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Skincare FAQ

13 Promising Alternatives to Hydroquinone for Skin Lightening and Hyperpigmentation

Researched-backed skin brightening alternatives to hydroquinone.

If you’ve ever had to deal with hyperpigmentation or uneven skin tone, chances are you’re familiar with hydroquinone — the mother of skin lightening treatments that’s been in the spotlight of researchers for decades. But no matter how potent hydroquinone is, it’s not the friendliest ingredient to play with and is by no means free of side effects.

In fact, hydroquinone is so risky that it’s banned in Europe and heavily restricted in many other countries as well. And recently, even the FDA prohibited non-prescription hydroquinone since its use may lead to severe photosensitivity and cell damage.

Fortunately, there are plenty of natural and gentler alternatives to hydroquinone that mimic its skin brightenings effects without being aggressive. Some have even been found more effective than hydroquinone at lightening dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

Since hydroquinone is so questionable by many, we’ve narrowed down the best hydroquinone alternatives to target skin discolorations. But first, a short recap about how skin-whitening agents work so that you can pick the best one for you.

How do hydroquinone alternatives work?

Just like hydroquinone, most products and skin lightening agents available are tyrosinase inhibitors and melanin regulators. Although melanin plays a significant role in protecting the skin from sun damage, its accumulation in cells can cause pigmented spots on the skin, resulting in hyperpigmentation and melasma. Tyrosinase is the key enzyme that controls melanin synthesis, hence, its inhibition is the most practical and well-researched approach to regulate pigment level and lighten dark spots and hyperpigmentation.

While most hydroquinone alternatives work by limiting tyrosinase activity, some have other extra benefits that can boost the results, such as scavaging free radicals (antioxidants) and accelerating cell turnover (exfoliators). FYI, antioxidants help by shielding the skin so that it doesn’t have to produce extra melanin to defend itself, while exfoliators eliminate the cells affected by excess pigment.

What are the skin lightening alternatives to hydroquinone?

Now what you came for. Whether hydroquinone is prohibited in your country, hasn’t delivered the desirable results, or your skin can’t handle hydroquinone, these are the best hydroquinone alternatives that’ll help you in your path to a brighter complexion.

Retinoids

I’m sure you’re no stranger to retinoids since everyone’s talking about them, but let me introduce this cult favorite again. Retinoids are a class of compounds derived from vitamin A touted for their ability to encourage cell turnover. There are multiple forms of retinoids found in skincare formulations, including retinolretinaldehyde, and retinoic acid.

Aside from promoting skin renewal and increasing collagen and elastin production, retinoids are also known as skin brighteners, being considered one of the best hydroquinone alternatives. Studies have shown that retinoids can reduce skin discolorations by about 60% and contribute to a proper distribution of melanin in the cells.[1] They also block the transport of melanin to epidermal cells and reduce the activity of melanocytes (melanin-producing cells).

How to use retinoids: Look for a retinol-infused serum and use it nightly for the best results. Always layer sunscreen the following day since retinoids increase skin photosensitivity. 

Vitamin C

Another skincare powerhouse, vitamin C, is probably the most popular and praised skin brightening alternative to hydroquinone. Briefly, vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps offset cellular damage caused by free radicals, which in turn prevents hyperpigmentation induced by sun exposure. But the depigmenting effects of vitamin C don’t stop at its antioxidant activity. Actually, studies have found vitamin C can also decrease pigment formation in skin cells through downregulation of tyrosinase enzyme, thereby delivering promising brightening benefits.[2][3]

How to use vitamin C: Look for a skin brightening serum infused with vitamin C. If your skin is sensitive, perform a patch test before as high-concentrated vitamin C-infused products can cause irritations. Vitamin C is also susceptible to oxidation and degrades easily, so ensure you store your product in a cool, dry place. 

Alpha-arbutin

Alpha-arbutin is a naturally occurring derivative of the renowned hydroquinone, so it makes perfect sense to say it’s one of the best natural alternatives to hydroquinone. Like other skin-lightening agents, alpha-arbutin also decreases pigment content in skin cells by regulating melanin synthesis. It turns out alpha-arbutin has an inhibitory effect against melanin production more potent than kojic acid and vitamin C when compared at a fixed concentration.[4] Moreover, alpha-arbutin possesses antioxidant activity, effective for preventing skin discolorations caused by sun damage.

How to use alpha-arbutin: The research into the benefits of alpha-arbutin as a skin lightener reveals that face creams containing 7% alpha-arbutin are both safe and effective and have more or less the same depigmenting efficacy as 2% hydroquinone. So put that on your wishing list.[4]

Azelaic acid

Azelaic acid is one of the best alternatives to hydroquinone for a few reasons. First, azelaic acid has been shown to be effective in warding off hyperpigmentation and melasma thanks to its anti-inflammatory and tyrosinase-inhibitory properties.[5] According to a 1996 study, topical 20% azelaic acid is as effective as 4% hydroquinone and better than 2% at treating skin discolorations[6] — this is what we call a game-changing alternative. Azelaic acid is also a formidable free radical scavenger (aka antioxidant) and exfoliator that help lower melanin levels by sloughing off pigmented cells and minimizing sun damage.

