Hydroquinone is most commonly found as a skin lightener and in products marketed towards women of color. In addition to this purpose it is also found as in impurity (possible contamination) in other ingredients found in more common personal care products, such as facial cleansers, lotions and shampoos.
Hydroquinone is a melanin inhibitor, decreasing the production of melanin pigments in the skin. The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics notes:
Because the chemical lightens skin by reducing melanin, it simultaneously increases exposure to UVA and UVB rays deep in the skin. This increases skin cancer risks due to UV exposure, in addition to the carcinogenic effects of the chemical itself.
The U.S. Cosmetics Ingredient Review Panel indicates that hydroquinone is unsafe for use in products that are left on the skin. It is banned for use in cosmetics by the EU, restricted in Canadian cosmetics, and limited to use in the US at concentrations of no more than 2%. However, lax regulations allow for easy access to these products and for the directions to be labeled for long-term and consistent use.
Aside from its cancerous risks, Hydroquinone is also linked to be a skin irritant and a skin condition called ochronosis in which the skin becomes dark and thick.
What to do?
- Don’t use products that contain Hydroquinone.
- Be cautious of products containing ingredients with the root “toco” (such as tocopherol). Though not a given that they are contaminated with Hydroquinone, stop use immediately if you experience any adverse reactions or skin irritation.