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With the meteoric rise of East Asian skin care products and practices hitting our aisles, you may have noticed kojic acid getting the limelight on more than one product. Or it was recommended to you when you mentioned struggles with skin discoloration, scarring, and hyperpigmentation? (It’s often quoted as a more natural alternative to hydroquinone.)

Kojic acid, which is naturally produced by some fungi and is a byproduct of the fermentation of rice, fights areas of concern like sun-spots and acne scars. It works by interfering with one of the proteins required for the skin to produce excess melanin. Fun-fact: it’s also frequently used to keep the food in grocery stores looking fresh and tasty! Brings a new meaning to the #honeyskin trend, doesn’t it?

That said, many people, especially those graced with darker skin tones, may be concerned or confused when kojic acid products are touted to be “skin lightening” or “skin whitening”. If you’re wondering if this word is code for skin bleaching, rest assure that when used as directed in safe formulations, kojic acid will not bleach your skin.

Unfortunately, “bleaching” and “lightening” is a popular marketing tactic, especially if you’re purchasing beauty products marketed to the Asian and African diaspora (where whiteness is a socialized beauty standard). As a result, both kojic acid and hydroquinone are often misused in attempts to bleach the skin.

However, misrepresented marketing doesn’t mean kojic acid should be cancelled. Here’s how to use this ingredient properly.

Because this ingredient is classified as both an antioxidant and an exfoliant, it has a plethora of properties that you may find beneficial for your skin.

1. Fading dark spots from hyperpigmentation, sun, or age

A main use for kojic acid. Its power to fade dark spots is doubly enhanced by its antioxidant properties.

2. Treating melasma

Melasma is a skin condition that’s particularly prevalent in pregnant women (say that three times fast) which causes dark patches, typically on the face. Kojic acid’s melanin-inhibiting properties make it a helpful ingredient to stop melasma in its tracks.

3. Anti-inflammatory and antibacterial

Kojic acid is known to have anti-inflammatory properties, so it could help with itchy, red, and inflamed skin. It also has a few antimicrobial properties, so while it’s no Neosporin, it can protect your skin from certain types of bacteria while it’s working. We love a multitasker!

4. Antioxidant

Those hunting for the fountain of youth know that antioxidants will put them on the path. If you’re looking to stay forever young, consider adding kojic acid to your rotation.

5. Addressing hyperpigmentation from hair removal

If you have from scarring from razor burn, ingrown hairs, or other hair removal-related issues, kojic acid is here to help. If you’re able to stop whatever action is causing the irritation, religiously but also judiciously apply kojic acid to the healed skin and be patient while your skin returns to its natural tone.

You may have gleaned by now that kojic acid is a powerful ingredient. But with great power comes great responsibility — responsibility to weigh any risks and to take the necessary steps to avoid harming your skin.

Below are some issues you could encounter when incorporating kojic acid into your routine and how to counter them if at all possible.

  • Potential increased skin sensitivity. Research has shown that the use of kojic acid can make the skin more sensitive, so this may not be the most suitable ingredient for those who already have sensitive skin. As for sun sensitivities, research is not conclusive but don’t let that fact help you slack. You should always be SPF-ing.
  • Not recommended for damaged or injured skin. You’ll want to avoid using kojic acid on compromised skin. If you have a cut or any active acne spots, wait for them to heal up before you start treating any associated scarring.
  • Allergies, irritation, and contact dermatitis. Some people who are sensitive to this ingredient could experience some irritation or dermatitis. Try patch-testing before you fully-incorporate this ingredient into your regime to rule out the possibility before you start.
  • Not good in large concentrations. Some animal studies have shown that when used in large quantities, kojic acid can be toxic. We don’t mention this to worry you — the quantity and concentration would have to be enormous to see the same effects in humans. But most experts recommend that you stick to formulations with a maximum kojic acid concentration of 1 percent.

These risks are why, in spite of the abundance of these products online, we suggest you stay away from powder formulations. Mixing kojic acid powder in with other products is an exact science, and DIYing it could result in an ultra-concentrated mixture which could harm you. Leave this one to the experts.

We have some tips for you and associated products to suit your needs but keep in mind that whichever kojic acid product you choose, be it one of the products below or another, to not load your skin care routine with this ingredient at every step.

Just pick one!

How much kojic acid is there?

While many products do not list the concentration of kojic acid available, some manufacturers do offer a blend of ingredients to fight hyperpigmentation. If you are relying solely on kojic acid to treat spots and scars, you may not see an effect with a concentration of 1 percent or less.

Due to the uncertainty of concentration in these products, discontinue use if you notice any skin irritation or unwanted side effects.

Soaps

Bar soaps are one of the most popular products for balancing skin tone, especially on the body. Two popular products include the PCA SKIN Pigment Bar and the Marie France Kojic Acid (Maximum Strength).

You’ll want to follow these instructions carefully, massaging the soap onto your face for at least 2 minutes for maximum effect. Then wash off with warm water.

While both products are popular recommendations, neither mention the percent of kojic acid included. If you have sensitive skin, you may want to avoid bar soaps.

And be careful where you buy this! Many have noted a difference in these products when purchased via Amazon.

Toners and mists

You know what else creates kojic acid? Sake. Yep, fermented rice wine as an ingredient may also be the kojic acid you’re looking for.

Toners are an efficient way to cover ground if your areas of concern are taking up a lot of real estate on your face. And if you’re interested in beauty products from Japan, the Kikumasamune Sake Skin Lotion High Moisture is a skin care favorite of the Asian Beauty forum.

You can use this to lightly hydrate and boost your skin care routine before layering on heavy duty items like serums. Or you can just put on moisturizer and go!

Serums

While serums typically come after toners and exfoliating, often there are serums that do a little acid work themselves. You can also use serums like a spot treatment, applying to problem-areas to hit them where it hurts.

Fan favorites include Naturium’s Tranexamic Topical Acid 5%, My Topicals Faded, and PRO Strength Niacinamide Discoloration Treatment. While none of these list the percentage of kojic acid, they use a combination of researched ingredients that may effectively treat discoloration. Tranexamic acid, kojic acid, and niacinamide — they make a triple whammy for encouraging a glow-up.

Keep in mind that these products are not meant to hydrate, so you’ll still want to follow up with a moisturizer (and as always, SPF!).

Powder? Nope!

Again, we recommend staying away from this option. Although these formulations are easy to find online, it’s also easy to damage your skin with them. Stick with brands that can manufacture safe formulations like those in the products above. You’ll be glad you did!

Kojic isn’t the only ingredient that can help with discoloration, acne, and hyperpigmentation. If the insecurity around concentration of kojic acid is a concern or if you’re worried about rewarding brands for their problematic naming tactics, alternatives abound.

You could try a niacinamide or azelaic acid product — both of these ingredients are popular for their host of skin benefits, including the treatment of melasma. And don’t forget: When in doubt, ask a dermatologist! They’ll have the answers to keep your skin safe and glowing all year long.