Kojic acid

Kojic acid is a chemical produced from different types of fungi or through the fermentation process of rice that is best known for its ability to limit the production of melanin. As a matter of fact, kojic acid is the most intensively studied inhibitor of tyrosinase and the most often skin-whitening agent recommended by dermatologists for treating skin pigmentation disorders.[7]

How to use: Kojic acid is used in skin lightening products in concentrations ranging from 1% to 4%. Use it carefully, as kojic acid is a harsh ingredient that can cause irritations to sensitive skin. 

Glutathione 

Glutathione is a naturally occurring tripeptide in the body with very high antioxidant properties — it’s called the mother of antioxidants for a reason. The interesting part about glutathione is that it not only inhibits tyrosinase and fights free radicals but also switches the type of pigment produced to a lighter one.[8] Studies have actually shown that products containing 0.1%, 0.5%, and 2% glutathione are particularly effective for skin lightening and treating hyperpigmentation as well as easily tolerated by most people.[9] This makes glutathione a great alternative to hydroquinone since it mimics its effects while acting more gently.

Niacinamide

Everyone knows niacinamide as a great skin-replenishing and -hydrating ingredient, but only skincare devotees know that niacinamide also reduces pigment levels and lightens the skin. Niacinamide does that by blocking the transfer of melanin in skin cells, being a great multitasker to replace hydroquinone with. For reference, one study shows 5% niacinamide can inhibit melanin transfer anywhere between 35-68%, significantly decreased hyperpigmentation, and increased skin lightness.[10]

Glucosamine

Another naturally occurring molecule, glucosamine, is an amino sugar that the body uses to form cartilage and maintain tissue hydration. Glucosamine makes such a great skincare ingredient since it stimulates hyaluronic acid synthesis, which in turn accelerates wound healing, improves skin hydration, and decreases wrinkles.[11] However, another researched-backed function of glucosamine is to inhibit melanin production. According to studies, products containing 4% N-acetyl glucosamine (a derivative of glucosamine) are clinically beneficial to reduce the appearance of facial hyperpigmentation in eight weeks.[11]

How to use: You can use glucosamine topically and orally, as both have been shown to deliver skin-lightening effects. Besides, glucosamine is a gentle ingredient that you can layer with most actives, including retinol and vitamin C. P.S: The combination of 2% glucosamine with 4% niacinamide has been particularly demonstrated to boost the brightening benefits.[11]

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is another famous ingredient in the skincare world that emerged as a natural, gentle, and effective alternative to hydroquinone thanks to its power to fight cellular damage and suppress melanin production. Long story short, resveratrol is a naturally occurring antioxidant mostly found in red grapes that also possesses anti-inflammatory and tyrosinase-inhibiting properties. Because it both offset free radical damage and regulates pigment content, resveratrol is thought to be a promising natural skin lightener that can improve pigmented skin.

How to use resveratrol: Resveratrol is considered well tolerated by all skin types; hence anyone can use it. Studies show that resveratrol exacerbates skin whitening effects when used topically in at least 1% concentration. Besides, resveratrol can be paired with other skin brighteners such as retinol or glycolic acid, which can enhance resveratrol’s skin penetration power.

Green tea/EGCG

Green tea is rich in polyphenols and catechin, known to carry properties that can brighten the skin by reducing melanin formation and defending cells against oxidative stress. More precisely, EGCG and other catechins in green tea were found to have depigmenting effects by inhibiting melanogenesis (the process by which melanin is produced) and regulating tyrosinase activity, the key enzyme in melanin synthesis. For instance, some studies found that topical green tea can inhibit tyrosinase activity by up to 45% and decrease melanin content by 29%.[12] The results establish green tea as a game-changer hydroquinone alternative for treating hyperpigmentation and brightening skin tone.

Licorice extract

Glabridin, one of the main compounds of licorice extract, is accounted for having skin-lightening, anti-inflammatory, soothing, anti-aging, and sun-protecting benefits.[13] It acts as a rate-limiting enzyme that was proved to deliver better tyrosinase inhibition than kojic acid. Furthermore, topical application of glabridin also reduces pigmentation induced by UV radiation as well as lightens skin tone due to the limitation of tyrosinase. Therefore, licorice extract is often used as a skin whitening agent in skincare products.

