Considering a hydroquinone cream to help fade your discoloration, dark spots, and scars?
We dive into the academic research on the potential risks of hydroquinone, the best alternatives, as well as the best hydroquinone creams if you’re willing to take the risks!
Keep reading to find a product that helps fade your discoloration, dark spots, and scarring!
While there are some hydroquinone creams on the market designed to bleach skin (like Magic Whitening Plus), we do not endorse those products. The products in our top 5 list are for evening out discoloration, scaring, and uneven skin tone.
♥ What Is Hydroquinone?
Hydroquinone is an aromatic organic compound commonly used as a lightening agent in products designed to reduce dark spots, acne scarring, and hyper pigmentation on the skin for an even skin appearance.
The compound contains acids that brightens and fades hyper pigmentation, melasma, and dark spots.
Is Hydroquinone Safe?
Hydroquinone is considered the most effective pigment-lightening ingredient known to date. However, there’s concern about the safety of using this chemical.
Hydroquinone was recognized as safe for use by the FDA in 1982. However, that safety was called into question at a later date with the FDA considering a ban.
Some dermatologists at the time came out in opposition to the proposed ban. They claimed that the FDA needed to consider the benefits of hydroquinone, and that the cancer links in rats are not sufficient to ban hydroquinone for human use. In 2015, the FDA recommended that there should be a study into the effects of the use of hydroquinone on healthy males and non-pregnant females.
The FDA currently holds that over the counter 2% hydroquinone can be safely sold in the US. This, of course, is subject to change.
That doesn’t mean that hydroquinone is 100% safe.
It’s banned in the EU, as well as many Asian and African countries. As of August 2017, products with more than 2% hydroquinone are available through prescription only in Canada. This is not out of the ordinary. Many ingredients are banned in other countries that are completely legal in the US.
There’s not enough research on the potential dangers of hydroquinone. There’s conflicting opinions on how dangerous hydroquinone is. Some claim the potential harm is greatly exaggerated, others say there are huge potential side effects and recommend avoiding hydroquinone completely.
Hydroquinone use is linked to a rare skin condition called Ochronosis. Sufferers experience black-blue pigmentation on their skin. However, the condition is rare. Dermatologists recommend taking a break from hydroquinone cream after 60 days of use, wearing sunscreen, and only using once a day to prevent the condition.
Does It Cause Cancer?
There’s a link between hydroquinone and cancer in rats. In one study, the rats orally received 25 times the dose recommended for humans. There’s no known link between cancer and hydroquinone for humans. Further research is needed.
It’s possible to have an allergic reaction to hydroquinone. Hydroquinone is toxic when ingested orally in large doses. Do not use if you’re breastfeeding or pregnant.
Academic Research On The Effectiveness of Hydroquinone
One study compared the use of hydroquinone cream with ascorbic acid to treat melasma (a genetic hyperpigmentation skin condition). The participants using hydroquinone reported a bigger subjective difference in their skin, however the group using ascorbic acid suffered less side effects.
Another study found a combination of glycolic acid and hydroquinone used twice a day helps treat some refractory melasma. In a third study, 4% hydroquinone cream was applied to 36 women for 24 weeks. 87.9% of the women were ‘very satisfied’ or ‘satisfied’ with the hydroquinone treatment after the 24 weeks, and their Quality of Life (QOL) was greatly improved.
Academic Research Into Alternatives
Because of some of the potential health concerns surrounding hydroquinone researchers began looking for good alternatives.
Kojic is a new alternative to hydroquinone. It’s considered more pharmaceutically stable than hydroquinone. In another study, kojic acid is applied to one side, and hydroquinone to the other side of the face (both with glycolic acid). 51% of participants responded the same to hydroquinone and kojic acid. Both were highly effective at at reducing the melasma pigments. 28% experienced better results with kojic acid, and 21% had better results with hydroquinone. The kojic acid was more irritating. The authors of the study recommend using both kojic acid and hydroquinone depending on a patient’s preferences.
