If you've struggled with stubborn dark spots, you've likely heard of hydroquinone. But if you hadn't, here's the lowdown. Hydroquinone is a organic compound that is used to develop photographs (really!) oh, and also, it bleaches the skin. In the United States, skin care products can legally contain up to 4% hydroquinone and a product that has over 2% hydroquinone can only be sold with a prescription. The FDA classifies hydroquinone as a drug. Hydroquinone is prohibited in any concentration in Japan, Europe, and Australia.
Now, how does hydroquinone work? Hydroquinone is a skin bleacher. It lightens the color of the skin. In fact it is the only ingredient that the FDA has approved to use the term "skin lightener". What does it do? It inhibits the skin's ability to make a certain type of melanin, thus lightening the color of the skin.
There are several problems with hydroquinone. First, back in 2006 the FDA proposed a ban on it because there are many reports that link it to being a carcinogen. They still haven't made a complete ban on it, but they do recognize that it has the potential to be cancer causing, although the studies show more connection with it being taken internally rather than topically.
Second, it causes skin to be much more sensitive to the sun. Why is this such a big deal? Because the most frequent cause of darker pigmentation is due to sun exposure. And now people that use hydroquinone are even more sensitive to the sun. Which means they have to be super, uber careful about even regular sun exposure. On top of that, hydroquinone is usually prescribed with a retinol (such as tretinoin), which also causes sun sensitivity. This is not solving a problem. This is creating more of a problem. It's weakening the skin's ability to protect itself from further damage.
Hydroquinone has also been proven to cause a condition called ochronosis in some users. This condition causes the skin to thicken and darken, creating yellow or greyish-brown spots. For sure not the type of results people were looking for.
Now, licorice root. Licorice root is the root of the plant Glycyrrhia Glabra Linnera. It is actually a legume (like peanuts). It is a plentiful plant native to Europe and Asia. How does it work on pigmentation? Oh so glad you asked!
Licorice root not only works similarly to hydroquinone as a melanin suppressant, it also works as a melanin disperser. So not only does it tell your skin to stop producing excess melanin, it also takes the melanin that is smooshed up into the hyperpigmented area and disperses it amongst the other cells more evenly.
But wait there's more! Our skin produces not one, but two types of melanin. In very simple terms, yellow and red melanin. Licorice root inhibits BOTH. So it works more consistently with all types of hyperpigmentation and skin colors.
Oh wait, also, licorice root reduces the effects of sun burns, having the ability to get rid of the redness from a sun burn. So it has none of the skin sensitivity causing side effects that hydroquinone does.
What about side effects you ask...well, about those. We can't find them. We've looked. Super hard. Lots of tests. Can't find them. And those tests? Some show licorice root to be SIXTEEN TIMES more effective than hydroquinone.
Why aren't we using this? We are. There's lots of products out there with licorice root. In fact, humans have been using it for thousands of years. But, your pharmaceutical giants can't make money off of it. It's not a drug. It's an herb. You can't get a prescription for it.
So now you know why licorice root is superior to hydroquinone. Want to read more on the subject, and frankly, who wouldn't, check out:
Skin Lightening and Management of Hyperpigmentation by Abdul Kader Mohiuddin at https://chembiopublishers.com/PSARJ/PSARJ180020.pdf