

Does use of products with hydroquinone have side effects?

Some users may experience dryness of skin when using HQ products, which is common with other skin lightening items. More severe reactions to use of products with hydroquinone include rashes, swelling of area applied with the product, less skin elasticity, poor wound healing, and even chest pains and faintness. HQ may also trigger allergic reactions.

It is best to consult a dermatologist before use of products with HQ. Similarly, medical attention is necessary if an HQ user experiences a serious reaction towards use of any whitening products.

Is it safe to use products with hydroquinone?

Side effects aside, the use of HQ in whitening products has long been controversial. Hydroquinone has been banned in member states of European Union since 1976, and in the US by the Food Drug Administration in 2006. This was however revoked in recent years.

A major argument surrounding the use of hydroquinone is its links to cancer. As it lessens the production of melanin and therefore prevents skin pigmentation, it makes the skin vulnerable to UV rays. Research also suggests its carcinogenic nature, leading to increase rates in tumors.

In the Philippines, the Philippine Dermatological Society (PDS) advocates for the supervised use of products with HQ. The local Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD) regulates use of HQ and classifies products as follows:

  • Products with less than or equal to 2.0% of hydroquinone are classified as home remedies and can be bought off the shelf without the supervision of a pharmacist.
  • Products containing more than 2.0% but less than 3.0% of hydroquinone are classified as over-the-counter drugs and must be issued by a licensed pharmacist.
  • Products containing more than 3.0% HQ are classified as prescription drugs and can only be purchased from registered drug stores and issued by a licensed pharmacist with the proper prescription from a dermatologist.

Can I still use products with hydroquinone?

The general answer is yes! Since the presence of HQ in skin products is regulated in the Philippines, what consumers can do is follow the following tips to ensure the safe and effective use of hydroquinone items:

  1. Read product labels. As the classification of HQ products depend on its percentage as an ingredient, it is important to take note of this. As the concentration of HQ increases, the product’s depigmentation property also goes up, thus usage requires the supervision of an expert. The public is also advised to check whitening products for ingredients like benzenediol and diphenol, which are similar terms referring to hydroquinone.
  2. Do a patch test A patch test is a must for ALL topical skin care products, regardless of their chemical content. People differ in physiological reactions to substances applied to skin, and it is important to find out whether allergies or other reactions might occur due to continued use.
  3. Do not mix products. Hydroquinone is a strong chemical in itself, and it might cause skin inflammation when mixed with skin care products. Unless recommended by a dermatologist, avoid application of HQ products before or after skin lightening products, cosmetics, and other regimen products.
  4. Apply only what is prescribed or recommended. Even small concentrations of HQ in products can effectively address skin disorders and whiten skin. Hence, any misuse of products with hydroquinone may lead to undesired side effects. Follow application instructions in labels, and consult a doctor immediately for persistent cases.
  5. Consult a licensed skin care expert for treatment of skin disorders. Even if there is a proliferation of topical skin treatments in the market, it is best to consult a dermatologist to ask for advice and if necessary, prescription. As PDS notes, skin care products become harmful when a patient is uninformed of the effects resulting in its abuse. Especially in the use of hydroquinone as treatment for skin disorders, do not self-medicate; instead, seek expert advice and medical help.


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