While we break down the top hydroquinone creams on the market, these should only be used by those who have done the full research and accepted the potential risks. We provide some great, safer alternatives to hydroquinone – we recommend using these over hydroquinone.
♥ Hydroquinone Free Whitening/Brightening Serums
#1. Best Overall: Specific Beauty – Intensive Skin Brightening Serum
- 1 fl oz
- Formulated with licorice root, niacinamide, retinol for an even skin tone
- Linoleic Acid, ginger root extract, and vitamin E for hydration
- Botanical extracts for anti-aging
- Free from parabens, fragrance, and hydroquinone
- Not the most inexpensive, but contains a whole 90 day supply
- Too watery
Specially formulated with special ingredients for brightening, anti-aging, and hydrating
A serum designed to brighten for a more even toned and radiant looking skin.
This serum contains licorice root, niacinamide, and retinol to brighten and provide a more even skin texture and skin tone. It helps lighten dark spots, age spots, pigmentation, discoloration, as well as marks from pregnancy.
The added linoleic Acid, ginger root extract, and vitamin e keep the skin hydrated and help prevent further damage to the skin.
Anti-aging ingredients like retinol and botanical extracts help tackle wrinkles and fine lines, and fade the appearance of crow’s feet and expression lies.
Designed especially for melanin rich complexions
The serum was formulated by Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd to provide a solution to the needs of women with discoloration concerns and melanin-rich skin complexions. It’s suitable for women of any color.
Not only is it packed with great ingredients, it’s also free from parabens, fragrance, and hydroquinone.
Customers really like the product overall, with a high average rating.
One review said it’s amazing and she can’t imagine not using it. Another said it helped clear up her discoloration on her neck within 3 weeks. Some customers like the anti-aging properties, and notice their crows feet diminishing.
Others say it takes time to work, but they do see a difference.
One customer said it didn’t really work for them. Others said they find it alright but they think it’s too watery.
It’s a great option if you’re looking for a something that contains a range of ingredients – not only to whiten discoloration, but also for anti-aging action, and hydration. It’s not super affordable, but it does contain enough product for 90 days of use. Some customers find it very watery.
Click here to see the Specific Beauty Intensive Skin Brightening Serum on Amazon
#2. Best Budget: Kleem Organics – Anti-Aging Vitamin C Brightening Serum
- 1.7 fl oz
- Budget friendly
- Cruelty free and vegan
- Made in the USA
- Paraben, corn, soy free
- Natural and organic ingredients, great for sensitive skin
- Lifting effect around the mouth, eyes, and neck
- Enhances skin elasticity for brightening and anti-aging
- Discount on next purchase and free ebook
- May contain phenoxyethanol, despite the claim of no harsh chemicals
- Packaging can waste product
- Avoid applying it to your hair, as it can lighten darker hair
- Doesn’t work for everyone
An organic 20% pure vitamin C serum for smoother, vibrant, firmer, more nourished skin.
A vitamin C serum with 2.5% retinol and lactic acid for a brighter and more even skin tone. The serum helps fade dark spots, discoloration, dark circles, wrinkles and fine lines after just a few weeks of use. It lifts the skin around the mouth, eyes, and neck.
Kleem promises a natural and organic product that’s paraben, corn, and soy free. This makes it ideal for sensitive skin. However, some customers note that phenoxyethanol is included in the list of ingredients.
Kleem produce the serum in the USA, it’s cruelty free and vegan.
The serum enhances the skin’s elasticity for brightening and anti-aging. It contains 10% hyaluronic acid to stimulate the production of collagen.
It comes with a video demo on how to use the product, an E-Book full of skincare tips, and money off your next purchase.
It’s one of the more affordable brightening serums on the market. You can also buy in bulk (packs of 2, 3 etc..) for a discount.
How to use
• Wash your face as normal
• Wait 15 minutes to apply the serum to reduce the risk of irritation. Most customers like to apply it before moisturizer.
• The serum should be used with SPF30+ during the day.
