Ingredient of the Week: What is Hydroquinone and Does it Cause Cancer?

ingredient of the week: a safe beauty series on hydroquinone and if it causes cancer

For this week’s Ingredient of the Week post I’m talking about hydroquinone. If that sounds like a mouthful, trust me, you’ll remember that word after knowing about the dangers of hydroquinone. If you’re ever wanted brighter skin or to remove brown spots, read this.

If you missed the intro to this series, it explains what “safe beauty” is, and why it’s important. The quick version is that the FDA doesn’t regulate what chemicals brands put in their products and it doesn’t set standards for words like “natural” or “organic”. Basically, a brand could put “natural” on a container full of carcinogens if they wanted (and they often do). I caveat this at the beginning of every post not to scare anyone but to educate. You don’t have to switch everything you own to safer today. Just make small changes where it makes sense for you. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing, right?

If you’re completely overwhelmed right now, take a look at my skincare routine and my everyday makeup routine. Since most of the products we use fall into one of those two categories, it will give you an idea of some great beauty products to start with. Of course, if you have any questions, shoot me an email or send me a DM. I chat with you guys all day long about personalized recommendations based on your needs! If you want more, here’s a list of my favorite beauty products!

What to look for. 

This one is easy because it usually appears in it’s full form of the word. Although it’s not an easy word to pronounce, I’m hoping that you remember it by seeing it here!


What is Hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a chemical that works to decrease pigment and degrade melanin in the skin. The chemical is allowed in personal care products up to 2% in the US but it is banned in Europe. It’s no secret that the EU is way more stringent on their beauty product safety so my general rule is that if the EU bans it, it’s a definite no.

Why do brands use Hydroquinone? 

Results. There’s nothing that sells more than a product that works, right? There is another chemical out there called metol that also whitens skin however it also causes dermatitis (skin irritation). Hydroquinone does not have the same tendency so it is more widely used in skincare products.

Which creams containing Hydroquinone are out there?

If a product claims to brighten, whiten, remove dark spots, or even your skin, it’s best to check the label for hydroquinone. While this is most often found in skincare products, it ranges from face cleansers to night creams.

What Hydroquinone can do to you.

The hydrouinone dangers are pretty serious. They’re as bad as you can get when it comes to toxic chemcials.

Cancer. Yep, the worst of the worst. The FDA studied this chemical and concluded that it cannot be ruled out as a carcinogen. You know what carcinogens do by now: they cause cancer. Tumors, leukemia, and kidney cancer all occur with heightened exposure to hydroquinone. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics agreed.

Organ system toxicity. Hydroquinone is also linked to ochronosis which results in thickened skin that turns a blue-grey color. Exposure to your eye can also cause corneal damage.

Respiratory tract irritation. Studies have shown that people with increased exposure to hydroquinone have lower lung capacity and experience coughing.

Safe alternatives to Hydroquinone.

I’ve been asked so many times on Instagram for safe bleaching products and I always preface my response with the same thing: “you’re not going to like my answer!” The truth is, that when it comes to bleaching products, there is nothing I’ve found that’s safe. If you have a secret product that is, please share it below! However, does that mean all hope is lost? Absolutely not. I’ve had melasma for a long time and used to try these bleaching remedies myself. I’ve tried everything from prescriptions (with hydroquinone in them back before I knew about safe beauty) to things my dermatologist had made in his basement. While they worked, the results aren’t so drastically worth it that you need to use a product with hydroquinone regularly. If something is really bothering you and it’s a one time thing (like a scar), it might be worth it to use something that contains it. I’d say that’s okay.

So what are you supposed to do if you have long term discoloration especially on your face? There are a few products that really help brighten your skin using fruit extracts. What I’ve had luck with personally (and have heard the same from others) is this brightening face oil. It really helps keep my brown spots in check and over time has reduced their appearance. Obviously, the sun makes them worst so I try to use sunscreen religiously. This face stick smells incredible and is a favorite with kids if you have a family. All of the Beautycounter sunscreens really impressed me on our trip to Florida – they absorbed really well without any white streaks and provided great coverage throughout the day. If you’re more of a tinted moisturizer girl, I just repurchased this Dew Skin for the summer season.

The other product that I’ve heard people swear by is the toner pads. I’ve only used them a few times when we were traveling because I was hooked on the Sunday Riley toner but after I’m done with my current bottle, I’m going to switch over. The toner pads are just way easier to use and regulate the amount of product you use. I also want to see if they can reduce the spots on my face. If you are extremely concerned about skin discoloration on your face, I’d recommend grabbing this Brightening Collection. All 3 products are amazing and you save yourself quite a decent amount of money by purchasing as a set. The Beautycounter face masks are my favorite too!

Those are the products that will help reduce spots. If your current skincare routine contains hydroquinone, be sure to check out the safe products that I use nightly here.

Have you used anything that contains hydroquinone? Do you have any favorite safe beauty products of any kind? Leave your recommendations below – I always love getting new beauty tips!

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