Hidden Danger in Anti-aging Creams

by Karen V Bowers
Source: Health Action, Winter 2009/2010

Dark spots, "age spots" and/or irregular skin pigmentation is one of the fastest growing skin-care concerns in North America. But should we be more concerned about a popular skin-lightening chemical? For years, hydroquinone has been the magic ingredient in skin-lightening products applied to dark spots.

Ironically, hydroquinone is a cytotoxin, which destroys part or all of a cell-in essence, destroying skin cells that are already unhealthy. This "cure" is documented by the International Agency for Research on Cancer to cause mutations and alterations to DNA in animals, leading to cancer.

"Hydroquinone is mutagenic and has cancer-causing potential," states research documented by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States. According to a safety report in the Journal of the American College of Toxicology in 1994, hydroquinone should not be used in any type of leave-on product and is only safe for rinse-off products when used in concentrations of less than one percent.

Many international cosmetic manufacturers have stopped making hydroquinone lighteners and some countries have gone so far as to ban hydroquinone from skin-whitening products. Hydroquinone is strictly regulated in many African and Asian countries, for example, and is prohibited in the European Union and Australia.

Unfortunately, skin-whitening agents that contain hydroquinone are still sold in Canada, where packaging makes no mention of possible carcinogenic (cancer- causing) side-effects and contains no warning labels.

As a lightening agent, hydroquinone is genetically modified and compounded in concentrations that classify its products as drugs. Over-the-counter varieties contain concentrations of hydroquinone of up to two percent, while most prescriptionstrength hydroquinone formulations contain three to four percent. Concentrations as high as 10 percent may be available through compounding pharmacies.

Currently Canada has 90 registered products containing hydroquinone.

A January 2009 Environment Canada report claimed that hydroquinone will be managed as a lifestyle product and will not be subject to the virtual elimination provision under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. While the Canadian an Food and Drugs act prohibits the use of hydroquinone in cosmetics, it is still prescribed and available in pharmacies behind the counter as a skin-lightening agent. The government does provide an opportunity for further consultation and discussion. For more information, please read the Risk Management Report on this subject at http://chemicalsubstanceschimiques.gc.ca/.

The good news is there have been numerous lightening agents formulated in the past decade that safely reduce the signs of pigment. Kojic acid, ascorbic acid and glycolic acid are just a few. Personally, I have witnessed the best results with L-arbutin; it's becoming a favourite alternative to hydroquinone with many skincare experts. L-arbutin is obtained from the leaves of bearberry, lingonberry and other relative plants. It naturally works to inhibit tyrosinase enzymes, the darkening agent of melanin activity, but without the DNA alterations that may lead to cancer.

Topical treatments are time-consuming and are not effective for completely removing pigment on their own. They are in fact, more of a preventive than a curative and must be combined with daily sun protection and the use of antioxidants to reduce inflammatory responses to sun exposure. Clinical treatments are required to assist with removing pigment if it has been developing for several years.


Karen Bowers, the founder of New Visage Advanced Skin Care and Anti-Aging, has 34 years of international training in natural skin care. For more information about her Vancouver office, treatments or to browse her online boutique visit www.newvisage.ca.
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