• Start off using it just once a week in case you experience irritation with everyday use.
It’s possible to have redness or irritation if you use it very often on sensitive skin. If you don’t experience any irritation you can use it once every day. The retinol A can cause dryness, but this is counteracted by the hydrating bio active ingredients.
It’s not for use by pregnant or breast feeding women because the high amount of vitamin A can be detrimental to babies.
Overall, customers tend to like the serum with high average reviews online.
Many customers noticed their dark spots, discoloration, and age spots fading after continued use. Multiple customers with sensitive skin said it was the only thing that works for them.
Reviews say it reduces the appearance of wrinkles, made their scars less noticeable, pores smaller, and skin texture more smooth. Overall, it’s not a miracle worker, but helps make a noticeable difference to your skin.
One customer with darker hair color noticed the product bleached their hair. You need to be careful if you have darker hair – avoid your hairline and eyebrows when applying.
Many reviewers noted that they like the fresh, orangey smell.
Some customer said they were disappointed that their serum contains phenoxyethanol despite the claim of no harsh chemicals.
One review didn’t like the pump packaging. After putting the cap back on it released more product.
Some reviews said they didn’t notice a difference after 2 weeks. That’s not a long testing time. However, a few others said even after 2 months they didn’t notice a difference. Another said they didn’t like the ‘new and improved’ formula. It doesn’t seem to work for everyone.
If you’re on a budget, this is a great hydroquinone-free option. It’s cruelty free, vegan, and made in the USA. An ideal serum if you’re looking to brighten discoloration and dark spots, while also reducing the signs of aging. However, it does contain phenoxyethanol and doesn’t work for everyone.
#3. Best Luxury: Shiseido White Lucent Luminizing Surge
- 2.5 fl oz
- Works for dry, combination, or normal skin
- Not only reduces the appearance of dark spots, it also helps prevent them
- Also reduces dryness, dullness, and uneven skin texture
- Nice scent
- Doesn’t work well for oily skin
- Claims it’s alcohol free but it’s not
White Lucent Luminizing Surge acts not only as a brightener, but also to prevent future dark spots
This serum is a brightening emulsion. Unlike other hydroquinone-free brighteners, it contains ingredients that help prevent (not just reduce) the appearance of dark spots.
It’s not designed just to clear up dark spots. The serum also helps reduce dryness, dullness, and uneven skin texture.
It’s specially formulated with ‘SakuraRESIST’ technology and sakura from cherry blossoms to help reduce the prevalence of future dark spots.
Shiseido claims it’s alcohol free but alcohol is listed as an ingredient multiple times.
The whitening serum is well received, with mostly positive reviews online.
Customers said they like that it makes their skin brighter, and radiant looking. Multiple reviews said they’ve received compliments on their skin since using, noted they look ‘glowing’.
Some customers said it makes their skin very soft. It tends to work great for those with dry skin.
Multiple reviews said it evens out the color of their skin tone really well.
Although it’s advertised for all skin types, it doesn’t get positive reviews from every skin type. Those with oily skin said it makes the skin look greasy, and doesn’t soak well into their skin. It’s best for dry or combination skin.
One reviewer with African American complexion said it’s the only product she’s ever used that actually helps reduce the appearance of her scars – and she saw results after only a week.
Many customers said they really like the scent.
One review said each pump releases too much product, which can be wasteful.
If you have more money to spend, this is a great option for combination-dry skin. It not only helps reduce the appearance of dark spots, it also helps prevent them. It works well for deeper skin tones too, and helps your skin look radiant and less dull. However, it doesn’t work well for oily skin and it contains alcohol.
