hydroquinone alternatives for dark spots

I feel a bit sorry for hydroquinone.

It’s the gold standard at treating dark spots, melasma and all kinds of hyperpigmentation. But, no one wants to use it anymore.

It’s got its fair share of blame, though. It’s harsh like hell. It’ll take your dark spots away and leave you with irritated skin (no, not cancer – that’s just a rumour).

No wonder we’re all looking for alternatives! There are aplenty. From retinoids to azelaic acid and arbutin, these days we’re spoiled for choice.

But, how to pick the right one for you? Here’s the lowdown on the most common skin-lighteners used in skincare and how they compare to hydroquinone:

1. Hydroquinone

What it is: A skin-lightener that occurs naturally in fruits, coffee and beer. It’s considered the gold standard for getting rid of any dark patches on the skin (hyperpigmentation).

How it works: It inhibits the activity of tyrosinase (the enzyme that controls the synthesis of melanin) and increases the cytotoxicity of melanocytes (cells that produce melanin).

Concentration: 2% in OTC products, 4% in prescription products.

Side effects: Irritation and, in rare cases, ochronosis (gives skin a bluish tint). Ochronosis is very rare, but more common in people with dark skin.

Best for: Anyone with severe hyperpigmentation (if you have dark skin consult a doctor, first).

Best picks:

  • Alpha Skin Care Dual Action Skin Lightener ($10.99): available at Ulta

Related: Spotlight on Hydroquinone

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2. Kojic Acid

What it is: Made by bacteria during the fermentation process of rice in the manufacture of sake, the Japanese rice wine.

How it works: It inhibits the activity of tyrosinase, the enzyme that’s responsible for the production of melanin.

Concentration: It’s effective at 1-4%, but it’s often used with other skin lighteners, such as retinoids, glycolic acid or hydroquinone.

Side effects: It’s less irritating than hydroquinone, but can still cause irritations and allergies.

Best for: Anyone with moderate to severe hyperpigmentation who can’t tolerate hydroquinone but doesn’t have sensitive skin.

Best picks:

Related: Should You Use Hydroquinone Or Kojic Acid?

3. Arbutin

What it is: An extract derived from bearberry leaves. It’s nicknamed “natural hydroquinone” because it has a very similar chemical structure.

How it works: Arbutin turns into hydroquinone in the body, inhibiting the production of tyrosinase and interfering with the maturation of melanosomes (organelles involved in melanin production).

Concentration: It’s effective at 5%.

Side effects: High concentrations can cause post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Best for: Anyone looking for the benefits of hydroquinone in a less irritating, more natural format.

Best picks:

  • Good Molecules Daily Brightening Serum ($8.00): available at Ulta
  • The Inkey List Alpha Arbutin ($11.99): available at Cult Beauty
  • The Ordinary Ascorbic Acid 8% + Alpha Arbutin 2% ($10.00): available at Asos, Beauty Bay, Cult Beauty, and Ulta

4. Azelaic Acid

What it is: A skin-lightener produced by a fungus, Pityrosporum Ovale. When it infects humans, it lightens patches of skin.

How it works: It inhibits the activity of tyrosinase and kills abnormal melanocytes.

Concentration: 15-20%. This concentration is as effective at 4% hydroquinone (but a lot gentler!).

Side effects: It’s one of the gentlest skin-lighteners available, but can sting and cause redness in people with very sensitive skin.

Best for: Anyone with moderate to severe hyperpigmentation who’s looking for a gentler alternative to hydroquinone. It’s suitable for sensitive skin, too.

Best picks:

Related: Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster Vs The Ordinary Azelaic Acid Suspension 10%: Which One Is Better?

paula's choice 10% niacinamide booster 01

5. Niacinamide

What it is: A form of vitamin B3 (also nicknamed nicotinamide) naturally found in many plants.

How it works: It inhibits the transfer of pigment to the skin.

Concentration: At 4-5% concentrations, it’s a good alternative to hydroquinone. It is often used together with other skin-lighteners.

Side effects: May cause mild irritation, but it’s rare.

Best for: Anyone with moderate hyperpigmentation looking for a gentler alternative to hydroquinone.