Mulberry Extract 

Mulberry extract truly stands out as a natural skin-lightening alternative to hydroquinone as it’s a good source of vitamin C and flavonoids, having anti-inflammatory, tyrosinase-inhibitory, and antioxidant activities.[14] Formulations containing 4% concentrated extract of mulberry were particularly proved to decrease skin melanin content in only eight weeks without causing dryness and irritations. This makes it especially good for people who can’t tolerate hydroquinone or other aggressive skin brighteners.

Glycolic or lactic acids

While most hydroquinone alternatives work by regulating tyrosinase activity at the cellular level, glycolic and lactic acids do their magic at the skin’s surface by sloughing off the already pigmented cells. In fact, exfoliation is a key step in enhancing skin tone as it reduces the melanin content in cells, helping correct hyperpigmentation and dark spots. You can use these lactic acid peels or glycolic acid serums as an alternative to hydroquinone.

The verdict

So far, hydroquinone alternatives include:

  1. Tyrosinase-inhibitors such as azelaic acid, kojic acid, glutathione, niacinamide, and glucosamine.
  2. Melanin-regulators like retinoids, alpha-arbutin and vitamin C.
  3. Antioxidants.
  4. Exfoliators, think lactic acid.
References
  1. Zasada M, Budzisz E. Retinoids: active molecules influencing skin structure formation in cosmetic and dermatological treatments. Postepy Dermatol Alergol. 2019;36(4):392-397. doi:10.5114/ada.2019.87443.
  2. Telang PS. Vitamin C in dermatology. Indian Dermatol Online J. 2013;4(2):143-146. doi:10.4103/2229-5178.110593.
  3. Sanadi RM, Deshmukh RS. The effect of Vitamin C on melanin pigmentation – A systematic review. J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. 2020;24(2):374-382. doi:10.4103/jomfp.JOMFP_207_20
  4. Boo YC. Arbutin as a Skin Depigmenting Agent with Antimelanogenic and Antioxidant Properties. Antioxidants (Basel). 2021;10(7):1129. Published 2021 Jul 15. doi:10.3390/antiox10071129
  5. Nguyen QH, Bui TP. Azelaic acid: pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic properties and its therapeutic role in hyperpigmentary disorders and acne. Int J Dermatol. 1995 Feb;34(2):75-84. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-4362.1995.tb03583.x. PMID: 7737781.
  6. Breathnach AS. Melanin hyperpigmentation of skin: melasma, topical treatment with azelaic acid, and other therapies. Cutis. 1996 Jan;57(1 Suppl):36-45. PMID: 8654129.
  7. Chang TS. An updated review of tyrosinase inhibitors. Int J Mol Sci. 2009;10(6):2440-2475. Published 2009 May 26. doi:10.3390/ijms10062440
  8. Sonthalia S, Daulatabad D, Sarkar R. Glutathione as a skin whitening agent: Facts, myths, evidence and controversies. Indian J Dermatol Venereol Leprol. 2016 May-Jun;82(3):262-72. doi: 10.4103/0378-6323.179088. PMID: 27088927.
  9. Etnawati, K., Adiwinarni, D. R., Susetiati, D. A., Sauchi, Y., & Ito, H. (2019). The efficacy of skincare products containing glutathione in delivering skin lightening in Indonesian women. Dermatology Reports11(s1). https://doi.org/10.4081/dr.2019.8013
  10. Hakozaki T, Minwalla L, Zhuang J, Chhoa M, Matsubara A, Miyamoto K, Greatens A, Hillebrand GG, Bissett DL, Boissy RE. The effect of niacinamide on reducing cutaneous pigmentation and suppression of melanosome transfer. Br J Dermatol. 2002 Jul;147(1):20-31. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.2002.04834.x. PMID: 12100180.
  11. Bissett DL. Glucosamine: an ingredient with skin and other benefits. J Cosmet Dermatol. 2006 Dec;5(4):309-15. doi: 10.1111/j.1473-2165.2006.00277.x. PMID: 17716251.
  12. Katiyar SK, Afaq F, Azizuddin K, Mukhtar H. Inhibition of UVB-induced oxidative stress-mediated phosphorylation of mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling pathways in cultured human epidermal keratinocytes by green tea polyphenol (-)-epigallocatechin-3-gallate. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2001 Oct 15;176(2):110-7. doi: 10.1006/taap.2001.9276. PMID: 11601887.
  13. Simmler C, Pauli GF, Chen SN. Phytochemistry and biological properties of glabridin. Fitoterapia. 2013;90:160-184. doi:10.1016/j.fitote.2013.07.003
  14. Naveed, Akhtar & Hisham, Jehad & Khan, Haji M. shoaib & Khan, Barkat & Saeed, Tariq. (2012). Whitening and Antierythemic effect of a cream containing Morus alba extract. Hygeia J. Drugs Med.
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