♥ Hydroquinone Whitening/Brightening Creams and Serums
#4. Best Overall Hydroquinone Cream: PCA SKIN Pigment Gel
1 fl oz
- It comes in two types – with hydroquinone, or hydroquinone free
- Free from fragrance, irritants, or dyes
- Not tested on animals
- Made in the USA
- Unpleasant smell
- Quite pricey
- Need to match to your skin type – the HQ formula can be too harsh, the HQ free formula can be too gentle
A brightening gel available with or without hydroquinone
Both formulas contains azelaic acid to help create a more even skin tone and clearer complexion. Kojic acid is added to lighten hyperpigmentation issues and create an even skin tone. The addition of the antioxidant phenylethyl resorcinol also helps even the skin tone.
It’s made in the USA, and not tested on animals. Both formulas are free from fragrance, irritants, or dyes.
If you have sensitive skin the option without hydroquinone is better for you. While it also helps deal with discoloration, unlike the hydroquinone version, it doesn’t tackle hyper pigmentation of all kinds.
The pigment gel with hydroquinone helps tackle all kind of hyper pigmentation like age spots, live spots, hyper pigmentation, and freckles.
The hydroquinone formula contains 2% hydroquinone, the maximum amount allowed for sale without a prescription. Added hydroquinone helps to lighten existing hyperpigmentation issues, while also preventing further hyper pigmentation. It works to counteract and prevent hyper pigmentation from a range of causes, including: sun exposure, hormonal reactions, skin trauma, acne.
Take precautions if you choose the hydroquinone formula
The hydroquinone formula should be applied in a thin layer as a spot treatment only.
Take a break after 60 days of use. If you experience severe skin irritation stop using the gel and consult a physician. Don’t use more than twice a day.
Overall, customers tend to like the products, with quite high average reviews.
Some reviewers commented on the unpleasant scent. One reviewer was disappointed with an increase in the price of the gel.
The hydroquinone formula is very powerful, and very effective for many
Some of those who bought the version with hydroquinone saw a big difference in hyperpigmentation and dark spots after a few months. It provided results on melasma in just 2 weeks for one customer.
Customers recommend using it for 5 days, then take a short break and resume once your skin has peeled a bit. It’s important to moisturize really well, use sunscreen, and don’t over do it.
One customer experienced a tingling feeling, then a slight burning with continued use. It’s important to learn how to moderate your usage to suit your skin. Always do a spot test and apply very small amounts.
As with all hydroquinone creams and lotions, the dark spots will get darker before they peel away to reveal brighter skin.
Some customers found the hydroquinone far too potent, and said it irritated their skin.
The hydroquinone free formula is gentle enough for most sensitive skin. It doesn’t work as effectively, but it still makes a big difference for many
It doesn’t completely get rid of dark spots, but it does help minimize them.
One reviewer noted she initially tried the hydroquinone version, but it was too harsh for her skin. She likes the hydroquinone free version for her sensitive skin type. It’s a good, more gentle alternative if you’re concerned about the risks of using hydroquinone.
Some reviewers said it didn’t work at all for them – it may be too gentle for some.
Because this gel is available with and without hydroquinone, it caters for both sensitive and normal skin. It’s a great option if you’re interested in buying both to compare how your skin reacts to hydroquinone.
A lot of people get good results with the hydroquinone version, and many with sensitive skin really like the no hydroquinone formula. But it doesn’t work for everyone – you need to know your skin well to know which will be better for you. Some customers don’t like the scent.
#5. Best Budget Hydroquinone Cream: Admire My Skin Ultra Potent Brightening Serum
- 1 fl oz
- Highest concentration of hydroquinone permitted without prescription
- Contains Salicylic Acid, Azelaic Acid, Lactic Acid & Vitamin C
- Made in the USA
- Provides great results on dark spots, acne scaring, and hyperpigmentation
- Not ideal for sensitive skin – can cause redness, prolonged stinging, and irritation
- Because it contains hydroquinone it’s vital that you follow the instructions carefully
A no. 1 best selling hydroquinone cream to lighten dark spots, scarring and hyperpigmentation
Just like the previous entry (the hydroquinone version), it contains 2% hydroquinone – (the highest percentage of hydroquinone permitted for sale without prescription).