Best picks:

Related: Spotlight On Niacinamide


6. Retinoids

What it is: Retinoids are forms of vitamin A that can treat hyperpigmentation, wrinkles and acne. OTC examples include retinol and retinaldehyde while prescription forms include tretinoin, isotretinoin and adapalene.

How it works: Retinoids are multitaskers. They speed up cellular turnover (the skin’s natural exfoliating process), reduce the amount of tyrosinase the skin produces and interfere with the transfer of melanin to the skin.

Concentration: It depends on the type of retinoid. Tretinoin, for example, works at 0.05-01.%; Adapalene at 0.1-0.3% and retinol at 4%. They work faster when used with other skin-lighteners. If you use them alone, it can take a few months to see a small improvement.

Side effects: All retinoids can cause stinging, redness, irritation and dryness. The stronger the form of retinol, the worse the side effects (that’s why some forms are available only by prescription).

Best for: Anyone (bar those with sensitive skin) looking for a treatment for both hyperpigmentation and wrinkles.

Best picks:

Related: Three Reasons Why You Should Use Retinoids

Paula's Choice C15 Booster 02

7. Vitamin C

What it is: A powerful antioxidant found in many fruits and vegetables, including oranges, lemon and strawberries. L-Ascorbic Acid, the pure form, is the most effective, but the most unstable (i.e., it loses its antioxidant and skin-lightening powers quickly).

How it works: It fights the free radicals that cause darkening of the skin.

Concentration: L-Ascorbic Acid works at 5% concentrations. Magnesium Ascorbic Phosphate, a derivative of vitamin C is effective at 10%. Both are less effective than hydroquinone (but gentler).

Side effects: It’s one of the mildest skin lighteners, but can still irritate sensitive skin.

Best for: Those concerned by mild pigmentation and wrinkle-prevention.

Best picks:

Related: Spotlight On Vitamin C In Skincare

8. Glycolic Acid

What it is: A member of the Alpha Hydroxy Acid (AHA) family, glycolic acid is derived from sugar cane.

How it works: It speeds up cellular turnover and disperses basal layer melanin.

Concentration: 5-10% in OTC products; 20% and higher in peels. OTC concentrations work best when combined with other-skin lighteners. Peels work better and faster, but they should be administered by dermatologists.

Side effects: It depends on the concentration. The higher it is, the more irritating it gets (that’s why you should never do peels at home!).

Best for: Mild to moderate hyperpigmentation.

Best picks:

  • Alpha Skin Care Dual Action Skin Lightener ($10.99): available at Ulta
  • Paula’s Choice Resist Advanced Smoothing Treatment 10% AHA ($37.00): available at Cult Beauty and Paula’s Choice

Related: The Complete Guide To Glycolic Acid

9. Licorice Extract

What it is: An extract derived from the Glycyrrhiza Glabra plant.

How it works: Licorice extract contains glabridin, which inhibits tyrosinase and prevents UVB-induced pigmentation, and liquiritin, which disperses and removes melanin.

Concentration: Studies were done at 10% and higher concentrations (skincare products contain A LOT less! That’s why it’s best to use them with other skin-lighteners).

Side effects: It’s one of the mildest skin-lighteners. It has soothing properties, too.

Best for: Sensitive skin with mild to moderate hyperpigmentation.

Best picks:

  • Hyper Skin Hyper Clear Brightening Clearing Vitamin C Serum ($36.00): Available at Urban Outfitters

Related: Three Reasons Why You Should Use Licorice For Brighter And Younger Skin

10. Mequinol

What it is: A derivative of hydroquinone. It’s also called hydroquinone monomethyl ether and p-hydroxyanisole.

How it works: It seems to work like hydroquinone, by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinase and increasing the cytotoxicity of melanocytes.

Concentration: 2%, often used with 0.01% tretinoin. It’s as effective as hydroquinone.

Side effects: It’s less harsh than hydroquinone, but can still cause irritations in some people. In some cases, it can cause temporary postinflammatory hyperpigmentation.

Best for: Those with severe hyperpigmentation looking for an alternative to hydroquinone.

Best picks: Prescription only.

Told ya, you were spoilt for choice!