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Cysteamine Cream vs. Hydroquinone: Which One Is Better for You?

happy woman looking at her face in the mirror

If you struggle with hyperpigmentation or melasma, particularly on your face, you may feel like you’ve tried everything under the sun to reduce the appearance of these dark marks. It can be incredibly frustrating to feel like you’re doing the same things as everybody else to take care of your skin…yet you still can’t escape from these self-esteem-busting shadows over all of your hard work.

Among the more popular treatments for dark marks and hyperpigmentation are products that have skin lightening ingredients — you’ve probably heard of more than a few if you’re trying to even out your skin tone.

One of the more popular and well-known ingredients is Hydroquinone, although it’s become a controversial additive in recent years. Another popular lightning ingredient is Cysteamine.

If you’re considering either of these ingredients in your pursuit of clear and even skin, you might be having trouble choosing between them — or even figuring out what the differences are! But never fear…that’s why you have us.

What Is Hydroquinone?

Hydroquinone is a highly effective ingredient for improving the appearance of hyperpigmentation and dark spots.

If you’re struggling with hyperpigmentation, melasma or something similar, this may be the ingredient you’ve been searching for.

What Is Cysteamine?

Cysteamine is — surprise! — another skin lightening agent. Like Hydroquinone, it’s used to treat problem areas of your skin that may appear darker than the rest, ruining the even skin tone of all of our dreams.

Cysteamine creams, a topical form of Cysteamine, are made with cysteamine hydrochloride (we too are flashing back to high school chemistry and wondering why we didn’t spend more time making our skincare products instead…but we digress.)

Cysteamine hydrochloride is a natural component, and it works by improving the look of hyperpigmenation and dark patches. This helps reduce the appearance of those troubled areas of your skin where the melanin has built up to return your skin to the glowing complexion you remember.

What Are the Cons?

Does anybody else like to get the bad news first, so you end on a good note? We do too. So let’s start with the drawbacks to both of these treatments.

One of the most obvious isn’t actually that big of a deal but can be a real annoyance depending on how strong your sense of smell is. Cysteamine is often said to smell like Sulfur when applied, which is not ideal. So if you’re particularly sensitive to bad smells, it may not be the right treatment for you.

Both Cysteamine and Hydroquinone have some fairly standard side effects. Both can lead to dry skin or even more irritated skin, which is really frustrating when you’re trying to treat a skin issue in the first place! Luckily, this dryness can be fixed with a consistent moisturizing routine.

Cysteamine needs to be washed off after roughly fifteen minutes, whereas Hydroquinone can remain on your skin if you’re using it as a nighttime treatment. This might not be a con to everyone, but it’s an extra step you’ll have to remember, so if you’re a low-maintenance kind of gal, this might hold some weight.

The biggest con relates to hydroquinone and it’s potential carcinogenic qualities of Hydroquinone.

What Are the Pros?

The good news is, both Hydroquinone and Cysteamine creams are shown to improve the appearance of dark marks. If your goal is to even out and lighten the look of your skin tone, both Hydroquinone and Cysteamine can be very effective.

They’re also pretty easy to use. Outside of an initial consult or a follow-up appointment, using Hydroquinone and Cysteamine to treat melasma or hyperpigmentation is something you can do easily at home. Because they’re both pretty effective and mainly used in the same ways, there aren’t any stand-out pros between the two! Although, you might be thinking...

Okay, Fine, But Which One Works Better?

You’re in luck: there has actually been a study done to compare the effectiveness of Hydroquinone and Cysteamine. So we’ll cut to the chase.

In comparing the patients who used Hydroquinone to the patients who used Cysteamine, the scientists running the study found that basically, the difference in results between the two was not statistically significant. So Hydroquinone was counted a bit higher in all categories, but not so much that it really made a difference between the two.

That said, everyone is different. What worked for these patients may not be right for you, so it’s hard to say with any real certainty, even with research to back it up, if one treatment or the other is “better” in any real way. 

What Forms Do These Products Come In?

Hydroquinone is available both over the counter and in greater strength by prescription. It’s always safest, especially with something as potentially harmful as a skin lightening agent, to speak to a certified dermatologist before pursuing treatment because they can best speak to what will be safest and most effective for you.

If you are purchasing Hydroquinone over the counter, we’d recommend buying it in person. If you order a skin-lightening agent online, it could potentially come from another country that has different requirements and regulations for skin lightening products — so you could end up with a potentially dangerous product.

Hydroquinone and Cysteamine will generally be applied as creams or lotions — which is great because there isn’t really a learning curve, and just about anybody can do it with guidance from a professional. As with any new, strong ingredient you’re introducing to your skin, you’ll want to patch test! To do this, you can apply the product to a small area, like the inside of your forearm. Cover the area with a bandage or other material to keep the cream in place. You’ll also want to be sure to wash your hands so that you don’t accidentally get it on any clothes or sheets!

Wait for about twenty-four hours. As long as you don’t have any side effects, it should be safe to use the Hydroquinone or Cysteamine cream. With Hydroquinone, you’ll likely leave it on the affected area overnight or longer. Cysteamine is generally applied for about fifteen minutes before being washed off. (If your dermatologist gave you different advice — definitely follow that first! Your doctor always knows better than people on the internet, even when the source is trustworthy.)

As with any skincare routine, consistency is key — make sure to follow your doctor’s instructions and to use as frequently as directed; otherwise, you may not see the results you’re hoping for. You shouldn’t need to continue to use Hydroquinone or Cysteamine cream for more than about five months. If you’re not noticing any improvement after about a month, it’s worth speaking to your doctor or dermatologist.

Are There Other Options?

If none of these products feel like the one for you, there are several alternatives available. Some of these alternatives include Retinol or prescription-strength Retinoids, botanical extracts like Tranexamic Acid and topical corticosteroids. You can even work an at-home chemical peel into your weekly routine.

In general, though, it’s important to do your research before choosing one, so make sure that you review whatever ingredient you’re leaning toward.

We always recommend speaking to a doctor or dermatologist when it comes to seeking out a skin lightening agent, just to be sure you’ve covered all of your bases and you’ll be prepared to avoid or treat any potential side effects. Also, while hyperpigmentation very seldom signals a more serious health issue, it’s worth having a doctor check out any sudden change in the texture or color of your complexion just to be sure you’re in the clear!

In Conclusion

If your dark spots keep you from looking on the bright side, skin-lightening agents may be the next logical step in your skincare journey. Because these ingredients can be quite potent, it’s important to be safe and cautious when introducing one into your routine! Hydroquinone and Cysteamine are both effective treatments with pros and cons — the most important thing is finding the product that’s right for you!