Admire My Skin promises that this cream provides results within 4 weeks of use when used as described (once or twice a day). The result is a smoother, more toned complexion, and faded dark spots.
It provides highly effective brightening on scars, hyper pigmentation, and dark spots.
Admire My Skin claims the ingredients are more effective than competitors. In addition to the hydroquinone, it also contains Salicylic Acid, Azelaic Acid, Lactic Acid, and Vitamin C.
Because it contains hydroquinone, it’s vitally important that you take safety precautions
It’s possible to experience minor irritation to the skin. It’s important to do a spot test before use. Stop using if you experience severe irritation.
The product is designed for use once or twice a day. Use every second day initially if you have sensitive skin.
The cream is drying on the skin – be sure to wear a thick, hydrating moisturizer.
Do not use benzoyl peroxide, resorcinol or any other whitening product while using this cream.
Only apply to the affected area. It’s important to moisturize and use SPF while your skin is peeling. The skin begins peeling after you start use, so dark spots will appear darker initially, but once the skin peels off, the dark spots will be much lighter.
The AHA/BHA in the cream can increase sun sensitivity – always wear sunscreen when using this product to prevent sunscreen.
Once you’ve used the cream for 60 days, take a break for the next 30 days. Otherwise your skin could become resistant, or your skin could develop Ochronosis (a permanent darkening of your skin).
Customers tend to like the cream, with good average reviews online.
Some customers noticed drastic improvements on dark spots and discoloration after just three weeks. One customer said it helps fade her melasma (to the point where it almost disappeared) on her upper lip in just one week.
Some reviews recommend applying it with a Q-tip because it’s so potent.
Customers of both lighter skin tones and darker skin tones had success with this product.
Multiple customers said they experienced a darkening of the affected areas initially, but after the peeling they noticed it really worked. Some of the most negative reviews are from those that experienced this darkening, and then stopped using the product. You’ll have to keep using it to see results.
Some said it stung their skin after initial use – even those that really like and recommend the product.
A significant minority of customers said their skin reacted badly to the product. Some experienced redness, prolonged stinging, and irritation. It is not for everyone – if you have any kind of sensitive skin, this product is likely too potent for you.
If you’re on a budget, it’s a great alternative to the PCA gel. The hydroquinone cream is very effective spot whitening. However, it’s so potent it can cause severe irritation on sensitive skin. If you have sensitive skin check out a non-hydroquinone cream instead. This is ideal for normal skin, but be sure to take all the necessary safety precautions.
♥ TL;DR – Which Is Best For Me?
Because of the potential risks of hydroquinone, we recommend a hydroquinone free formula for most people – especially those with sensitive skin.
- Specific Beauty’s Intensive Brightening Serum is ideal if you’re looking for a whitening serum with a range of ingredients. It’s great for anti-aging, hydration, as well as discoloration. However, it is quite pricey and some customers find it watery.
- Maybe you’re on a budget? Kleem Organics’ Vitamin C Brightening Serum is a good alternative to Specific Beauty. It also has anti-aging action as well as brightening discoloration. However, it does contain phenoxethanol and not everyone has success when using it.
- If you have more room in your budget, Shiseido’s White Lucent Luminizing Surge works great for combination or dry skin. It not only reduces dark spots and discoloration, it also makes your skin look radiant, and acts as a preventative for further dark spots. It’s too greasy on oily skin.
Creams and serums formulated with hydroquinone are generally more powerful and effective. As long as you understand the risks and don’t have skin sensitivity, it can be a good option for you.
- The PCA SKIN Pigment Gel comes either with or without hydroquinone. The hydroquinone formula works effectively, but the formula without is better for sensitive skin. If you know you’re skin type, it’s easy to buy the formula that suits you. Or buy both and test out which one you like best. It doesn’t work for everyone, and the scent is unpleasant.
- On a budget? Admire My Skin Ultra Potent Brightening Serum is a good alternative to PCA Skin at a more affordable price. Again, it’s highly effective but it’s very potent and much too strong for some with more sensitive skin.
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